I spent this week shadowing some red wolf biologists in eastern N.C., gathering material for the book project I’m working on. Trapping season has just begun for them, and they are trying to catch red wolves who have radio collars or GPS collars with batteries that are about to fail. When the batteries are old, they begin transmitting a double-beep signal instead of a single-beep signal. The biologists call the double-beep “recovery mode” because it tells them that they better catch the animal it belongs to and swap out a new collar on it. When they lay out traps, they have to check them every 24 hours. This means they are working every day, even Saturdays and Sundays, during trapping season, which lasts pretty much right up to the end of January or February. They use rubber-jaw leg-hold traps, which are supposedly safer than other types, but pressure wounds can still result. Trapping these imperiled animals may make some people uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary step to ensure continuous monitoring of the wild population. Without the monitoring, the program would be in jeopardy. When the population gets larger, perhaps they won’t need to monitor all of them so closely.
So far this week, they have only caught one red wolf, and one bear cub. One of the problems is that deer season is here, and so they are limited in the areas where they can set traps for the wolves. The bear cub was safely released to its mother, which was waiting about 25 yards away. The wolf that was caught was a male that had been pushed out of his natal pack when he was a pup, earlier than is normal, when a new, bigger male wolf moved in to the pack’s territory and displaced the male that had fathered him. The biologists were excited to know that he’d made it and turned up in their traps. You see, they can’t put radio collars on the puppies — they have to wait until they’re larger. So they have few ways of keeping up with pups and knowing if they’ve survived until they can trap for the animals their first winter. Keeping up with individual red wolves is kind of like watching the Days of Our Lives. You have to tune in constantly to make sure you catch up on all the relationship switcharoos. This particular male had an injured rear knee when he was found, it was hard to tell if he’d gotten into a fight before he got trapped, or if he sustained the injury while in the trap. The biologists seemed divided on this point. Nevertheless, they decided to hold him in a pen for 10 days to give him antibiotics, as his wound was quite deep and they feared an infection if they turned him loose. The gash was not in a good place to put stitches in, unfortunately. They told me that sometimes it’s a fine line between trying to care for a wounded wild animal versus letting it go. Sometimes the stress of captivity actually delays their natural healing processes, for reasons that are not exactly known.
My time here is winding to an end. We saw several bears, including three young of the year juveniles that scrambled up a tree, and three or four bucks. And bobcat prints, and more bear prints than I’ve ever seen. Of course, like an idjit, I forgot my camera. We also saw lots of signs that the wolves were present, such as tracks and scat, but sometimes you just had to wonder if they could smell the traps in the ground, because despite the most scrumptious bait possible — road-killed deer — the wolves couldn’t have been less interested. Or maybe they were wise to the biologists ways. Regardless, I hope they have better luck next week and get the chance to replace those failing collars.