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After one such presentation, I talked wolves with Thiel and hinted broadly that I'd like to go along the next time he cruised the woods.
"Wait till we get some tracking snow," he said.
Skidding down an unplowed forest road in Douglas County later that month, I kept my eyes peeled for wolf tracks. The three of us, Thiel, the driver, a softspoken DNR man named Larry Prenn and I, were sandwiched into a¾-ton pick-up. The snow was heavy and wet, good for tracking.
Earlier that morning Thiel had flown over a pack to the east; it was a tight group of seven wolves. Now we were driving the southern boundary of a pack with which Thiel had lost radio contact. Badly fragmented, this pack was down to a few wolves that seldom hung together. Thiel's only link to the group, a two-year-old male with ear-tag number 1187 and a radio collar, had been shot the week before. So now he had to track the remaining pack members on the ground.
Four white-tail deer, walking in that tentative gait suggesting high-heel shoes, ambled down the middle of the road about a quarter of a mile from the truck. Halfway to them, Prenn braked. "Wolf tracks," he said.
One set of tracks, left by a wolf going at a slow trot, led from a frozen swamp onto a fire lane. Thiel measured the track, four broad toes and claw points, which seemed indistinguishable to me from that of a large dog. But it was, Thiel said, definitely wolf, and judging from the frost in the toe depressions, it had been made the day before. Following the tracks down the road, we were rewarded with a wolf scat.
Wolves have a scent gland that allows their scats, like their urination, to serve as scent posts to mark their territory. Scat analysis can show what wolves are eating and whether times are good or lean. Thiel suspects the wolves round out a diet heavy in deer with snowshoe hare in the winter and beaver in the summer.
Prenn broke off a twig and pushed the scat into a paper bag marked with the date and location. The bag went into the back of the pick-up, joining at least 50 others. In the event of a sudden thaw, the truck was going to define a large territory of its own.
Since this scat was fairly fresh, Thiel decided to backtrack to see what the wolf had been up to. Lunging into some alder brush, we followed the tracks through knee-deep snow. Thiel took the lead. We kept close behind, stepping into his footprints so we wouldn't have to break our own trail. Wolves do the same thing to conserve energy. A seemingly lone set of tracks through deep snow may have accommodated an entire pack. In our party, Thiel had clearly assumed the alpha position. Had he been a wolf, his tail would have been flying high as he set a fast pace through the woods, stopping only occasionally to bark his position back to us.
Half a mile or so in, we broke through the alder into a bright spruce swamp. Thiel paused suddenly in a clearing where the snow cover was rumpled. He picked up a piece of bone lying there. Cordoning off the area with outstretched arms, Thiel started thinking out loud: