The Fox, the Coyote­—and We Badgers

Once upon a time during the last few years, a red-haired girl new to the University of Wisconsin–Madison crested Bascom Hill and cast her eyes upon the cozy arrangement of buildings and lawns, the tree-lined city by the fair lake. Her nature and upbringing led her to think: Yes, this is good. I should meet the right boy here. I hope the food is good.

The UW–Madison campus is a well-worn locale for such scouting. Last year 31,676 prospective students scoped out dorms and classrooms. Hundreds of elite athletes measured the environment against their precise needs. Thousands more informal visits were made, all driven by the same question: Can I thrive here?

But our young visitor is in a new class altogether—wild members of the canid clan. As it happens, their food is quite good, and she—technically a vixen, or female fox—did find the right dog. After spending a winter holed up under Van Hise Hall, she gave birth to a litter of eight, and in early March of 2014 began to let the young kits gambol about.

They were a campus sensation—stopping lectures, cars and buses, inspiring a popular Tumblr blog, drawing hundreds of rapt spectators. Their appearance provided a fortuitous teachable moment for David Drake, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology and a UW–Extension wildlife specialist, who was just beginning to delve deeper into studying the foxes and coyotes of Madison.

Coyotes have been intermittent, if secretive, Madisonians for more than a decade. In the last few years reports of coyotes by visitors to Picnic Point have been rising, and people from the Lakeshore Nature Preserve asked Drake if he could investigate. But the rise of the urban fox population is a relatively new canine twist.

“It’s very timely,” says Dan Hirchert, urban wildlife specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. While no comprehensive data have been collected, from where he sits foxes and coyotes are gaining throughout the state. And while the coyotes have been present for a couple of decades, the fortunes of the fox seem to be following the rise in urban chicken rearing.

Because most wildlife research happens in rural areas, we may not know as much as we think about our new neighbors. “Does what we’ve learned about these animals in the wild apply in urbanized settings?” asks Drake. Most major cities employ a forester, but very few cities have a wildlife biologist on staff. Much more common is the pest management paradigm: animal control.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Drake says. “If 85 percent of Americans live in cities, why aren’t we doing more? That’s where people are interacting with wildlife.”

These questions prompted Drake to found the UW Urban Canid Project, a hyperlocal study with far-reaching implications.

“The number of urban canid sightings on campus, primarily red fox and coyote, have been on the rise and have been met with mixed emotions from all different members of society,” notes Drake. “This research aims to understand more about the complex interactions between coyotes, foxes and humans in this urban area—as well as provide information and resources for residents to reduce the potential for conflict with these amazing creatures.”

As morning light seeped into a cold January dawn, David Drake and his grad student Marcus Mueller prepared to lead a small convoy from Russell Labs, winding toward the wild corners of campus to check 18 restraint traps that had been set the evening before.
“Are you feeling lucky today?” Drake asks, climbing into the truck.

“Always,” says Mueller.

“I had a hard time getting to sleep last night,” says Drake. “This is like the anticipation of Christmas morning. Every day you go out to see if you caught something.”

First stop is the old Barley and Malt Laboratory, between the retaining wall of University Avenue and the physical plant. It hardly seemed like habitat, but Mueller traced a clear track laid down by the repeated passage of many small feet. The animals were using the buildings for cover, in transit to someplace else.

Drake is hopeful—he’d already received a call from someone who’d seen a fox at 5:20 a.m. on the football practice field. “They were running through Breese Terrace all last year,” he says. At least one fox was digging in an area under the west side bleachers of Camp Randall for a possible den, notes Drake, but no kits were ever seen there. “It is funny to find these spaces on campus that the animals are using,” says Drake. “I ride my bike by here every day and never really thought about it.”

And in one of the three traps an annoyed raccoon waits impatiently. Donning protective gloves, Drake and Mueller release the coon, who scuttles away, anxious for cover.

Next stop is a small cattail marsh next to Willow Beach, behind the new Dejope Residence Hall. The day before, Drake and Mueller had baited the marsh with parts of a deer carcass. On the short trail we flush an eagle from its perch, perhaps planning its own morning snack of carrion.

This little ecological pocket typifies the habitat opportunities that fox and coyote are exploiting. It’s not big enough to call home, or even to get a regular meal. But link it together with dozens of other nooks and crannies and dumpsters around campus, and the sum total is a complex and productive niche.

Fox and coyote are urban adapters: flexible enough to range across a variety of landscapes, from rural to urban. For animals to survive in a city, they typically need to be this kind of habitat generalist, able to exploit a range of hunting and scavenging environments.

The other part of the equation is habituation—how animals get accustomed to human activities. As a species moves into the city, those who survive realize over time that bad things don’t necessarily happen when they encounter humans. Instead of running at the first sign of people, they sit and watch. This knowledge gets passed down from mother to pup, eventually leading to the Van Hise foxes romping in full view of adoring crowds.

The restraints behind Dejope are set for fox, and this morning there is nothing. Drake looks around and connects the dots in the surrounding environment. West across the ice is University Bay Marsh, where four more restraints await. A few ticks to the north is Picnic Point, and the lake beyond.

The last traps of the day are located in the Biocore Prairie, where the research began when a few trail cams confirmed that a group of coyotes were ranging through the preserve, and probably enjoying the fruits of the Eagle Heights gardens as well.
Drake hopes to learn how urban agriculture is influencing canid behavior. Backyard vegetable gardening is flourishing, and each year more city dwellers add chicken coops to their homesteads.

The chickens are an obvious attraction—chickens have probably been preferred canid targets since even before their domestication. Gardens also attract the small mammals that canids prefer. They will even snack on berries and vegetables.

Last year Drake secured four radio collars—two for each species—and, with the assistance of Lodi trapper Mike Schmelling, researchers were able to collar a pair of coyotes and one fox. Among the first discoveries was that the animals are running the frozen lake. The researchers learned this when one collared coyote disappeared. At first they suspected a malfunction, but a citizen report led them to Maple Bluff, where they reestablished radio contact. The coyote had apparently run all the way across the lake, possibly snacking on ice-fishing gut piles along the way. Another ran north and was killed by a car on County M, near Governor Nelson Park.

This year the research hits full speed, with 30 fox collars and 30 coyote collars available. The ambitious work plan includes collaring an entire fox family, kits and all.

And in the snow-covered landscape of the Biocore Prairie, the first glimpse of the third restraint trap offers a rush of hope. The area around the restraint is beaten up, with dark leaves interrupting the white. An animal was clearly held at some point, but all that’s left is a bit of hair and a kinked and ruined cable.

Back in the truck, Drake teases Mueller. “Marcus, I don’t have a good feeling about your luck.”

“Not yet, anyway.”

“You’re not an unlucky person, are you?”

“I hope not.”

“Because I have fired more than one graduate student for being unlucky . . .”

It’s just as dark and even colder the next morning, yet the party adds an undergraduate wildlife ecology student, Cody Lane, and Laura Wyatt MS’87, a program manager with the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. John Olson, a furbearer biologist for the DNR, is in town, and has come to check out the project before putting in a day of lab work.

Behind the Barley and Malt Laboratory, Olson kneels down to evaluate the tradecraft of the empty restraint—a simple loop of airline cable noose suspended from a dark length of stiff wire. “They don’t even see these as traps. They see them as sticks,” Olson explains.

These unique cable restraint traps were named and developed with DNR assistance as part of a national humane trap research program in the early 2000s. “The important thing with these kinds of sets is non-entanglement,” he says. The radius of the multistrand wire must be clear of any potential snags. The size of the loop is determined by the animal you’re selecting, while a stopper keeps it from getting too tight. It works much like a choker collar.

During testing they trapped just over 200 coyotes, and only two died. One had a bad case of mange and died of exposure. The other was shot by someone who didn’t realize the animal was restrained. “It’s a very safe tool,” Olson says. “Cable restraints never damaged any coyotes in the three years that we studied them.”

The convoy moved on to Willow Beach—and, finally, success. A young male fox waits suspiciously, huddled in the reeds. The wind probes at his deep winter coat while the party retreats and summons Michael Maroney BS’85, a veterinarian with the UW–Madison Research Animal Resources Center.

Together Mueller and Maroney estimate the fox’s weight at 12 pounds, and draw a mix of ketamine and xylazine. Mueller secures the animal with a catch pole while Maroney injects the cocktail into the rear leg muscle, provoking an accusing glare from the fox. The clock starts. Within six minutes Maroney looks at Mueller and announces: “He’s clearly gorked.”

Everybody laughs at the non-technical yet thoroughly accurate terminology, and the work begins. They figure they have about 40 minutes. Laying the animal out on a white towel atop a blue tarp, Mueller secures a cordura muzzle, then pulls out electric clippers and shaves one dark foreleg to make it easier to find a vein. Maroney watches his technique while the undergraduate Lane records data.
The fox breathes steadily, and the three talk quietly, as if he were only asleep. Without the wind ruffling his coat, the fox seems smaller, more vulnerable. After the blood draw, nasal and fecal swabs are taken, and the mouth examined. Finally, they weigh the animal—a sturdy 13.5 pounds—and affix the radio collar.

Removing the muzzle, they carry him away from an opening in the marsh ice—a gorked animal doesn’t always behave rationally—and lay him out again on the tarp, out of the wind. A few minutes later and a dark ear twitches, as if to displace a fly. A few more minutes, and the ear twitches pick up. Suddenly the fox stands up shakily, and surveys the audience of onlookers. He quickly takes cover in the marsh, where he gathers his wits for a few more minutes, then slips from view.

Mueller and Drake are giddy, ebullient. “We are off and running,” says Drake. “That was pretty cool.” Last year it took forever to catch a fox; this year they begin with one. “Great start,” says Mueller, and then recounts the steps to himself in a low voice, as if to help remember: the sedation, the blood draws, the recovery.

Mary Rice first saw the coyote in her backyard sometime in the summer of 2012. It was getting dark, and first she wondered, “Whose dog is that?”, followed quickly by: “Oh, my god, a coyote.”

“We were a little alarmed,” she says.

Rice canvassed the neighbors, warning them there was “a coyote lurking” about. Some didn’t know, others did, and some even thought they’d seen wolves. She was wondering how to deal with it, who to call, when she saw another one, smaller. “Remove one, there will be another,” she realized.

A graduate coordinator in the Department of Food Science, Rice remained somewhat unsettled for a few months, worrying about her cats and unsure about her own safety. Then one day at work she learned about Drake’s UW Urban Canid Project and decided to give them a call.

“Can you try to track it and figure out what it’s doing here?” she asked. “We can hopefully live with it. If we’re not going to be able to remove it, maybe we can learn from it and learn how to live among them.”

Before long, with the cooperation of another neighbor, a restraint trap was set. This was Mueller’s first solo set: he decided where to put it, and configured and camouflaged it. Within a week, in early March they had a 36-pound male coyote who had been cutting behind a brush pile. On her way to work, Rice stopped to see the animal and help the team record its vitals. She couldn’t wait to tell her coworkers why she was late.

Rice’s coyote experience is a perfect example of how the project can work, says Drake, with outreach engaging members of the public and connecting them with scientists in the field. On most trap-checking mornings Drake’s team has company—each day a new handful of visitors. Sometimes they’re wildlife students or other friends of the program, but often they’re just curious early risers who follow the group’s progress on social media.

And with hundreds of followers on Facebook and Twitter, public fascination is strong. Because of our strong cultural connection to dogs, our affinity may even be a little hardwired. From Wile E. Coyote and fox or coyote tricksters in folklore to the Fantastic Mr. Fox, these are animals we all know on some level, however mythic.

Still, fox and coyote don’t get quite the same reception. The fox is easy to anthropomorphize. It’s small, cute and generally non-threatening. Coyotes aren’t typically seen as often, and your first thought can be, like that of Mary Rice: Whoa, that’s a pretty big animal.

“Just because you see a coyote doesn’t mean it’s a bad animal, and doesn’t mean it’s going to create problems for you or that you should be afraid of it,” says Drake. The key is to not create, or exaggerate, a conflict. And that’s almost always about food. It’s important to secure bird feeders and outside pet food, and to take care with pets out of doors. If the coyotes become too bold, make an effort to scare the animals away. “We’re really trying to help people to understand how wonderful it is to have these animals here, but also to be vigilant,” Drake says.

“Are you nocturnal yet?” I ask Mueller as I climb into a white UW van at 9 p.m. in early March. He laughs—it won’t be long now. As soon as early-morning trap checks are done, he’ll be swinging full-time on the second shift. These dogs are nocturnal, and if you want to learn where they are at night, you’ve got to get out there with the radio tracker.

The research plan calls for tracking each animal at least once a week. Some nights it’s boring, and Mueller catches naps between hourly triangulations. But the newly collared fox has been a real challenge. He was tracked one night moving from south of Fish Hatchery Road and Park Street all the way up to John Nolen Drive, where he spent time on frozen Monona Bay and eventually made it to Muir Woods on campus. That’s about four miles as the crow flies—never mind the urban labyrinth he had to navigate between those points. He did all that traveling within a five-hour period.

“It truly was a game of cat and mouse trying to keep up with him that night,” says Mueller. Is he a young transient who hasn’t yet established a home range? Is he trying to find a mate? Or can home ranges for urban foxes really be that big?

Some nights Mueller can track only one animal, but on others they are close to each other. On one recent night the fox and the coyotes were all on campus, just a short distance from each other. “I was flying all over campus,” says Mueller. “It was a crazy night of telemetry.”

It was a perfect scenario for answering a really big question. In wilder terrain foxes and coyotes are mutually exclusive, but Madison is different. “We know from the animals we’ve got on radio that the fox and the coyote are sharing the same space, and sometimes they are sharing the same space at the same time,” says Drake. “They are crossing paths.”

Are the foxes using humans and elements of our built environment to protect themselves from coyotes? Or are there simply enough resources that they don’t have to compete as strictly—more rabbits and squirrels, more compost piles and chicken coops?
The scientists are a long way from answering those questions. First they need to relocate the coyote.

Mueller parks around the corner from Mary Rice’s house in a residential pocket south of the Beltline and raises the antenna, a three-element Yagi that looks like a refugee from the old days of analog TV.

The first reading comes from the west, and from the strength of it Mueller guesses we’re a mile or more away. Crossing back over the Beltline, a little under a mile as the crow flies, and another reading: now the signal’s coming from the east. Another three-
quarters of a mile into a dead-end parking lot, and the signal is now east and south. But back over the Beltline.

In quarter-mile and half-mile increments Mueller is in and out of the van, swinging the antenna around, squawk box to his ear, taking compass readings. After a few more readings he finalizes the coyote’s location in a small wetland not far from one of the many bike paths that probe south from the city. He stayed put until 2 a.m., when Mueller called it a night.

“I can’t wait,” says Mueller, thinking ahead 12 months, when he’s got hundreds of hours of data plotted on a map and can begin to see patterns. “The underlying goal of this project is to be able to coexist with these animals more effectively, to avoid conflicts,” he says. “We don’t want to have to remove coyotes from a population because they are too habituated to people.”

As a summer job during college, Mueller used to take calls at a wildlife rehab center in Milwaukee. “A lot of times people just don’t know much about the ecology and life history of these animals, and that lack of understanding leads to fear,” he says. One call in particular stuck with him, a man worried about a turkey walking around in Milwaukee.

“He said, ‘You’ve got to take it back to nature. It’s not supposed to be here,’” Mueller remembers. But the turkey had already redefined nature—and so have coyotes and foxes and deer and raccoons and . . .

“Cities aren’t going anywhere,” says Mueller. “And the way that these animals are adapting, I think it’s only going to allow for more animals to continue this trend.”

Keep up on all the latest information from the UW Urban Canid Project at their new website,, as well as on Facebook and on Twitter: @UWCanidProject. If you have any questions, or are interested in observing or volunteering, please email:
To see more campus fox photos by E. Arti Wulandari, visit:

Protecting our Pollinators

People and bees have a long shared history. Honeybees, natives of Europe, were carried to the United States by early settlers to provide honey and wax for candles. As agriculture spread, bees became increasingly important to farmers as pollinators, inadvertently fertilizing plants by moving pollen from male to female plant parts as they collected nectar and pollen for food. Today, more than two-thirds of the world’s crop plants—including many nuts, fruits and vegetables—depend on animal pollination, with bees carrying the bulk of that load.

It’s no surprise that beekeeping has become a big business in the farm-rich Midwest. Wisconsin is one of the top honey-producing states in the country, with more than 60,000 commercial hives. The 2012 state honey crop was valued at $8.87 million, a 31 percent increase over the previous year, likely due in part to the mild winter of 2011–2012.

But other numbers are more troubling. Nationwide, honeybee populations have dropped precipitously in the past decade even as demand for pollination-dependent crops has risen. The unexplained deaths have been attributed to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious condition in which bees abandon their hives and simply disappear, leaving behind queens, broods and untouched stores of honey and pollen. Annual overwintering losses now average around 30 percent of managed colonies, hitting 31.1 percent this past winter; a decade ago losses were around 15 percent. Native bee species are more challenging to document, but there is some evidence that they are declining as well.

Despite extensive research, CCD has not been linked to any specific trigger. Parasitic mites, fungal infections and other diseases, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure and even climate change all have been implicated, but attempts to elucidate the roles of individual factors have failed to yield conclusive or satisfying answers. Even less is known about native bees and the factors that influence their health.

Poised at the interface of ecology and economy, bees highlight the complexity of human interactions with natural systems. As reports of disappearing pollinators fill the news, researchers at CALS are investigating the many factors at play—biological, environmental, social—to figure out what is happening to our bees, the impacts of our choices as farmers and consumers, and where we can go from here.

Hunting for Beginners

LAST FALL I spent an afternoon near Baraboo sitting in a tree stand across from a woman with a rifle. Perched in another crook was our hunting mentor, Karl Malcolm MS’08 PHD’11, then a CALS doctoral student in forest and wildlife ecology. Malcolm was the organizer of that weekend’s Learn to Hunt program, which was the reason I ignored my fear of heights and climbed 15 feet in the air. The woman with the rifle was Kristen Cyffka, a UW–Madison grad student in statistics with an interest in sustainable food. That day would be our chance to shoot a deer—if we saw one. The temperature was unseasonably hot, the deer scarce.

As the sun began to set, the air cooled and the golden light dimmed over the thickets and fields. In the silence, the occasional rustle took on thrilling clarity. This, whispered Malcolm, is the magic hour.

But Cyffka had woken up before 3 a.m. for an earlier hunt, and as the woods grew tranquil, the breeze gentle, I saw her head begin to droop. The rifle remained propped on the armrest of her tree stand. My first instinct was to nudge her with my foot, but then I decided to rouse her in the least startling way I could and instead whispered her name in a soothing murmur. I was learning that you rethink a lot of things when you’re out in the woods in the presence of a loaded gun.

Karl Malcolm has been an avid hunter and angler since his teens, and when he enrolled in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, he assumed he’d be among fellow hunters.

“I thought I’d meet lots of people with the same feeling I had,” says Malcolm, who is now based in New Mexico as a Presidential Management Fellow with the USDA Forest Service. But when he started talking about his love of hunting and fishing, the other students thought hunting was “barbaric and disrespectful to animals, and that it was all about bloodlust,” he says. “It didn’t at all jibe with my personal experience.” As he began to evaluate and articulate his hunting experiences for others, Malcolm found the initial seed for his interest in teaching others to hunt.

Wisconsin’s Learn to Hunt (LTH) programs have been around since 1997, inspired by the Wisconsin Student Hunter Program, which CALS forest and wildlife ecology professors Don Rusch and Scott Craven had launched in 1993 to ensure that the department’s students gained hands-on experience in hunting and understood its history and role in conservation. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) adapted that into LTH programs designed to recruit new hunters, initially focusing on turkey and pheasant before expanding into deer. The LTH program introduces novices to hunting in a controlled manner by pairing them with mentors on a one-to-one basis. After at least four hours of classroom and field instruction in topics like gun safety, ethical shooting and finding and setting up a hunting site, participants and mentors go out into the fields to experience the hunt firsthand.

Most organizers charge nothing for the course. Mentors must have at least five years’ experience hunting the chosen animal; they also may apply to serve as organizers of an LTH program. Learners must be at least 10 years old and never have received a hunting license for the species being hunted. On paper, Malcolm has organized his programs as an individual, but in practice help comes not only from the DNR but also from the CALS Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, thanks to such hunting mentors as professors Mike Samuel and Tim Van Deelen and engaged students and alumni like Steve Grodsky MS’10, Dan Storm PhD’11 and Mike Watt BS’07 MS’12.

“Other folks who are interested in putting together similar programs should know they can do it and the DNR will be there to back them up,” explains Malcolm.

Now prospective hunters have additional and quite significant support thanks to the Hunters Network of Wisconsin, a joint project between CALS, the DNR and UW–Extension that is dedicated to recruiting more hunters. The effort began with a survey of hunting and conservation organizations conducted by CALS/UW Extension life sciences communication professor Bret Shaw and research associate Beth Ryan, funded with a DNR grant. The survey, which would then inform strategic outreach to mentors and interested non-hunters, identified resources the organizations already used or would like to use more, from assistance in finding interested participants to funds to sponsor LTH events and volunteer education and training.

But perhaps even more significant was the survey’s focus on hunters’ motivations for taking part in the sport. The top reasons people named for hunting were spending time outdoors, being close to nature, using and sharing skills and knowledge, and camaraderie with friends and family. The Hunters Network hopes to use this insight to make mentoring new hunters more appealing.

There’s a compelling reason for all of this outreach. Hunting is an important part of Wisconsin’s history and culture. It also has a $1.4 billion impact on the state’s economy and supports some 26,000 jobs, according to the DNR.

Yet Wisconsin has experienced an ongoing decline in hunting in recent years. A study from February 2011 by the DNR and the UW-based Applied Population Laboratory found that the number of gun deer hunting licenses sold to the state’s residents dropped 6.5 percent, from 644,991 in 2000 to 602,791 in 2010. The report predicts that by 2030, the number of male gun deer hunters (who make up the bulk of hunters, though the number of female hunters is expected to rise) could drop to 400,000.

Following the Trail of Stress in Bears

THIS PAST SEPTEMBER, Karl Malcolm scoured the forested mountaintops of Southwestern China for evidence of Asiatic black bears, hiking with a team of Chinese naturalists and an interpreter through rugged, leech-infested terrain. Because of the noise they made, Malcolm didn’t see a single bear, but he did find plenty of the stuff he was looking for: bear poop.

“The locals are always interested to know why someone would come around the world to look for bear feces,” says Malcolm, a doctoral candidate in Tim Van Deelen’s lab in the forest and wildlife ecology department.

But the bears’ waste reveals much about their living conditions and state of mind. Asiatic black bears, also known as “moon bears” for the white crescent mark on their chests, are in decline in China, confined to small nature reserves that are surrounded by—and sometimes cut through with—human development. The bears are stressed, and they leave signs of it in their feces in the form of stress hormones, which Malcolm extracts in hopes of better understanding the landscape factors that aggravate this sensitive species.

There are plenty, to be sure. The forested reserves where the bears live in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces are located at the tops of mountains, rugged places “too steep to till,” explains Malcolm, so they were never cleared for agriculture. Though the reserves contain preferable habitat, they are ringed, like islands, by villages and crop fields that effectively separate bears from potential mates on other reserves.

At night, bears living along the edges of the reserves sometimes descend from the mountains to feast on corn and goats being raised nearby, inciting villagers to retaliate. There’s also an enormous monetary incentive to kill bears. “A single Asiatic black bear, through the sale of its gall bladder, which is a very valuable component in some traditional Chinese medicine treatments, can fetch as much as a year’s salary for a local farmer,” says Malcolm, who has been to China nine times over the past three years for this project, which is run in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute and Peking University.

By linking data about bears’ stress hormone levels to patterns of human development in and around the nature reserves where they live, Malcolm hopes to generate science-based information that the Chinese government can use to identify and protect key pieces of habitat.

“Ideally, we’ll come away with some concrete information about the landscape requirements for Asiatic black bears,” he says. “And also some lessons about how nature reserves might be managed to best impact the conservation of this and other sensitive species in China.”

The Catch

IF EVERY WRITER HAS A MUSE, then Nancy Langston’s is surely Lake Superior. An environmental historian who has written three books about people’s connection to natural places, Langston fell in love with the lake’s shimmering blue expanse while house-sitting for a colleague several summers ago. Within a month she’d begun looking for her own lakeside retreat, and soon found it in a 10- by 20-foot shed, to which she and her husband added insulation and a floor. Here she has spent every summer since, drawing inspiration from the rare beauty of her surroundings: the vast, unbroken forests, the beaches of polished stones, the serenity of her kayak slicing through the waves. And, of course, the fish—succulent, fresh-caught lake trout so alive with flavor they could be a muse all on their own. Her days often ended with a trip to the market for a few fresh fillets to cook for dinner.

But Langston doesn’t eat lake trout nearly as often anymore. Despite its divine flavor and undeniable health benefits—including a wallop of omega-3 fatty acids—she fears that her habit of eating trout three or four times a week was doing harm to her body. One concern is toxaphene, a pesticide sprayed extensively on cotton fields in the 1960s and ’70s that has found its way into Lake Superior waters. A member of the infamous “dirty dozen” organic chemicals outlawed in 2004 by the international Stockholm Convention—along with PCBs, DDT and dioxins—toxaphene has been linked to kidney and liver problems and increased risk of cancer. Still more troubling is how toxaphene levels have risen over time in large, predatory Lake Superior fish such as lake trout, even as traces of other banned chemicals have declined.

Langston, a professor with UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and CALS’ Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, had never heard of toxaphene before reading chemist Melvin Visser’s 2007 book Cold, Clear and Deadly, which chronicled the history of the pollutant in the Great Lakes. Visser’s tale put an abrupt end to her love affair with lake trout.

“Now I know enough that I mostly eat whitefish,” she says. “It’s lower on the food chain so it’s less high in contaminants. But it’s also less abundant in healthy fats. And it just doesn’t taste as good.”

In her dilemma over fish, Langston is hardly alone. Consumers are told repeatedly that fish is among the healthiest sources of protein in our diets. Eating fish twice a week can help stave off heart attacks and lower cholesterol. Doctors encourage women to eat more fish during pregnancy to prevent early delivery and foster fetal brain development. But looming over these benefits is a dark warning about toxic chemicals with the potential to cause cancer, neurological problems and reproductive dysfunction. Worse still, the dangers are rarely clear, varying greatly among fish species and location, making it tough for consumers to know how to protect themselves.

“It’s a real quandary for anybody: Can you eat the fish? Is it healthy to eat fish?” says Marty Kanarek, an environmental epidemiologist in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health who has studied contaminants in fish and their impacts on people. “You know, when you go to the grocery store, the price per unit (on foods) is marked carefully, the calories are labeled, all kinds of ingredients are labeled. But the labels don’t tell you which fish is safe and which isn’t.”

How did we reach this place, where one of our healthiest foods has grown so complicated? As is true of many contemporary questions, the answers lie in the past, Langston says. In her latest book, Toxic Bodies, she delves into a 70-year history of industrialization and environmental pollution that begins to explain why we’re facing a problem with fish. But the story is much more than that. Mostly, it’s about us—us and the unbreakable tie to the world around us, a connection that is at once obvious and easy to forget.

It was not a fish, but an endangered bird, that first drew Langston’s attention to the influence of humans in ecosystems. As a graduate student pursuing her Ph.D. in ecology, she traveled to Zimbabwe to observe bird populations in a national park, but she quickly found herself more interested in an unfolding human story. A flood of refugees from neighboring Zambia had stirred fears about poaching, leading park officials to warn that any African caught inside the park would be shot on sight. At the same time, Zimbabwe’s own agricultural lands were shifting heavily toward commodity crops such as sugarcane, creating pressure to open parklands to settlement and farming. Langston soon became convinced that the real driving factor in environmental change was human culture. Understanding and reversing environmental decline, she realized, required watching more than birds. It meant observing people.

Grow Fish

WITH MANY WILD FISH STOCKS in decline from overfishing and other threats, aquaculture—the managed cultivation of fish—has taken on a larger role in feeding the nation’s growing appetite for seafood. But are farmed fish really any freer from contamination than wild ones?

That all depends, says Jeff Malison, director of the CALS aquaculture program in the Department of Animal Sciences.

“No fish is going to be pollutant-free,” he says. “But yes, farmed fish can have much lower levels (of contaminants) than wild fish—at least they have that potential.”

Because farmed fish accumulate toxins from the environment and their food just like wild fish do, the key to producing a “clean animal” is to grow it in fresh, unpolluted water and feed it a diet free of toxic ingredients, Malison says. But farmed fish also have a fin up on their wild kin: They grow much faster, which means they have considerably less time to collect pollutants during their short lives. Pond-raised rainbow trout, for example, are usually big enough for the dinner plate by one year old, whereas wild trout of the same size might be three to four years old.

Wisconsin happens to be among the top 10 producers of farmed rainbow trout in the country. But before consumers rush out to buy farm-raised filets of other popular Midwest fish, such as yellow perch and walleye, they should know that fish farming is hardly routine. Malison points out that we raise only about six to 10 bird and mammal species for meat, but we eat around 200 species of fish, each with its own set of environmental needs and tolerances. And with the exception of a few species, most fish have yet to be bred for captivity.
“Even though it was practiced in China 4,000 to 5,000 years ago,” says Malison, “aquaculture is still relatively young as a technological industry.”

The aquaculture program has been working since the 1970s to improve two critical factors that limit the production of fish: reproduction in captivity and the costs of raising juveniles. The diminutive yellow perch is a prime example. Because it takes many perch to make a meal, farmers need to grow lots of them. “And when you need lots of them you’ve got to make sure the cost of the babies is really, really low to develop a profitable industry,” says Malison. “So we’ve been doing a lot of research on reproduction to try to reduce the cost of fingerling production.”

CALS researchers have also studied walleye, but for a very different reason. Carnivorous and aggressive, “it’s really kind of a rascal in captivity,” Malison says, noting that farmed walleye have a tendency to attack their own mates. To solve this problem, his group is now using Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection funds to breed the brutish walleye with a closely related fish, called the sauger. The result is a much more docile fish that also grows faster.

The success of these projects will surely expand the choices consumers have at the grocery store. But another goal is to expand the state’s aquaculture industry, which also encompasses bait fish and fish for stocking lakes and rivers. And as Malison notes, Wisconsin has plenty to bring to the table—water resources, farming expertise and, of course, the market. Fish fry, anyone?

Bearing South

A THOUSAND FEET ABOVE DUNN COUNTY IN WEST-CENTRAL Wisconsin, Karl Malcolm sits hunched in the cockpit of a Cessna Skymaster as it follows the curves of the Cedar River. Below, the landscape bursts with autumn color, but Malcolm isn’t paying attention. His head is down, and his eyes are shut. His hands press headphones tightly to his ears. Long minutes pass as Malcolm, a graduate student in forest and wildlife ecology, is lost in silent concentration.

Suddenly his head comes up, eyes open now, scanning the ground below. “I’ve got one. To the left,” he calls out. “Strong now. Right here.”

Immediately the horizon tips on end as pilot Paul Anderson throws the plane into a steep turn to point the left wing, bristling with antennae, straight down. The Cessna makes tight circles around a wooded hill, an island of trees among the cornfields. Somewhere in that woodlot, or the tall corn that surrounds it, a 20-month-old male black bear is finding its way through the most dangerous year of its life.

A male bear’s life starts out pretty easy, but by the second year, it’s anything but. His once-protective mother pushes him away, and if he stays in the vicinity of other bears, he’s vulnerable to attack by older, larger males. So he strikes out, looking for a piece of bear-free ground to call his own. The journey could take him hundreds of miles, during which he’s likely to encounter houses, highways, hunters and countless other dangers.

A quarter century ago, Wisconsin bears didn’t have to roam far to find their own turf. A report published in 1982 by the state’s Department of Natural Resources estimated that Wisconsin had fewer than 5,000 bears, and the authors expressed concern that numbers were declining. The state no longer had a resident bear population south of Highway 64, an east-west road that passes 20 miles north of Wausau, and many experts doubted it ever would.

Today, largely due to hunting restrictions enacted in 1986, Wisconsin has an estimated 12,500 to 14,000 bears. While most of them still reside in the upper third of the state, some 1,500 of them live south of Highway 64. Bears now thrive in Wisconsin’s central forest, an island of oak and pine covering several million acres of Clark, Dunn, Juneau and Jackson counties. And they continue to push southward. Bears have been spotted around Madison and other southern Wisconsin communities, and in 2005, a jogger ran across one in a park in Cedarburg, a 20-minute drive from downtown Milwaukee.

These aren’t just wandering males, either. Sows with cubs have been spotted in several southern counties, says Mike Foy BS’79, a DNR wildlife manager for Rock and Green Counties, which lie near the Illinois border. “We’ve had some of these animals over-winter now,” he says. “A female with cubs is an indication that we’re on the way to having a resident bear population.”

If you live around rural areas, the prospect of having bears in the neighborhood is more than just a curiosity. Some welcome the idea—real-estate ads for vacation properties often play up the chance to see bears. Others dislike the nuisance of sealing up garbage cans and taking bird feeders inside each night. But for farmers, bears can be a headache. A trampling, feeding bear can leave a cornfield looking like a crop circle. In 2006, Wisconsin farmers made claims of $121,708 for damage done by bears. That same year, 19 bears were trapped on a single farm in Sawyer County.

Bear attacks on humans are very rare—often coming years apart, which is remarkable considering the thousands of times that humans encounter bears each year. But when they happen, they can be serious. In two separate incidents in 2007, Wisconsin deer hunters went to the hospital after startling bears.

All of this weighs on the minds of DNR wildlife managers, who are enlisted to help humans coexist with the state’s wilder residents. To deal with those questions, the DNR is helping fund a research project led by Tim Van Deelen, a CALS assistant professor of forest and wildlife ecology who studies the population dynamics of large animals. Along with graduate students Karl Malcolm, Dave MacFarland and Lizzy Berkley, Van Deelen is out to understand not just where the wild things are in Wisconsin, but where they are going.

Playing Matchmaker for a Threatened Chicken

In terms of entertaining courtship rituals, few animals can hold a candle to Tympanus cupido pinnatus—the drummer of love, commonly known as the greater prairie chicken. Mating males put on a captivating display, inflating their vibrant orange throat sacs, drumming their feet and strutting about with pinnae standing up like feathery ears as they compete for the attention of hens.

Each spring, birdwatchers flock to the “booming grounds” where these birds drum, sing and fight for the chance to breed. Farmers are catching on, too: Some sell admission to spectators, who hide behind plywood blinds for hours watching the spectacular display.

But this show could have a limited run, says CALS wildlife ecologist David Drake, because the prairie chickens are in serious trouble. Once prevalent in every Wisconsin county, the quirky grassland bird has been on the state’s threatened species list since 1979. Due to fragmentation and degradation of its native habitat, its population has dwindled to an estimated 1,200 birds statewide. Now, many of those chickens live in four geographically separate state wildlife areas, preventing intermixing of populations and threatening genetic diversity.

To combat this looming genetic bottleneck, Drake, an assistant professor of forest and wildlife ecology, is working with researchers from UW-Milwaukee, UW-Stevens Point, and Wisconsin’s and Minnesota’s state natural resources divisions in an attempt to broaden the chickens’ gene pool. As part of a five-year project, the team is moving birds from Minnesota, where they are plentiful, to the Buena Vista Grasslands in Portage County, where the birds are collared and tracked using radio telemetry, allowing the researchers to monitor their breeding and nesting behaviors.

Two years into the project, 64 Minnesota hens have made Wisconsin home, and so far, Drake says the birds are adapting just fine. But he cautions that new blood alone won’t be enough to save these charismatic birds. To reverse their slide, the chickens ultimately need more habitat to establish new populations and intermingle with other birds, Drake says.

To that end, Drake and graduate student Ashley Steinke are launching a survey of farmers and private land owners to explore their willingness to convert parts of their lands to grassland. Drake says farmers can not only help create more habitat for the birds, but also can realize a new economic opportunity by cashing in on their popularity.

“They are one of the most charismatic birds you’ll ever see,” says Drake. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

No More Free Lunch

WHEN WISCONSIN CORN GROWERS switched to a safer insecticide recently, an unexpected problem descended out of the clear blue sky. Famished sandhill cranes, fresh from their spring migration, began arriving in farmers’ fields and gobbling up seed and young plants.

“They started having cranes come in and pull all the corn—maybe 30 percent of their stands. Some growers would have to replant an entire field,” says Eileen Cullen, a CALS associate professor of entomology.

Normally, cranes wouldn’t fall within the purview of an entomologist, but growers connected their woes to a change in their insect management practices. Previously, they had treated corn seed with lindane, a carcinogenic insecticide that cranes found unappetizing. When lindane was banned for corn use by the EPA in 2006, Cullen began receiving calls for help, and she decided to help “take corn off the menu”
for cranes.

At first, some growers asked Cullen to help bring back lindane, but Cullen, who specializes in integrated pest management to control insects, pursued another strategy. Working with the International Crane Foundation, the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, a private company, and state and federal agencies, she led testing of several low-toxicity bird repellents derived from plants. After some lab work and field trials, she sought and gained approval for a biopesticide that can be safely applied to corn seeds.

Cullen says some farmers are hesitant about the added costs of the treatment and would prefer a crop-loss compensation program. But the seed coating provides at least one tool for farmers to keep their corn profits from going to the birds.

The Diet Secrets of a Shy Monkey

TO MANY CHINESE ENVIRONMENTALIST, the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey is the poster child of the country’s emerging commitment to conservation. But the endangered animal, which lives in the high elevations of southwestern China, isn’t one for the limelight. Skittish and nomadic, it’s rarely seen in the wild by humans, and even scientists know little about where and how it lives.

This summer, UW-Madison graduate student Heidi Bissell is headed to Yunnan province to change that. But she’s not hunting monkeys. She’s after their food.

“People have done behavioral observations of these monkeys to measure what they’re eating,” says Bissell, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in zoology. But it’s an imperfect science because the monkeys live in steep terrain and avoid run-ins with people, making close observation difficult. Bissell’s alternative is to examine the monkeys’ feeding grounds, collecting bits of plants and feces to create a more precise model of their diet.

“It’s a lot easier to find feces than it is to catch a sight of one of these animals,” she says.

Collecting monkey droppings may not sound glamorous, but the setting most certainly is. The section of Yunnan occupied by the monkeys—a rugged stretch of mountains sliced by the Salween, Mekong and Yangtze rivers—is one of the most biologically diverse temperate regions on Earth. China established its first national park in the area, which was listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 2003.

The region has also been a locus for scientific collaboration. In 2006, UW-Madison secured a grant through the National Science Foundation to fund U.S. graduate students working on conservation and sustainable development in Yunnan. Since then, more than a dozen UW students have conducted research in areas ranging from plant diversity to agricultural practices, usually in collaboration with Chinese scholars.

“Our hope is that these students will be part of a new generation of scientists that can do interdisciplinary work really well,” says wildlife ecology professor Bill Karasov, Bissell’s advisor and one of the architects of the China collaboration. “From a conservation standpoint, they are also producing knowledge about the key features of this area that can contribute to protecting its biological treasures.”

Bissell’s research, for example, may help refine conservationists’ understanding of the kinds of habitat needed to protect snub-nosed monkeys, whose total population is estimated below 2,000. She hopes to develop a “nutrition map” of the region to identify the most suitable places for the monkeys to live.

“Right now, they’re living in some pretty harsh habitat,” she says. “I want to figure out whether they’ve been pushed there and that’s the limit of where they can go, or whether they’re fine and they can find everything they need.”

Rock the Boat

As a singer/songwriter, CALS graduate student James Spartz evokes a little bit of Johnny Cash with his twangy, rockabilly style. But while Cash crooned about loves lost and found, Spartz has a trickier muse: viral hemmorhagic septicemia.

Sure, it may make for a tough rhyme, but the fish disease known as VHS is of vital interest to Wisconsin boaters. And that’s why Spartz sings about it in “Clean Boats, Clean Waters,” one of three songs released by UW-Extension and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to raise awareness about the spread of diseases and invasive species in state lakes. Directed at boaters and anglers as they head out for summer water activities, the songs wrap reminders about spraying off boats and disposing of leftover bait around folk and rock-and-roll riffs—a creative experiment inspired by Bret Shaw, an assistant professor of life sciences communication.

“Research shows music can influence how we respond to messages, affecting memory, emotion, attitudes and even behavior,” says Shaw, who recruited Spartz and two other local songwriters to record the tunes. “These songs were created to encourage behaviors that will protect the quality of our lakes and rivers for future generations.”

Several Wisconsin radio stations are playing the songs, which are available at Now the test will be to see whether boaters join in the chorus.

To Kill a Wolf

EVEN BEFORE WE SEE THE WOLF, we smell it-a powerful, feral odor like wet dog and wild places. The scent is stronger than usual, muskier. It’s also a little off.

A wolf’s sensitive nose would quickly identify that taint of blood and death, but wolves don’t generally arrive at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Science Operations Center in working order. This one lies lifeless on its left side atop a stainless steel table, nose toward a blue surgical cart stacked with supplies for cutting and sampling. It is one of five wolves believed to have been shot around the 2008 gun deer season-a federal offense, given that at the time the gray wolf was listed as an endangered species.

Not only do they not require wilderness, they will live absolutely everywhere.

Veterinary specialist Julie Langenberg begins her forensic investigation with probing fingers, working the animal thoroughly from tooth to tail. The eyes and tongue are deformed from the animal’s stint in a DNR evidence freezer, but apart from this and the red gash on its belly, the wolf looks healthy. Long legs below powerful haunches. Thick, mottled coat. Supple, alert ears, one scarred from an old tussle.

It’s clear the wolf has been shot, but due diligence is Langenberg’s job. She turns the wolf over to reveal another, smaller wound near the muscular front left shoulder. This is probably where the bullet entered, and the incision begins here. A cut down the leg reveals an angry stain of internal bleeding.

Langenberg’s scalpel follows the line of fire through bone, tendon and muscle, finally revealing a deep pool of blood within the chest cavity. Her fingers strain the viscera until she finds what remains of the heart. The left chambers are intact, but the right side has been shredded by the bullet. Death came quickly-the wolf would have staggered only a few steps before lying down and bleeding out.

It was a perfect shot, leaving little doubt it was fired with deliberate and lethal intent. Whether the shooter knew he was taking down a wolf is the question. People often mistake wolves for other animals, especially in places where they’re not expecting them. And 20 years ago, nobody expected this many wolves in Wisconsin.

As Langenberg works, Adrian Treves watches with careful attention. An assistant professor of environmental studies at UW-Madison, Treves is co-investigator of the Living With Wolves project, a research effort to understand wolves and the controversies that surround them. Treves spends a lot of time trying to figure out why and where wolves kill calves and hunting dogs, but he also studies people and their attitudes toward wolves-why, for example, someone would take the legal risk of shooting one. Whoever shot this wolf faces a $2,000 fine and a three-year loss of hunting privileges. Yet of the hunters he and his colleagues have surveyed, 10 percent say they would take the shot if they saw a wolf while hunting.

That sentiment was ratified last spring when the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, an advisory board to the DNR, voted 4,848 to 772 in favor of hunting gray wolves in Wisconsin. Although many steps would have to be taken before the state would approve a wolf hunt-and animal-welfare and conservation groups are already considering their responses-the vote is one of several signs that wolves are losing the protected status they have enjoyed for the past quarter century. The wolf was removed from the federal endangered species list once already in March 2007, and it may be de-listed again soon. Depending on who you ask it is a sign of their remarkable recovery or the beginning of their doom.

For Treves and the handful of other scientists who research wolves, these shifting attitudes raise a host of new questions: Can Wisconsin’s wolf population withstand a hunt? Would a hunt actually help protect it? And how do we even discuss the option, given the heated opinions surrounding the topic? How Wisconsin deals with these issues-and the decisions that flow from that discussion-could profoundly rewrite one of the greatest environmental comeback stories of all time.