ELY — Set in the heart of the Superior National Forest, the International Wolf Center is now running its fifth annual Wolf Care Auction until Feb. 10 in an effort to help fund special initiatives.
“The money from the auction will be spent on system upgrades to incorporate audio features to our webcams, additional surveillance cameras and digital video recorder to keep track of activity in and outside of the enclosure and associated care and veterinary needs of our retired wolves,” Krista Harrington, the interpretative center manager, wrote in an email Monday.
According to the wolf center’s website, there are numerous items available, such as hand-spun and knitted wolf fur products from the shed undercoats that staff brush each year; portraits and nature scenes and handmade jewelry and knives; limited edition silver coins, felt and canvas jackets; and professional photographs of the seven gray wolves here.
Last weekend, Axel and Grayson lay beside a deer carcass on a snow-covered rock, surrounded by trees in the 1.25-acre outdoor enclosure, as half a dozen people watched them from behind a glass barrier inside the center, snapping photographs and reading signs describing how they are part of a four-member exhibit pack.
They are 2-year-old Arctic wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, which arrived at the center two years ago. They now eat, rest and live among other subspecies, including Boltz, 6, a Great Plains wolf, and Denali, 10, a Northwestern wolf.
“The dominance hierarchy is currently in flux,” according to one sign.
Another reads: “We recognize that the wolves are the main attraction for the center for many people and, while we want to provide the most enjoyable visit possible, we must respect the fact that these are wild animals. We cannot predict their activities or their behavior.”
Despite the complicated history between human and wolf and folklore depicting the animal as either blessed friends or dangerous symbols of evil, the atmosphere at the center is calm and studious.
Staff say that the wolves are raised in their care under captivity, so “people can understand what the wolf really is.” They tell how the wolves at the center survive past the age of 10, rather than dying off from disease, parasites and natural occurences that lead them to dying between the ages of 4-6 in the wild. They explain how Grizzer, Aidan and Luna are wolves who decided to leave the pack and are now living in a retirement enclosure, which helps the natural process of “dispersing” to a calmer existence with no direct viewing.
The staff point out signs, which define wolf behavior. The “tail position” is key: when the tail is held high above the back “this indicates the highest confidence” and when it is carried perpendicular to the ground “this is a relaxed position.” They also share that Axel and Grayson laying beside their food shows that even though they “are not dominant, they have the right to defend and possess the carcass.”
“The purpose for the center is education,” said Cameron Feaster, program specialist. “People get to see and learn about the wolves.”
According to the wolf center’s website, the history of gray wolf research in Minnesota began when world-renowned American naturalist Sigure Ferdinand Olson made the first noted studies near Ely in the 1930s. The research continued under the care of Ely-born wildlife biologist Milt Stenlund between 1948-1952 and New York-based wolf expert L. David Mech beginning in 1966.
In 1985, the Science Museum of Minnesota installed the “Wolves and Humans” exhibit, which went on tour in 19 cities around the U.S. and Canada. Mech, who helped create the famed exhibit, then worked with others to form the Committee for an International Wolf Center. By 1989, a temporary facility was established in Ely located in the middle of the largest wolf population in the lower 48 states.
The $3 million, 17,000-square-foot wolf center opened here in 1993. Five years worth of financial support from the state and various organizations helped add the 3,260-square-foot, 120-seat wolf-viewing theater and more classroom, storage and laboratory space.
Today, the center offers a variety of education programs, as well as weekend and week-long visits that include howling trips, radio tracking, snowshoe treks, dog sledding and hikes. Membership includes people in 50 states and 38 countries.
To educate the public on the gray wolf is specially important in Minnesota, where the animal has been in danger of losing the federal protection that keeps it from being hunted.
Last year, House Republicans passed legislation to remove gray wolves in 48 states from the list of species under the Endangered Species Act. But the measure never passed through the Senate and the chances of a new bill passing the Democratic run House this year is reportedly a far stretch.
For more information on the wolf center’s auction visit www.wolf.org.