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By Tanda Gmiter
UPPER PENINSULA – DNR conservation officers and wildlife biologists have responded to recent reports of three wolves accidentally caught in foothold traps. Of those three wolves, two were freed and one was found dead, shot in the head before officers could release it.
An investigation into that wolf’s death is ongoing.
Details of the trapped wolves were contained in Michigan Department of Natural Resources reports filed by conservation officers in the last month.
The first incident occurred in the DNR’s District 2, which is the eastern Upper Peninsula.
Conservation Officer Robert Freeborn heard from a local trapper who’d accidentally caught two wolves in his foothold traps. Freeborn contacted a DNR biologist and went out to the area where the wolves were trapped. When he arrived, he found the first wolf had been killed.
“Freeborn checked on the first wolf and determined it was shot in the head while still in the strap, shortly before his arrival,” the report states. “He then immediately checked the second wolf, which was still alive and well.”
Keeping an eye on the second wolf, Freeborn checked the area for any vehicles that could be linked to the shooting.
The biologist arrived and was able to release the second wolf without incident, the report said.
The investigation into who shot the first wolf continues, DNR officials said. It’s being considered a case of poaching.
The next accidental trapping occurred in the DNR’s District 1, which is the western half of the U.P.
Conservation Officer Brett DeLonge was working near Negaunee in Marquette County when he heard about a trapper who’d caught a wolf in a foothold trap in the Palmer area. It was already dark by the time DeLonge and a DNR biologist reached the area to meet with the trapper.
“The aggressive, 80-pound male gray wolf was safely and successfully sedated, collared, and released,” the report said.
While not common, wolves sometimes do get their feet caught in traps meant for coyotes. Many times, they can simply pull their feet out of the trap themselves, but occasionally they need assistance getting free. That’s where the DNR’s officers and biologists come in, said Brian Roell, a state wildlife biologist.
Biologists tend to have a bit more experience handling wildlife, so they usually come along on cases where wolves need to be freed from traps, he said.
On the majority of the calls, the wolf can be freed quickly. But sometimes an animal has to be sedated in order to release it.
Some of the freed wolves are also fitted with tracking collars before they are released, part of the state’s effort to study some of Michigan’s more than 600 wolves.
A decision to collar a wolf depends on what area it’s found in, it’s age and physical condition, Roell said. “We have a list of priority areas,” where wolves are more likely to get the tracking device, he said.
Wolves in Michigan remain a federally-protected species. They can only be killed legally if a person’s life is at risk.
During last winter’s survey, the DNR determined there were at least 662 wolves living as part of 139 separate packs in Michigan’s U.P. The survey was done from December through April, when pack numbers are typically at their lowest and before the spring pups can be counted.
The overall number was up slightly from the 2016 survey’s minimum wolf estimate of 618 predators.
“Based on our latest minimum population estimate, it is clear wolf numbers in Michigan remain viable and robust,” Russ Mason, chief of the DNR’s wildlife division, said earlier this year. “A similar trend is apparent in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The western Great Lakes states’ wolf population is thriving and has recovered.”
The typical pack size averages out to five or fewer wolves, the DNR study found.
Fifteen more packs were counted this year than in 2016.
“As the wolf population in the Upper Peninsula has grown and spread out across the region, packs are situated closer together,” Dean Beyer, a DNR wildlife research biologist who organized the sampling and generated the wolf population survey estimate, said earlier this year.
“This makes it harder to determine which pack made the tracks that were observed in adjacent areas.”
“Movement information we collect from GPS-collared wolves helps us interpret the track count results, because these data allow us to identify territorial boundaries. The minimum population estimate we generate is a conservative estimate, which takes these factors into account.”