A bid to lure wolves with a digital call of the wild

A speaker-recorder system called Howlbox howls, and wolves howl back, their answers amounting to a roll call that can help scientists studying the population.(From The New York Times)

BOZEMAN, Mont.--The long, lonely howl of a wolf shatters the early morning stillness. But is it real? Beginning this June, it might be hard to tell, even for the wolves.

One of the most famous sounds in nature is going digital. Under a research project at the University of Montana in Missoula, scientists are betting that the famous call-and-response among wolves can be used to count and keep track of the animals.

Tricked by technology, scientists say, wolves will answer what amounts to a roll call triggered by a remotely placed speaker-recorder system called Howlbox. Howlbox howls, and the wolves howl back. Spectrogram technology then allows analysis that the human ear could never achieve--how many wolves have responded, and which wolves they are.

"With audio software, we'll be able to identify each wolf on a different frequency, so we can count wolves individually, kind of like a fingerprint," said David Ausband, a research associate at the University of Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, where Howlbox was developed.

The devices, using off-the-shelf technology, cost about $1,300, including $300 for a solar panel. Audio recordings in the wild are nothing new, of course. Bird and amphibian researchers, in particular, have long used recordings to find or flush out critters. Howlbox's innovations are the tools of digital analysis and programmed instructions that tell Howlbox when to howl, when to sleep because the wolves are sleeping, and how to store each day's file on a disk.

The experiment will begin with a pilot project in which four Howlboxes will be placed in remote areas of Idaho in June. That month was chosen because it is when the packs gather with their spring-born pups in what is called a rendezvous.

Wolf pups will howl at almost anything, scientists say. But a test here in Montana in January also showed that adult wolves can also be fooled by a good sound system.

Money is a driving force behind the research, much of which is being paid for by the Nez Perce Indian tribe in Idaho, which has deep cultural links to the western gray wolf.

Traditional tracking tools like radio collars and aerial surveillance were used extensively after wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s under the Federal Endangered Species Act. But federal protections will end later this month, and so too will the deep pockets needed for flyovers and catching and collaring.

A spokesman for the Nez Perce tribe, Curt Mack, said Howlbox might be a cost-efficient answer.

"We're at a transition moment from wolf recovery to long-term management," said Mack, the tribe's gray wolf recovery coordinator. "We need new tools."

Another issue for Howlbox is the human response. To the uninitiated, a Howlbox-enhanced forest could sound as if wolves were everywhere--a scary proposition. Montana wildlife officials are braced for a public relations campaign if the project moves forward.

"That is something we would not do without touching base with local folks," said Carolyn Sime, the wolf program coordinator at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. "They need to know that just because you hear the sound, it doesn't necessarily mean that wild wolves are howling at your back door."

Entire contents, Copyright © 2008 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

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