Tracking wolves through sound: Wis. professor leads innovative study in Wood County

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BABCOCK, Wis. (WSAW) -- Researchers from around the world, led by Rothschild native and Carthage College biology professor Dr. Angela Dassow, are helping pioneer an innovative method of tracking wolves through sound.

Dr. Angela Dassow swaps cards on an acoustic monitor at Sandhill Wildlife Area. Dec. 27, 2019 (WSAW Photo)

The two-week study, funded through the non-profit Animal Welfare Institute and aided by other organizations, uses acoustic monitors to track the vocalizations of wolves, and wraps up December 29 at the Sandhill Wildlife Area in Wood County.

The team, comprised of researchers and students from as far as Slovakia and as near as Stevens Point, rises early in the morning to trek into the woods and check the camera traps and eleven acoustic monitors working around the clock to capture visuals and vocalizations of wolves. Making the rounds to swap out SD cards and change batteries can take several hours, and the team works late into the night once they return to analyze the data collected.

“It is going to be used in our study to localize or triangulate the movement of the wolves in our area,” Dr. Dassow explained. “We’re interested in wolf-coyote interactions and wolf-dog interactions.”

“Our goal is to determine if our methods could provide a better approach to reducing the damage done to wolf populations when human-wolf conflicts arise, and help repair the image of the wolf among farmers and landowners,” Prof. Dassow noted in a press release. Currently, wolves are most commonly tracked by trapping, sedating, and fastening a radio collar to a wolf before releasing it back into the wild. The acoustic tracking method is cheaper and more efficient, Prof. Dassow noted.

“What we’re trying to develop here is a way of getting that same information about where the animals are moving without having to do anything invasive,” she said. “When the wolves are howling or when the coyotes are howling and barking, that sound is recorded by these microphones.”

Acoustic monitoring was first started at Yosemite National Park to track their wolf population, a project that multiple researchers on Prof. Dassow’s team participated in. Part of the data analysis will track how wolves in Wisconsin behave in comparison to wolves in Yellowstone, Prof. Dassow noted. “I would anticipate seeing some differences, just because of Yellowstone not having as many homes around.”

Across Wisconsin, more than 900 gray wolves now roam the woods after the Fish and Wildlife service first added them to the federally protected species list in 1974—they were considered extinct in the state by 1960. They were removed in 2012 before being replaced on the list in 2014, an issue that has prompted state representatives to call for more local control of the population.

Today, about 40 packs move in central Wisconsin alone. The Wisconsin DNR has recorded 74 confirmed wolf attacks on dogs and livestock, and dozens more unconfirmed reports in 2019. At least 10 wolves have been shot illegally in the state in the past two years, according to Carthage College. Rising wolf attacks have prompted the DNR to investigate ways to best manage the wolf population—and to ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to de-list wolves in the state.

Dr. Dassow graduated from UW-Madison in 2003 with her B.S. degrees in wildlife ecoloy and entomology, before going on to earn her M.S. and Ph.D. in zoology. She has researched the vocal communications of white-handed gibbons as well as research into a variety of other species.

To continue tracking the research, follow Canid Howl's Project's Twitter account here.