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Wolf seen pursuing snowmobiles in Voyageurs National Park

By Dave Orrick /St. Paul Pioneer Press

Snowmobilers at the Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota are being rerouted over several miles of trail because of a lone wolf's puzzling behavior.

Park officials announced the trail changes Tuesday after a wolf has been spotted recently following, running alongside and possibly chasing snowmobilers.

The wolf hasn't attacked anyone and officials said they don't think the animal is dangerous, but the behavior is rare -- unheard of in the park.

After a third incident was witnessed in less than two weeks, park officials decided to close several well-used trail sections and reroute traffic while they try to determine what's up with the wolf.

"We are taking precautions for the protection of the visitors and the wolf," park Superintendent Mike Ward said.

Several trail segments have been closed around the Ash River area, about halfway between International Falls and Crane Lake. Because the park's network of trails accommodates about 15,000 to 20,000 sleds per season, snowmobilers can still navigate the park, Ward said.

"It's a few more miles for them to ride while we separate people from this wolf and a 2- to 3-mile area and investigate," he said.

Ward said park officials have received reports from three incidents "with witnesses" that involved a lone wolf.

"I don't know whether I'd call it chasing," he said, noting that no one who saw the wolf was an expert on the animal. "We have one report it was actually playful in manner. We have another report that it seemed more aggressive.

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... We would not categorize these as aggressive at this point, but it's something we haven't seen before."

"What it sounds like is a dog chasing a car, doesn't it?" quipped David Mech, a senior research scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey and one of North America's foremost wolf experts.

Mech, who has been briefed on the Voyageurs wolf, said the behavior is a mystery to him. Almost invariably, wolves avoid motor vehicles, he said.

"Wolves doing things like this can end up being killed, either by accident or intentionally," Mech said.

He said several hypotheses can likely be discounted. For example, he said, he knows of a case in northwestern Canada where a rabid wolf chased a motor vehicle, but he said there's no record of a rabid wolf ever in Minnesota, and the disease would likely have killed the wolf in the 10 to 11 days between the first and last Voyageurs incident.

Mech also said the descriptions of the incidents were inconsistent with territorial behavior; wolves almost always protect territory in numbers.

He also said it's unlikely mating or denning behavior; the wolf mating season is coming to an end, and the denning period -- when pregnant females establish dens to give birth -- won't start until late April.

He said he suspects the wolf is a young animal that has left its pack, as both male and females do in their second or third year, and is on its own.

"My guess is it's practicing, practicing its hunting behavior, which is running fast after fast prey," Mech said, clarifying that he doesn't believe the wolf is seeing snowmobilers as actual prey. "There's no food reward in this. I don't know if we can call it playing, just practicing. But we really don't know."

The wolf population in and around Voyageurs is in constant flux, as animals travel freely across frozen lakes and rivers to and from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the east and the Canadian backcountry to the north. In recent years, there have been between five and nine packs consisting of 30 to 50 wolves.

Some of the wolves in the park wear research radio collars, but the snowmobile-following animal does not.

Ward said a team of park officials, including an expert researcher, on Tuesday headed into the park to attempt to track the wolf and learn more about its behavior. He said he didn't know if that might entail tranquilizing the wolf, if encountered, to examine it, but he said there are no plans to kill the wolf.

"Just rerouting the snowmobiles -- removing the human interaction -- might take care of this," Ward said. "It's our hope the wolf is going to continue to live a happy life in the park and our snowmobilers can continue to enjoy the park."

After several years of being legally hunted, wolves in the Great Lakes region, including Minnesota, have returned to the protections of the U.S. Endangered Species Act after a federal judge struck down hunting seasons in December.

Today, it is legal for citizens to kill a wolf only in defense of human life.

Dave Orrick can be reached at 651-228-5512. Follow him at twitter.com/OutdoorsN

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