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It's a wolf boom at Fort McCoy

Just finding a den site and seeing wolf pups playfully tussling outside would have been enough for Fort McCoy biologist Tim Wilder. Then the number of pups in the grass began to grow before his disbelieving eyes. By the time he spied the last lou...

Just finding a den site and seeing wolf pups playfully tussling outside would have been enough for Fort McCoy biologist Tim Wilder. Then the number of pups in the grass began to grow before his disbelieving eyes. By the time he spied the last lounging nearby, he'd tallied 10.

It's thought to be the largest single litter of wolves on record in Wisconsin, Wilder said.

Perhaps the fort's South Post wolves decided they had to keep up with their North Post neighbors.

In January, Wilder came across 12 sets of tracks on a snow-covered North Post road. The number seemed so unbelievable, he at first figured the wolves had doubled back, but further tracking confirmed a pack a dozen strong.

The 12 still were together in the spring, when Wilder received a report they'd been seen crossing a road and again was able to confirm individual tracks.

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It means the state's largest wolf pack and largest wolf litter both call Fort McCoy home, only a decade after wolves reappeared at the Monroe County military post.

"All of a sudden, to have this many wolves, it's surprising," said Wilder, endangered species program manager for the fort's Natural Resources Branch.

An installation that trained more than 111,000 service members in 2010 might seem an unlikely site for a wolf to settle down and raise a family.

But the 60,000-acre fort has remote forest areas where the wolves can live with little human disturbance, Wilder said.

"They seem to tolerate the noise and activity," Wilder said. "They seem to be able to cope well."

Wolves first began reproducing on the North Post in about 2002 or 2003. But a pair didn't became established at the South Post until 2010, likely due to the barrier of crossing Interstate 90.

Most packs and litters average about four to five, said Adrian Wydeven, wolf ecologist for the state Department of Natural Resources. The fact that Fort McCoy's wolves boast such numbers "suggests they have a healthy food supply and some very healthy females," he said.

The fort has an abundance of deer, enough that bonus hunting tags have been offered in an effort to reduce the damage done by overgrazing, Wilder said. The wolves also likely benefited from several winters with deep snow, often topped by a ice crust, that make it more difficult for deer to run.

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Though odds are slim that all will survive to adulthood, the 10 South Post pups appeared well-grown and in good condition, Wilder said. The dozen at North Post earlier this year probably indicates that pack, too, had a successful breeding season last year.

But as the wolf numbers rise at Fort McCoy, so do concerns about what the future might hold when the packs inevitably outgrow what Wydeven termed the state's last and most southern ideal habitat.

The Fort McCoy wolves so far have been model citizens, even when off the installation, with no attacks reported on livestock or pets, Wilder said.

But young wolves forced out to look for their own territory, venturing into areas with more people and agriculture, are "bound to get themselves into more trouble," Wilder said.

It's a reason why both Wilder and Wydeven think the wolf needs to come off the federal endangered species list, so control measures can be used if a conflict develops. The comment period for the latest delisting effort ended July 5, with a decision expected by the end of the year.

"Personally, I think they're like any other animal -- they can be managed as long as they're managed responsibly," Wilder said.

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Copyright (c) 2011, La Crosse Tribune, Wis./Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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