Pictures for Radio: Wolves from the air

One of the cool things about being a photographer is that one day you could be sitting in your office editing wrestling photos and the next up in the air shooting packs of wolves from a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources aircraft.  That’s just what happened this last week.

Minnesota Public Radio contacted me to shoot pictures of a Wisconsin DNR pilot who tracks radio-collared wolves for a story about continuing efforts to get wolves delisted from federal protection.  Farmers and hunters have been complaining for a few years now that the wolf population in this part of the country is starting to get out of hand and this year saw a record number of wolves (16) killed and those were only the ones that were found so that number is just a fraction of how many were probably killed.   This sounded like a cool assignment, but I was worried we would only see one wolf at a time or that the woods would be so dense that it would be impossible to see them from up in the sky.  I was so wrong on both accounts.

Now I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have the wolfpack scene from “The Hangover” playing over and over again in my head.  I just love that movie.  Anyway, back to my story.  The wolves have a radio collar attached to them and the pilot, Phil Miller, used a GPS tracking system that beeps when the airplane gets closer to the animals.  When the beeping really picks up, it’s time to start looking on the ground for the animal, which can be tough when the woods are thick.  The first animal, a lone wolf, took about five minutes to find.  We located him sitting just off to the side of a deer stand.  It was too thick to photograph so we moved onto the next group.

This was the first of two packs we would see on the day and it would be the biggest.  We flew a few minutes before the GPS started beeping again.  We saw one wolf then another and another and another and this kept going until it stopped at 11.  This was the pack I was hoping would be out in the middle of a lake or out in the open, but they still remained in fairly dense forest.  The third and fourth pictures are from this pack and the fourth one demonstrates just how hard it was at times to find these animals if you weren’t already locked onto their location.

So after circling them for 10 minutes shooting pictures and freezing the face of Minnesota Public Radio reporter Bob Kelleher from my need to open the window of the plane to shoot pictures, we decided to move on.  This third radio-collared animal was supposed to be part of a group of nine wolves.  And with this, my hopes and dreams for the assignment came true as we came upon a beaver pond and five of the wolves were walking and lounging around in the middle.  No trees to obstruct, no bushes to get in the way.  It was a perfect setting and with fresh snow, the tracks the wolves made were quite visible as well, which just added to the photos.  We spent about 15 minutes circling these guys before we left to track two more radio-collared animals.  After that, I took some pictures of Bob at the controls before watching the last radio-collared wolf trot along a snowmobile path.

I had never seen a wolf in the wild and after reading what one did to a woman’s dog in Ely, I don’t think I’d want to either.  You can find out what happened to that woman’s dog by clicking here and reading Minnesota Public Radio’s story about the flight and efforts to delist the wolves.  I hope you have as good a time looking at these pictures as I did taking them.  One thing for all you people out there that I learned from this trip… Dramamine will knock you out.  I thought I might need some because of all the banking, spinning and twisting the pilot needed to do to get a good look at the wolves, but I didn’t get sick and all it did was make me nod off in the middle of conversations with Mr. Kelleher on the way back.  Sorry Bob!  Anyway, on to the photos!