Spotting a wolf in the wild is usually a rare event, but visitors to the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, easily enjoy viewing the center's resident wolf pack while learning more about this reclusive and often misunderstood animal.
The center celebrates its 25th anniversary this year as it continues to fulfill its mission to educate people about wolves and their relationship to the wild, as well as exploring what role humans will play in the wolves' future.
Controversy about wolves often arises as the advance of civilization further encroaches into wild lands, creating an ever-shrinking habitat for the wolves. Staff of the International Wolf Center sees accurate and objective education about the wolves, their place as predators in the ecosystem, and the need for them to reclaim at least a small portion of their former habitat as keys to making informed decisions about the real or perceived issues surrounding the wolves, their interaction with human civilization, and the survival of the species.
The center originated as an award winning exhibit called "Wolves and Humans" created by the Science Museum of Minnesota in 1985. The 6,000-square-foot exhibit went on the road, visiting U.S. and Canadian cities and setting attendance records as 2.5 million people viewed it.
Scientists involved with creating the exhibit, a group including renowned wolf biologist Dr. L. David Mech, selected Ely as the exhibit's permanent home.
Mech, a senior research scientist with the U.S. Department of Interior and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus, began studying wolves and their prey in 1958. He continues to serve on the International Wolf Center's board and works closely with the organization while continuing his research (check out Mech's blog about his current work among Arctic wolves at Canada's Ellesmere Island, in Nunavut).
By 1989, the group established a temporary center at Ely. They opened the $3 million, 17,000-square-foot center 1993.
Improvements over the years at the center included adding a 3,260-square-foot with a 120-seat wolf-viewing theater in 1996. Large windows overlook part of a 1.25-acre wolf enclosure where the "ambassador" wolves are a vital part of the center's educational mission.
The highlight of our visit to the center was visiting the viewing area for a close-up look at the resident wolf pack.
The pack started with four pups in 1993. Two Arctic wolves joined the pack in 2000, and the center adds a couple of new pups to the pack about every four years. Older wolves move to a separate "retirement" enclosure as pack dynamics change and newer members claim dominance in the group.
Many tourists visit Ely to fish or canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and our first visit to the International Wolf Center came when we visited to Ely to spend a few days canoeing.
Ely and the Superior National Forest are in the heart the area home to the largest surviving wolf population in the lower 48 states, and where scientists began studying the species as early as the 1930s.
Today, the International Wolf Center draws around 50,000 visitors each year. The organization has nearly 10,000 members from all 50 states and 38 different countries.
The center is open year round. Exhibits include the acclaimed "Wolves and Humans" display, a children's "Little Wolf" exhibit, and the viewing theater.
I remember attending presentations in the theater where staff talked about the resident pack and allowed enthralled kids to touch a piece of a wolf's pelt and a tooth as they viewed the animals through the large windows.
Meanwhile, I managed to capture these images through the glass as the naturalist introduced the animals to the audience.
See the International Wolf Center site for information about the organization, its programs, or to view the ambassador pack via Web cam.
Gamers can also check out Wolf Quest, a wildlife simulation game developed by the Minnesota Zoo to teach players ages 9 and up about wolf ecology by following wolves in Yellowstone National Park.
Want to learn more about wolves and the issues concerning them?
Check out books like Wolves: Behavior, Ecology and Conservation by L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani or The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species by L. David Mech.
Regular readers of Midwest Guest might remember my earlier story about Wildlife at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan and the interesting symbiotic relationship between the moose and wolves there. Learn more about this subject by checking out The Wolves of Isle Royale by L. David Mech.
© Dominique King 2010 All rights reserved