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Beaver bling found in wolf dung

Voyagers researchers strike gold with metal beaver ear tags found in wolf scat.

Voyageurs National Park beaver with ear tags
A beaver trapped and fitted with metal ear tags before being released as part of a study by the National Park Service. Researchers for the separate Voyageurs Wolf Project found three of those metal ear tags among more than 7,000 wolf droppings they analyzed.
Contributed / Voyageurs Wolf Project
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It’s like finding a needle in a haystack, or that time when your cousin swallowed a penny and then got it back later.

Researchers in the Voyageurs Wolf Project noted this week that they had collected, washed and sifted through the contents of a combined 7,000 wolf droppings since 2015 as part of their ongoing study of wolves in and around Voyageurs National Park.

They found lots of interesting things in the scat, from blueberry seeds to deer hair to beaver bones.

“And some random stuff, like chunks of rubber … Part of a Land O’Lakes butter carton,’’ Thomas Gable, lead researcher on the Voyageurs Wolf Project, told the News Tribune. “And then miscellaneous things they eat, like turtle shells and snake skins and bird feet. … If wolves can catch it and kill it, they will eat it.’’

wolf killing a beaver
A trail camera placed by the Voyageurs Wolf Project caught this image of a wolf catching and killing a beaver. Analysis of 7,000 wolf droppings found a potpourri of items beaver ate, from turtle shells and human garbage to ear tags from research beavers.
Contributed / Voyageurs Wolf Project

They also found part of a mesh sports jersey in one wolf poop, but had no reports of any missing players. And it turns out, during bear hunting season, wolves will scavenge bait piles set out by bear hunters.

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“Lots of non-native seeds and nuts and candy,’’ Gable said, noting that analyzing the scat, while time consuming, showed how different wolf diets varied through the year and how they varied between neighboring wolf packs. "None of them were the same."

But perhaps the most unusual thing they found in wolf scat were little metal tags. The tags belonged to beavers that were part of a National Park Service study. The park happens to be one of the most beaver-rich regions in the U.S. and wildlife managers there study beaver population fluctuations. Beavers that were trapped, studied and released in the study got a tag in each ear.

beaver ear tag found in wolf scat
A metal ear tag that had been on a beaver, part of a study in Voyageurs National Park, was found in a pile of wolf scat by researchers in the Voyageurs Wolf Project.
Contributed / Voyageurs Wolf Project

“Turns out, on occasion wolves kill and consume these beavers ... and their ear tags, which eventually get pooped out and left for us to discover like golden tickets in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory,’’ Gable wrote in a Facebook post. “And they really are like finding golden tickets.”

For perspective, only a tiny fraction of the beavers in the area carried ear tags. And the hundreds of wolves in the area produce thousands of droppings each year, of which only a tiny fraction were actually picked up by researchers. So with all that dung and so few ear tags out there, the odds of finding a tag in a turd were pretty low.

In the end they found one ear tag per 2,330 droppings. The project no longer collects scat but uses GPS technology to track specific wolves and decipher what they are eating by checking their recent locations.

The Voyageurs Wolf Project is an ongoing effort to learn more about wolves and their prey in and around Voyageurs National Park, especially during summer months when little had been studied about wolf behavior.

Cooperative effort aims to help cattle rancher, wolves and wolf researchers.

The project started in 2012 as an effort of the National Park Service, with Gable as a graduate student helper. Since then researchers have trapped and collared dozens of wolves from more than 15 packs, and then investigated tens of thousands of GPS points where the animals roam, hunt, eat, build their dens and sleep, and captured thousands of photos and hundreds of hours of video of wolf behavior from trail cameras.

The project was the first to document Minnesota wolves catching and eating fish out of a stream, wolves using blueberries as a primary summer food and wolves intentionally ambushing their prey, waiting for hours along beaver trails for a beaver to show up, the first confirmation that wolves don’t just chase what they kill and eat. Their research also explained how wolves alter the landscape they live in by limiting beaver numbers and reducing beaver ponds, keeping land from being flooded.

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The Voyageurs Wolf Project, officially a realm of the University of Minnesota, has been funded with grants from the state’s Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund, but this year also raised money from direct contributions from citizens. The project’s Facebook page at facebook.com/VoyageursWolfProject has nearly 200,000 followers.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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