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"It wasn't a deer kill. A fresh kill leaves too much pink snow. This was a single wolf just passing through when it got a whiff of something familiar. Over here." He indicated where the snow had been dug from under a bush, a possible scent post. "The wolf had cached a deer leg from an earlier kill beneath the snow here and remembered it when he sniffed the bush."
Thiel stooped and retrieved a leftover, a pair of fawn hooves, exquisite as tortoiseshell. He slipped them in his pocket and headed back to the truck. Not a few hunters take a dim view of the wolfs return to Wisconsin, because it's a rival predator. But a wolf will normally take one deer every 16 days, or about 25 a year, if he eats only deer—a minuscule cut of the venison.
Near Moose Junction we stopped to eat lunch on the warm hood of the truck. Thiel leaned back against the windshield. He said he was getting spring fever. He was anxious to trap again, particularly after losing number 1187.
When Thiel first set his traps near here, in May 1980, he worked with a young federal trapper from Minnesota. In 20 days they caught a lot of small animal and five timber wolves. One of these was a lanky yearling male, cinnamon colored, with a gray-and-white underside. They immobilized the wolf using a dart loaded with ketamine hydrochloride, a muscle relaxant, examined him, tagged his ear with his number and attached a radio collar around his neck.
"He was a real adolescent," Thiel said, "a gawky wolf with a skinny frame and big feet. Always off by himself.
"Within a pack, wolves have a definite personality range, but the wolves with collars are the only ones you really get to know. Everyone I work with knew 1187. All the pilots knew him. He had such a big range, over 100 square miles, and he wandered over all of it. Sometimes he'd trespass into another pack's territory and get kicked out. I worried about him because of the unwolfish things he'd do, like walking up to a pulp cutter, or trotting along a state highway a week before deer season. The big dope."
Thiel spoke with a mixture of irritation and affection, like a coach appraising a clumsy recruit with great potential. He had high expectations in regard to 1187. The wolf had been acting like an alpha male, not squatting to urinate, as subordinates do, but raising his leg to do it into the wind and assert his independence. This fact and the wolfs far-ranging habits led Thiel to believe 1187 had been ready to mate and form the nucleus of a new pack. But he was gone now, and with him the best laid plans.
"I knew he was going to get it," Thiel said, "and darned if he didn't."
The next morning the pilot called to say the ceiling was too low for him. Thiel was disappointed that he couldn't fly. On the ground he wouldn't sight any wolves; he'd have to be content with what they'd left behind.
They hadn't left much. The snow cover on Empire Swamp Road was crusting over. The clearest sign we came upon were our own footprints, which we'd made a few days before when we'd stopped for lunch.