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Fires, wolves, and service: DNR celebrates century of flight Submitted: 08/14/2015
ABOVE THE NORTHWOODS - "We found him," David Lemke proclaimed early on Wednesday morning while flying a Cessna plane thousands of feet over the Northwoods.

From the air, Lemke, a Wisconsin DNR pilot, just found a wolf wearing a radio collar.

"We locate them with a transmitter receiver that's in the airplane," Lemke explained.

The tree cover keeps Lemke from seeing the wolves with his eyes, but his instruments can sense them. The location data he records helps DNR researchers and scientists learn about the wolf population.


"So they have an idea where [the wolves are] ranging," Lemke said.

Lemke's time in the air these days includes plenty of wildlife surveys.

But exactly 100 years ago, in 1915, a young maverick started the DNR's flight program with a different goal in mind.

"This was a rich kid from Chicago," laughed Beverly Paulan, another DNR pilot.

Just 12 years after the Wright Brothers' first flight, Jack Vilas wanted to fly in the Northwoods.

"He was basically somebody who didn't really have to work too hard," Paulan said. "He was a thrill-seeker. He was a boat racer and a race car driver and got it in his head one day that he wanted to learn how to fly airplanes."

The state Forestry Commission, a precursor to the DNR, let him fly above northern Wisconsin, looking for wildfires, something that had never been done before.

"He saved a lot of the Northwoods from burning that summer," Paulan said.

Soon enough, the practice became commonplace.

"What Jack Vilas basically did as kind of a lark took off, and by the 1920s, it was used in several nations around the world," Paulan said. "We're still doing it today, still using airplanes to look for smoke."

Lemke and pilots like him now spend most of the spring fire season above the Northwoods on fire-monitoring flights. As the year progresses, and fire danger goes down, the pilots' duties change. Lemke and the eight other full-time DNR pilots then spend more time tracking wolves and other wildlife.

Paulan says the anniversary brings with it some welcome attention from the public. "People are finally realizing, 'Oh my gosh, we do have pilots with the DNR,'" Paulan said.

Lemke's weekly wolf flight took him from Rhinelander to the Lake Superior shores, touching the Land O'Lakes area on the way back. He successfully located all but one wolf on his ledger, completing another successful flight in the hundredth year of the DNR in the air.


Story By: Ben Meyer

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