Wolf project takes students to Yellowstone

Wolves have become a hot-button issue recently in Minnesota with the federal delisting from the endangered species list.

Northwest Passage Charter High School, Coon Rapids, students at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, left to right, Jimmy Rasmussen, Carter MacDonald, Hannah Bavery and Brandon Nerburn.
Northwest Passage Charter High School, Coon Rapids, students at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, left to right, Jimmy Rasmussen, Carter MacDonald, Hannah Bavery and Brandon Nerburn.

Students at Northwest Passage High School, Coon Rapids, got a chance to jump into the discussion feet first.

NWPHS is a tuition free charter school in that uses a project based learning education model where students engage in projects of their own design.

Life science teacher and current Director Peter Wieczorek applied and received a $10,000 grant from the National Science Teachers Association and Toyota Tapestry to fund a yearlong wolf project.

The project took a group of 15 students and asked them to investigate the question “What is the future of wolves in North America?”

Throughout the school year students addressed many of the Minnesota State Academic Standards included life science, environmental education and ecology.

In addition, they also integrated English in the form of journaling, readings and a research paper, plus social studies topics including U.S. westward expansion, government, economics and geographic tools.

The majority of the science studies took place at the Wildlife Science Center in Columbus.

The WSC focuses on research, training and education primarily with wolves, but also has bears, mountain lions, coyotes, fox, lynx and raptors.

While at the WSC students used scientific method to test their hypothesis on captive wolves to devise non-lethal deterrents, such as flagging, sound aversion and scent marking to keep wolves away from livestock, according to Wieczorek.

Students also learned how to take temperatures, heart rate and draw blood on anesthetized wolves, Wieczorek said.

In January students joined the WSC staff to participate in an annual wolf reproductive study with researchers from the St. Louis Zoo.

Students helped collect sperm samples from Grey Wolves.

The samples will be used to help the reproductive survival of critically endangered Mexican Grey and Red Wolves.

This method of experiential education is not new for Northwest Passage; from the beginning its philosophy has always been that education is often best outside the four walls of the classroom, according to Wieczorek.

Service learning was also a very important part of the project, Wieczorek said.

“Students learned how the WSC works to keep animals safe, healthy and enriched by providing services such as placing wood chips in enclosures, assisting in feeding and watering, and one of the highlights of the project – designing and building a play structure for five Black Bears,” he said.

Besides the regular visits to the Forest Lake facility students spent a weekend at the WSC Linwood facility learning about wolf anatomy and physiology, Wieczorek said.

In February students traveled to Ely to study with educators from the International Wolf Center.

Students learned about wolf populations throughout the world, as well as snowshoeing near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to track collared wild wolves using radio telemetry, according to Wieczorek.

“Travel, or expeditions as they are called at NWPHS, are not uncommon,” Wieczorek said.

“Students are required to participate in at least one expedition a year. Over the years the school has regularly camped in the Boundary Waters, sailed on Lake Superior, backpacked the North Shore, participated in service trips to Fargo, New Orleans and Guatemala, and yearly trips to Washington, D.C.

The capstone to the wolf project was a week-long expedition to Yellowstone National Park.

Four students, along with staff members Wieczorek and Jason Olson, plus WSC Director Peggy Callahan drove to Wyoming the first week in August.

While at the park they explored the geology and ecology of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

They also met and discussed wolf biology and politics with Doug Smith, lead biologist for the wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone, Nathan Lance, wolf specialist, Montana Fish, wildlife and parks, and Jenny Sika, area wildlife biologist, Montana Fish, wildlife and parks.

On the last full day at Yellowstone the group awoke before sunrise in hopes of seeing wolves in their natural setting, according to Wieczorek.

As the group reached the Lamar Valley about 50 other “wolf groupies” greeted them along side the road, Wieczorek said.

“At first all anyone saw was several dozen bison, then from the far end of the valley seven wolves appeared,” he said.

“For over an hour everyone stood mesmerized as the wolves played, rested and occasionally half-heartedly pursued the bison.

“Just when everyone thought it couldn’t get better another wolf silently wandered out from behind a hill and as if scripted crossed within 15 feet of the group, loped across the road and vanished into the forest.

“The group looked at each other and all agreed it was the perfect ending to an amazing and educational year.”

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