In the past week, I’ve seen snow flurries on Nags Head beach, whale spouts puffing within a half-mile offshore and gangly white tundra swans careening through the air. But the highlight was watching a pack of endangered red wolves scramble into the woods.
I’ve been working on more book research, and spent a few more days with the red wolf biologists. They are heavy into their winter trapping efforts, part of which entails trying to capture the puppies born in March and April of 2010. By now, the pups are large enough to receive a radio collar.
Collaring the young of the year is essential. When they are born, the biologists try to tag all of the red wolf pups with passive integrated transponder chips, rice-grain-sized chips they inject under their skin. When scanned with a radio-frequency ID device, the chips emit a unique radio signal. But they don’t broadcast a unique signal like the radio collars do. So between the time the pups are born and tagged, and winter trapping eight months or so later, the biologists essentially have a data blackout on them. They set soft-catch leghold traps to capture the pups, and then take them to a processing facility where they fit them with collars, and give them vaccines against things like rabies and heart worm.
To reduce re-trapping the same animals from a pack’s home range, sometimes the biologists will take the trapped animals and hold them a few days, hoping that within that time they will capture the other targeted animals in that area. This past week, I was lucky to witness a breeding female and three of her four pups returned to their home range. The biologists I was shadowing loaded them up into their trucks and drove to the wolves territory.
As soon as we parked, I noticed one of the pups was sitting up and looking around. Previously, he’d only crouch in the back of the kennel refusing to look out. I think he smelled that he was home. He perked up noticeably.
They unloaded the kennels along a dirt access road, and then one by one opened the doors. I half expected the young wolves to leap out and run into the nearest brush, but they didn’t. They just sat in the kennels, the door gaping open. The biologist kicked the back of the kennel to jump-start them, and then they were off. It was like watching a track star leap out of his starting blocks. Except the wolves were not as coordinated as a track star at reviving up to full speed from a sitting position. Most scrabbled out so fast that they fell before warming up into high gear. Paws and legs seemed to shoot out in all directions before they roped all their limbs into a back-legs-to-ears gait that swallowed up yard after yard. In the few seconds it took them to run a hundred yards or so down the road, I had the impression that their legs were straining to get purchase and push off from the earth with every fiber of their being. They were home.
This is a picture of one of the pups right as he left his kennel:
The first time I ever laid eyes on a red wolf, I had the startling impression that these creatures were running machines. It’s hard for me to look at their long legs and not think otherwise. It was gratifying to watch this pack return home. Now that deer and bear hunting seasons are over, and these red wolves survived, I can only hope that the breeding female will bear another litter next spring.