The Long View
Thus 46 years ago, when I was outdoor editor for a small Michigan newspaper, I sat in the front row at the Rock Harbor auditorium with pen at the ready as biologist Dave Mech—the first Purdue graduate student chosen for the Isle Royale project—set up a Kodak Carousel projector. The tray was filled with dramatic slides of wolves on the hunt in the dead of winter, shot by the often airsick researcher with a simple Argus C3 camera from a low-flying, ski-equipped Piper Cub; scenes of snow-drifted moose carcasses and skeletons picked clean by foxes and ravens; and close-ups of the skulls of aged moose showing extensive tooth wear. His audience that evening was sparse. The resort was about to close for the season and Mech had already given his talk several times. Still, his enthusiasm was palpable as he explained how the wolf packs culled old and infirm moose in winter and calves in summer, keeping the herd from overbrowsing the forest. The big carnivores, he emphasized, paid no attention to the circling aircraft, and he could watch them pursue prey and make kills without influencing the outcome. Nor were they belligerent when Mech snowshoed to a fresh kill. The pack simply ran off, returning to the feast a day or two later.
Mech went on to considerable fame, studying wolves and their prey in Minnesota, Alaska, and Arctic Canada, and founding the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. In time the Isle Royale work would provide a baseline for virtually all wolf–moose research in the world, especially in Scandinavia, where Canis lupus is staging a comeback. It was also a template for the long-term wolf study in Yellowstone National Park, where the much-needed predators were reintroduced in 1995. In the meantime, we have truly seen a sea change in most Americans’ attitude toward wolves, from loathing to love. Today there are large wolf populations in Wisconsin and northern Michigan as well as in Minnesota—so many that the eastern gray wolf, one of the first animals on the federal endangered species register, was recently delisted.
Alas, the Isle Royale ecosystem turned out to be less isolated from outside influences than Allen believed. The dynamic balance between wolves and moose has been shattered twice during the study’s 50 years. First by the introduction of a deadly canine disease, and now by global warming, which threatens the survival on the island of these two ecologically entwined animals.
Isle Royale National Park is actually an archipelago of some 100 named satellite islands, islets, and rocks encircling the rugged 45-mile-long, 9-mile-wide main island. Its spine is Greenstone Ridge, which runs for more than 40 miles and tops out at 1,394 feet. There are several large lakes gouged out by the last ice sheet and a 20-square-mile lowland swamp. Fast-flowing streams are few, but bogs and their carnivorous plants abound. Indeed, the island’s botanical life is incredibly rich. Hike Greenstone Trail and you’ll pass through a variety of forest habitats from spruce-fir to sugar maple with a rich variety of North Country wildflowers. My favorite: bunchberry, with its radiant white flowers in spring and clusters of scarlet fruit in late summer. Moose treats. Moreover, you’ll have great views of lower ridges, coves, harbors, and bays, and especially the lake, which Longfellow called the Shining Big-Sea Water. Plus, you’ll probably be alone. With so few people on the island at any one time, you’re as likely to bump into Bullwinkle as another hiker. I have. Nose to nose, on a blind jog in a trail.
There are no roads on Isle Royale—99 percent of the island is dedicated federal wilderness—and Park Service personnel travel around by boat. Big, fast boats bought with Homeland Security dollars and used by heavily armed rangers who check state fishing licenses while looking for terrorists from Canada. Or open outboards like the one Rolf Peterson ties down today at the Rock Harbor dock. He and his wife, Candy, who is also his research assistant, are clad in bright-yellow fishermen’s slickers and broad-brimmed rain hats. They’ve navigated the eight choppy, foggy miles from the wolf research camp with the aid of a handheld GPS unit because Rolf, who has led the wolf–moose study since the 1970s, is tonight’s star attraction.
During the first 12 years of Durward Allen’s dream project, Purdue graduate students (some of whom worked mainly on Isle Royale’s smaller mammals such as beavers, foxes, red squirrels, and snowshoe hares) completed their doctoral work and moved on. Rolf, who retired in 2006 as professor of wildlife ecology at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, came aboard in 1970 to refocus the study on its original subjects and stayed, with Allen turning the project (and the constant scramble for funding) over to him in 1975.