A three-week trip to northern Minnesota in January may not be the ideal winter get-away for some people, but for Dakota Shaffer, a first-year student at Buena Vista University, it provided an eye-opening opportunity to learn about wolves and other predators, and wildlife ecology.
Dakota, a biology major from Winterset, spent BVU’s January interim immersed in a course entitled “Wolves and Other Large Predators: A North Woods Experience.” She was one of 18 students from colleges in the Midwest and Florida who participated in the course.
Dakota says the experience strengthened her passion for animals and confirmed her plans to study wildlife after college. “I loved learning new skills and applying them,” she says. “I specifically became very interested in studying black bears as well as wolves.”
The course, which is provided through the Audubon Center of the North Woods (ACNW), took students to three separate locations. The ACNW (www.audubon-center.org/) is a non-profit residential environmental learning center and wildlife rehabilitation center located near Sandstone, Minn.
The first week, the students learned about various animal species and research techniques at the ACNW. Next, they traveled to Ely, Minn., where they participated in radio telemetry flights—a form of animal tracking using radio signals. The group also visited the International Wolf Center, the North American Bear Center, and the Kawishiwi Ranger Station. The final week of the course took students to the North Shore of Lake Superior where they spent time in an area highly concentrated with deer. To study the deer, students conducted transects and browse surveys, both of which are wildlife research techniques used to collect and record data.
Other research techniques administered by the students throughout the course duration were population density surveys, scat collection and analysis, ethograms and wildlife observation.
According to Bryan Wood, co-director of the ACNW and course instructor, the focus of the course is on predators of Minnesota including the gray wolf, Canada lynx and black bear. Specifically, students learned about species-specific information including habitat, behavior, social structures, prey interactions, human issues and hunting strategies. The students also studied the prey species of these predators.
One of the course goals, according to Wood, was to inform students about wildlife research and education opportunities. “I hope students have a renewed sense of purpose with their academic and professional lives and that it may help focus their desire into a more specific area professionally,” he says.
When the students weren’t studying predator and prey animal species or conducting wildlife research, they participated in a number of other outdoor activities including hiking, cross country skiing and rock climbing, says Dakota.
“I would definitely recommend to others to take this course,” says Dakota, who plans on taking another course through the ACNW before graduation. “It is a good way not only to further your education, but to make sure this is what you really want to do by getting a real taste of the work.”
Dakota says that the experience was also a great way to meet new people. “I still converse with several other students, and we have plans to meet again sometime in the summer,” she adds.
Beyond learning about wildlife, Wood hopes the course increased students’ knowledge of, and appreciation for, environmental issues. The wolf January interim course is offered to BVU students each year and requires no prerequisites.