Tracking wolves in Wisconsin this past July was a particularly exciting experience, perhaps because we don’t have wolves here in New England. Or do we? Midwestern wolves and New England coyotes have something in common, and it’s not just that they’re both wild canids. According to genetic studies, both are hybrids, with the mid-western “wolf” being predominately gray wolf (Canis lupus), and the eastern “coyote” being predominately coyote (Canis latrans), and both have a bit of domestic dog DNA. Wisconsin “wolves” are larger, form larger packs, and hunt larger prey. In short, they behave more like wolves and the evidence of this is unmistakable. Their tracks are huge, tracks of multiple animals are often found together, and their scats are larger and full of the remains of large prey.
Tracking Wolves in Wisconsin
The ultimate goal of this excursion was camera trapping, but of course finding actual sign of the animal was a prerequisite. I thought the chances of that were slim, but as it turns out, landscape features made it easy to find a travel corridor. Expansive wetlands in the sand plains of central Wisconsin force large mammals to use the dykes and dirt roads, and the soft sand makes a good substrate for tracks. Also, it was mid-summer, when wolves use travel corridors more predictably because pups keep the adults tied to a home site (den or rendezvous site).
Travel corridors radiate out from wolf home sites, but you needn’t find a home site, and you shouldn’t, because wolves are sensitive to human activity. Instead, study the landscape and think about how various features, such as water and dense vegetation, might funnel the travel of large mammals.
Wolf tracks look a lot like coyote tracks, but they are larger. Characteristics of wolf tracks:
- Oval overall shape
- Front tracks measure about 4-5 inches long (including claws) by 3-4 inches wide. Rear tracks about 10-15% smaller in both length and width.
- 4 toes and their claws usually register.
- Large, roughly triangular, heel pad.
- Symmetric toe arrangement, with respect to the long axis of foot.
- Lateral toes usually site close to heel pad and leading toes, but may point slightly outward in soft substrate when toes are splayed.
- Negative space between the pads appears as an X
Large domestic dog tracks can be quite similar, but many dogs have rounder, less streamlined feet, with lateral toes sticking out, even in firm substrate. But keep in mind that tracks of some dogs have all the characteristics of those of wild canids. Based on track appearance alone, it’s possible to rule out wild canid, but not possible to rule out domestic dog. For the latter, you must look for other evidence of wild canid. Scats are very helpful.
While dog poop usually has that uniform, grainy appearance (as a result of a commercial dog food diet), wolf scat consists of the remains of wild fare. Appearance varies, depending on whether the wolf was dining on organ meat or muscle, crunching bones, or chewing on hide. Because hair and bone filled scat stands up better to weather, it lasts longer and is most often found. An abundance of hair gives the scat a characteristic twisted appearance.
There were several old, large, twisted scats full of hair and bone on the travel corridor where we tracked Wisconsin wolves, suggesting: 1. that large wild canids indeed use this the trail, and 2. that large wild canids use the trail repeatedly (because the scats were old and the tracks were relatively fresh). Thus, we likely had a wolf travel corridor.
The diameter of wolf scat measures about 1/2 inch for pups and up to about 1 and 5/8 inches for adults. Coyote scat can overlap with wolf scat in size, but once again, hair and bone filled scat help you distinguish. The bone fragments in coyote scat are usually very small, because coyotes cannot crunch through large bones. As an example, check out the largest bone fragment in the above photo of wolf scat. I’ve never seen a fragment even close to that size in a coyote scat.
Stationing the trail cameras
I left 3 cameras that have good shot at capturing wolf, each in a unique setting:
- A dyke trail that wolves are clearly using as a travel corridor.
- A grassy knoll littered with wolf scats and beds.
- A pass exiting an old sand pit where wolf, deer, and badger tracks abound.
I’ll find out in a few months whether this endeavor was a success. To be continued…
- Elbroch, M. Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2003.
- VonHoldt, B. M., J. A. Cahill, F. Zhenxin, I. Gronan, J. Robinson, J. P. Pollinger, B. Shapro, J. Wall and R. K. Wayne. “Whole-genome Sequence Analysis Shows that Two Endemic Specie of North American Wolf are Admixtures of the Coyote and Gray Wolf.” Science Advances. 2 (2016).
- VonHoldt, B. M., J. P. Pollinger, D. A. Earl, J. C. Knowles, A. R. Boyko, H. Parker, E. Geffen, M. Pilot, W. Jedrzejewski, B. Jedrzejewski, V. Sidorovich, C. Greco, E. Randi, M. Musiani, R. Kays, C. D. Bustamente, E. A. Ostrander, J. Novembre and R. K. Wayne. “A Genome-wide Perspective on the Evolutionary History of Enigmatic Wolf-like Canids.” Genome Research. 21 (2011): 1294-1305.