Wolves Home / Meet Christopher Lucash

Interview With Christopher Lucash

Chris Lucash, supervising biologist in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, answered questions about radio-tracking from November 11–15, 1996.

We would like to know what it sounds like when the radio transmitter is beeping? Does it go constantly or intermittently? Do you wear headsets to hear it? We would like to know more about what the wolf sounds like?
Transmitters in the collars that are on red wolves and most radio-monitored wildlife emit pulses or beeps. The tone of the beep can be tuned in so that it can be heard as a high-pitched beep, a low "thud," or anywhere in between. The pulses are usually intermittent and at a rate of 60 pulses per minute (ppm). However, the pulse rate can be set at the factory to any rate we specify. The trade-off is between a high pulse rate, which is easier to hear and track to, but it uses up the batteries in the transmitter faster. Slower pulse rates allow the batteries to last longer but are more difficult to track to. At 60 ppm, our collars last about three years.

There are also options available on transmitters to have the factory set different pulse rates to tell biologists more information about the animal. For example, red wolf collars have an internal switch on a timer set for six hours. When the collar does not move at all for six hours, the transmitter begins to beep three times faster than normal. We use this option to tell us if the wolf is possibly dead, has lost its collar, or staying completely still for a really unusual length of time.

We choose to use headsets to hear the transmitter pulses better, but the beeps are audible from the speaker built into the receivers. Headsets are more sensitive than the speaker in the receiver and block out other noise so we can concentrate on listening for faint signals.

Red wolves, like gray wolves and coyotes, have a variety of vocalizations. Their vocabulary consists of long deep howls — sometimes one tone, sometimes breaking into two or three tones. Also barks much like large dogs, yipping and whining, especially from pups or juvenile wolves, and grunts and low growls often associated with threats or aggressive posturing. (There are commercially available CDs of red wolf howling if your computer has a CD player.)

When you tranquilize the red wolves to place the collars on them, how long do the wolves stay "asleep"? About how many wolves have collars on right now? Do the red wolves travel great distances, or do they have a confined area that they live and hunt in? About how long does it take to "collar" a wolf? What is the range, in miles, that the collars can reach?
When we use immobilizing chemicals or drugs on red wolves, they are not really asleep. Often there is a "tranquilizing" component in the drug mixture that we use just to keep the animal calm from stress and its body temperature from raising. The main component in these drugs is an immobilizing agent which does not permit the wolf to feel or use its muscles but keeps it awake and allows all of its life-supporting actions (breathing, heart beating, etc.) to function properly. The time that a red wolf is under the effects of the drug varies on the dosage. We normally give the least amount needed to complete the work we need to do. In the case of attaching a collar, we only need a few minutes, but the amount of drug needed to completely immobilize a red wolf normally lasts 20 to 30 minutes or so. So when we drug a wolf we are prepared to do more than just attach a collar — we will collect body measurements, weights, give vaccinations, take blood samples, look for parasites, etc.

Wolves normally have an area or "home range" that they stay in most of the time. Pups are born in their parents' home range and usually remain there for one or two years. The size of this range depends on how much food is available. When pups near the age of two, they reach breeding age and are ready to leave their parents' range and find their own. Sometimes the parents push these juveniles out. Other factors can cause wolves to venture out of their normal range: if food becomes scarce they will travel farther in search of enough to eat. Some red wolves have traveled over 100 miles from their home range.

In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 10 adult wolves have collars on them. We know of 14 pups born in the spring of 1996 that are not big enough to wear collars until later this winter. In eastern North Carolina, about 40 adult wolves wear collars, another 40 – 60 other adults and pups do not.

The range of transmitters depends on the terrain, vegetation, and weather. On clear days over flat ground we can hear transmitters from 15 miles. Mountains, thick fog or rain, and heavy vegetation can partially or totally block the radio signals. If a wolf is in a deep ravine, we may not be able to hear its collar more that a few hundred feet away.

We are confused about how you use the antenna to track wolves? Do you have to plug the antennas into an electrical outlet, or do they need batteries? Could you explain more about that to us?
The radio collars on red wolves each contain a transmitter and battery pack, producing a pulse or "beep" for several years. We listen to the beeps on a receiver, similar to listening to music on a radio. Each transmitter is on an individual frequency which can be "tuned in" on the receiver, again, like a particular station on a music radio. The receiver also runs on a battery pack. The directional antenna plugs into the receiver for the purpose of extending the receiver's ability to hear transmitters — (like your TV used to plug into antennas, but now into cable or satellite dish). The directional antenna is built with short metallic crosspieces lined up one behind the next along a much longer base. The shape of the antenna allows transmitter signals to be heard much stronger from the front than from any other direction. With this ability, we can move or rotate the antenna until we pick up the strongest signal from a particular transmitter. We take a compass bearing in the direction of the strong signal and plot it on a map. When two or more compass bearings taken from different places cross one another on the map — we can determine the location of the transmitter (wolf) without seeing it. The method of locating animals with radio signals is called telemetry. A location determined by intersecting telemetry bearings is called triangulation.

Of course this all becomes more difficult when the wolf is constantly moving, which causes the signal to fade and get stronger. It is also hard to hear the signal if the wolf is in heavy brush, or in a ravine or behind a ridge or mountain. The radio signals are blocked and distorted by land, heavy vegetation, dense fog, rain, or if they are under water. The signals travel in a straight line, so, it is often only possible to hear the transmitters from above. This is why we use airplanes to track most of the wolves. Antennas are mounted on the wing struts and the biologist follows the strongest signal. We narrow down the area the signal is coming from until we can fly in a tight circle and have the signal coming from inside the circle. This is sometimes more accurate than ground tracking, especially if the wolf is in and area that is impossible to get to on the ground. It is much quicker to track many wolves from a plane than from the ground.

Do different types of wolves fight with one another?
I do not know for certain if different types of wolves fight with one another. One of the reasons there are different types of wolves is because they lived in different areas and environments for long periods of time and that is partly what made them different. Red wolves and gray wolves are very "territorial," meaning they have their home ranges and they defend it from outsiders. We know that red wolves fight with, and kill, other red wolves and coyotes. And so do gray wolves — so I presume that they would also fight with other types of wolves if they were in contact with them. But not all the time. Some red wolves are very accepting of other wolves. It depends on the time of year, the sex and age of the other wolf, and if they have a mate or established pack that they are a part of and are defending.

Do wolves attack humans?
Wolves do not normally attack humans. Healthy wild wolves are afraid of humans and will run away, even when humans go into dens and disturb or handle wolf pups. It is possible that wolves could attack humans in certain situations, but it is very unlikely. It is important to know that most wild animals, and many insects, will defend themselves when they cannot run away, but that is not the same thing as an unprovoked attack.

Why do you study wolves and how did you get started?
I study red wolves in order to make better choices about helping to bring them back from the brink of extinction. Some decisions we need to make are: Where are good places for wolves to live? How can we prepare captive red wolves to better survive in the wild? How much damage do wolves really do to livestock and should they be blamed for all the damage that cannot be easily otherwise explained?

I also study them to teach other people to understand the benefits of having wild wolves and not just fear them. I got started by working hard in school, getting a college degree in biology, and then volunteering to work on a wolf project in order to gain experience and to prove my abilities and determination to those who eventually hired me.

What is the most dangerous kind of wolf?
In my opinion, the most dangerous kind of wolf may be a wild one that someone tries to make into a pet, or an injured, diseased, or cornered wolf that cannot run away when it is approached.

What is the most unusual thing about red wolves?
The most unusual thing about red wolves? For me it would be how much they act like individuals and like people sometimes.... They travel down roads or trails where it is easiest, bask in the sun on cold days, sit atop large, round hay bales to get a better view and be off the damp ground, chase deer sometimes and get chased by deer other times, and often let their curiosity get them into trouble. For most people, the first thing they would notice upon seeing red wolves is that they are not really red.

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