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BHSU students work with researchers studying wolves Minnesota’s Northwoods

 Six undergraduate students and one graduate from Black Hills State University spent the beginning of their spring semester working with researchers to study wolves in Minnesota’s Northwoords. Pictured from left to right: Dennis Bailey, outdoor education major from Manassas, Va.; Christi Bubac, graduate student from Rapid City; Meghan Flaherty, biology major from Spearfish; Tes Jackson, biology major from Spearfish; Eric Selchert, biology major from Milbank; Marisa Kritzberger, biology major from Beulah, N.D. ; and Raesha Ray, outdoor education major from Pagosa Springs, Colo.
 BHSU students stand in front of one of the planes used for radio telemetry. Students pictured include Dennis Bailey, Christi Bubac, Meghan Flaherty, Marisa Kritzberger, and Raesha Ray.

A group of Black Hills State University biology and outdoor education students spent the beginning of their spring semester getting face to face with the wolves of Minnesota’s Northwoods.

Six undergraduate and one graduate student participated in a program at the Audubon Center of the North Woods in Sandstone, Minn., which allowed the students to learn tracking and observation techniques to study wolves, and other large predator animals, and their environment.

During the three-week course, several of the students actually sighted wolves, something that has been a rare occurrence for the center recently.  

“The Audubon Center hasn’t had a documented wolf sighting for years,” said Christi Bubac, BHSU graduate student. Bubac participated in the course in 2011 as a student and returned this year as a teaching assistant. “Usually students will not see a wolf in the wild. They will definitely come across tracks and other signs of wolves, but we were fortunate this year will all the sightings we saw – in the air and on the ground.”

Undergraduate students who participated in the course included: Eric Selchert, biology major from Milbank; Raesha Ray, outdoor education major from Pagosa Springs, Colo.; Dennis Bailey, outdoor education major from Manassas, Va.; Tes Jackson, biology major from Spearfish; Meghan Flaherty, biology major from Spearfish; and Marisa Kritzberger, biology major from Beulah, N.D.

Dr. Brian Smith, BHSU professor of biology, has been facilitating the course for a decade and enjoys how enthusiastic his students come back after completing the Audubon Center course. For the past five years, BHSU has been the only public institution with students participating in the course.

“The things students get to do are really unique,” Smith said. “There are not very many undergraduate students that have any experience doing radio tracking of wolves form a small plane. These are the kinds of experiences you will remember your whole life.”

All students who attended the course this semester agreed. “It is just the little bit of experience that is going to help you because it is a super competitive field,” Flaherty said noting that she had several experiences that increased her interest in the environmental biology field. During a radio telemetry flight, which is a form of animal tracking using radio signals, Flaherty spotted a group of wolves on the frozen lake who were on a kill. “We just circled around awhile and watched them feed,” she said.

Flaherty, Kritzberger and Selchert also came upon a fresh wolf kill while following some ravens during a hike. Where there are ravens there are usually wolves, Ray said. “They have a symbiotic relationship,” she said. The students followed the ravens and came upon the kill with a wolf standing about 60 feet away.

Flaherty said it was an incredible experience. “I can’t even put it into words.”

Selchert said the hands-on field work and the instruction provided by Bryan Wood, co-executive director at the Audubon Center of the Northwoods, are skills used in the field and ones that students can build on.

During the course, students learned about various animal species and research techniques at the Audubon Center, participated in radio telemetry flights, conducted browse surveys – wildlife research techniques used to collect and record data, and visited three biology-based centers where they worked with some of the best researchers in the field including Dr. L. David Mech who is considered the world’s leading wolf biologist.

“The trip was all encompassing and very enjoyable,” according to Ray who noted that she has already added several of the skills she learned during the course to her resume.

Kritzberger added that the course gave her a whole new perspective on wolves and encouraged her and other students to become more educated and politically involved in the future of the large predators.

Smith said several of his students wrote to the South Dakota legislature opposing a recent bill that would reclassify wolves from protected species in the state to varmints in East River Counties. While South Dakota does not have a large wolf population, there have been a few sightings as they journey to more wolf-populated areas.

“The students come back really charged up,” Smith said. “This is just another experience they can take with them.”

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