The Last Ramble of Wolf 18

A century after timberwolves had been officially declared extinct in Missouri, one wolf traveled 460 miles with hopes of recovering this lost frontier. This article originally appeared online in 2002.

WHEN WALKING AT NIGHT, I’m tempted to howl. I have a feeling that a wolf might respond. That’s a strange impulse in central Missouri. Howling is a scientific technique, an easy and inexpensive way of surveying if wild wolves have settled new territory, but until recently the only response you might expect would be from dogs or coyotes. For more than a century, officials have considered wolves extinct in Missouri. But all that has changed. Now, if you live in central Missouri and you decide to step onto your porch at night and howl, you just might get a response.

It’s a remote but very real possibility. Last October, Wolf 18 was discovered in north-central Missouri. He was a long way from home, a bona-fide Michigan gray wolf as wild as they come. Wolf 18’s arrival in our state is a singular journey opening a new chapter in Missouri’s natural history. He’s the first proven wild gray wolf to be found here since the 1880s, having completed an unprecedented odyssey traversing at least 460 miles and likely more, meeting countless dangers to arrive here relatively unscathed by his journey. If you would have howled under an October moon in Grundy County last year, Wolf 18 might have howled back.

If it still seems far-fetched, consider the Howard county couple who recently heard what they suspected to be a gray wolf this past winter. This sighting, smack in the middle of the state, opens up the whole geography of Missouri for possible wolf activity. Lending credibility to their encounter is the fact that they are both trained biologists. They heard a howl at night after noticing huge tracks in the snow on their property and on an adjacent conservation area. True to their training, they measured and saved the prints, took photos and made molds, submitting them to conservation officials. They even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to record the animal, luring it back with the recorded howling of other wolves. Mammal expert Dave Hamilton from the Missouri Department of Conservation eventually secured the molds of the suspected wolf’s footprints, and after conferring with a network of wolf biologists wasn’t convinced that this animal was a true wild individual. It could be a dog or hybrid wolf. Despite the credibility of the witnesses, there wasn’t enough evidence to verify the sighting.

WE KNOW A LOT MORE about Wolf 18. We know that he was a true endangered gray wolf. We know where he started and where he wound up, though there’s a whole lot of speculation surrounding what happened in between. Wolf 18 was born into the Chaney Lake Pack in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s a rugged and sparsely populated spit of land wedged between Lakes Michigan and Superior, covered with pine forests, cedar swamps and plenty of whitetail deer. It’s an ideal habitat, so much so that since the first mating pair of gray wolves returned in 1989 after the species had all but vanished from Michigan, the population has climbed steadily. It’s now fast approaching 300.

Despite the prime habitat, Wolf 18 had it rough from the start. The Chaney Lake Pack was large, numbering as many as nine individuals, which meant that pups would be under intense social pressure to fit in or get out. With two other packs in the area vying for game, there would be no tolerance for hangers on.

The young wolf had his first run-in with humans in July of 1999 when he was captured in a leg trap by Michigan conservation officials trying to locate his family group. Weighing only 28 pounds, he was fitted with a radio collar made for a larger animal and tagged in his ear with the number 18. The conservation officials expected him to slip out of his collar soon, and they never thought they would find him wearing it two years later, let alone find him wearing it in Missouri. Scientists tracked him for the next nine months, noting his whereabouts during regular observation flights. But on March 26, 2000, there was one less blip on their monitor. Wolf 18 had dispersed.

Gray wolves disperse for various reasons. Some strike out on their own to find a mate rather than bide their time trying to climb their pack’s social hierarchy to win breeding privileges. Others are driven out because of social pressure. The pressure on a pup like Wolf 18 would have been intense. Jim Hammill of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources notes, “When we lost him he was approaching his first birthday, so you would assume that he was a lower ranking member of the pack.” Dispersing is a natural drive in wolves. It keeps packs healthy, ensuring that there will never be too many mouths to feed. It also allows for the settlement of territory previously uninhabited by wolves. It encourages genetic diversity as dispersing wolves from far-flung packs meet to form pair bonds. Distances vary, but one wolf in Canada was recorded dispersing 829 miles. Michigan wolves have dispersed to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada, the longest venturing 450 miles. The longest, that is, until Wolf 18.

WOLF 18 BLAZED A NEW TRAIL. Michigan wolves rarely venture south, and two predecessors were found dead on the highway in southern Wisconsin, testament to their clash with the more developed world. The southern route adds more danger to what is already a perilous undertaking. Dispersing wolves are at a disadvantage. Wolves have evolved into the perfect teams, hunting in groups with skill and efficiency, but Wolf 18 had to hunt alone. What’s more, he ran the risk of overstepping the bounds of one of the Wisconsin packs. Wolves rarely tolerate the trespassing of others of their own species, and most transgressors are killed at once. Dispersing to the south would also bring Wolf 18 face to face with lethal interstate highways for which his youth in the Upper Peninsula would have left him ill prepared. There would be the unfamiliar terrain of farms, cities and suburbs, conflicts with domestic dogs, and the formidable barrier of the Mississippi River. And the southern route brought him more encounters with the greatest danger of all–humans. Lots and lots of humans.

WOLF 18 WAS MISSING for a year and a half. It is unlikely that he traveled from Michigan to Missouri in a straight line, so the actual distance covered is sure to be well above 460 miles. A healthy wolf can travel as much as 40 miles in a single day, so when that is added to the amount of time that Wolf 18 went missing, a lot of ground could have been covered. This left unlimited possibility for human encounters. Somebody had to see an animal of his size. Does this mean that human attitudes have changed? After all, as recently as the 1950s, wolves were considered a scourge. They were hunted, trapped, poisoned, driven to extinction in many states where bounties were offered until the last gray wolf was eliminated from the wild. While Jim Hammill agrees that a change in human attitude, combined with the success of the Endangered Species Act and the environmental revolution of the 1970s, is a leading contributor to the unprecedented recovery of wolves in the Great Lakes area, he doubts that this helped Wolf 18 get to Missouri. “It’s not so much that people are tolerant of wolves in places like southern Wisconsin and Missouri,” he notes, “but people will see the animal and misidentify it.” The gray wolf is, after all, the closest wild relative of the domestic dog, a cousin to the coyote.

Environmental revolution aside, old attitudes die hard. Wolf 18 ran a gauntlet of dangers and traveled farther than any Michigan wolf in recent memory to arrive in one piece in north-central Missouri. A Grundy County man returned home from a bowhunting excursion, discovered the gray wolf eyeing his sheep and assumed it was a coyote. On October 23, Wolf 18 was killed, an arrow piercing his left hip.

The necropsy report gave a clinical summary of Wolf 18’s life. The fur around his neck was matted and worn from the radio collar. His coat contained burrs from his journey, and one foot was slightly misshapen from the leg trap–evidence of his first encounter with humans as a pup. His weight was good: at 80 pounds he was right on track for a two and a half year-old wolf. He’d eaten well on his trip. His stomach contents showed, however, that he was ready to eat again when he was killed. The Missouri man who shot Wolf 18 may have misidentified him, but he might have accurately judged the endangered animal’s intentions as it eyed his sheep.

So what is the future of wolves in Missouri? Can they survive here? Dave Hamilton feels that it’s technically possible for wolves to exist here: we have the game and the habitat, and after all, wolves used to live here. “The question is,” Hamilton notes, “can people tolerate wolves?” So far, signs indicate that we can’t. Evidence of this is that another wolf-like animal was killed south of Columbia, Missouri prior to 18’s amazing journey. All signs pointed to that animal being a true wild gray wolf: wolf-like features, no dog food in its stomach, no marks from a collar, no wear on its paws from cement. But there’s no way to know for sure if it was a wild animal dispersed here on its own, or if it was a pet or captive wolf or hybrid that escaped. Wolf 18, on the other hand, was definitely a wild wolf, and he has a file in Crystal Falls, Michigan to prove it. But like the other animal, his first encounter with humans in Missouri shows that perceptions haven’t changed, and until they do it’s not likely that we will soon have a population of wild wolves in our state. Our only hope of seeing a wild wolf will be to run into that rare adventurous individual that heads for distant horizons. Our only hope is Wolf 18.

AND THAT BRINGS US TO A QUESTION. Is there something different about the Michigan wolves that disperse to the south from those that head west or north? Why do some wolves choose the more difficult path? Maybe there is something that separates them from others of their kind. Perhaps it’s a similar impulse to that found in our own species–the drive that propels explorers like Missouri trailblazers Lewis and Clark. Wolf 18 was missing for one and a half years. A wolf can travel up to 40 miles in a single day. If you do the math, he could have traveled well over ten thousand miles. Wolf 18 is officially credited with traveling 460 miles, but as Jim Hammill notes, “for all we know, he went farther than that. He may have gone to the Gulf and been on his way back.” With an unscientific stretch of the imagination, it is comforting to think of Wolf 18 gazing out over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, echoing fellow explorer William Clark in his own wolfish way: “Ocean in view! O! The joy.”

But that’s a stretch, so let us get back to sound science. During the next full moon, if I were to step onto my porch to conduct a howling census, I could do so with full faith in the possibility, as remote as that possibility may be, of a response. In that distant place, the wild reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula five hundred miles to the north, there are more animals like Wolf 18.

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