Every winter for the past 57 years, researchers have visited Isle Royale National Park – a remote island in Lake Superior – to study its wolf and moose populations. From a high of 50 wolves in 1980, the pack has dwindled from disease, inbreeding and accidents to a low of nine last year. This dwindling has caused much discussion among the scientists, park service, wildlife-lovers, and news media about what to do – should the wolves be saved or allowed to die out? In the meantime, the moose population (upon which the wolves prey) has increased to over a thousand animals, although it’s nowhere near its highest point.
I worked on Isle Royale as a waitress at the Rock Harbor Lodge in the mid-1980s when wolf numbers plummeted, and was privy to the arguments and discussions about the wolves back then. I paid attention because I am fascinated by wolves and I was minoring in biology in college at the time. The situation literally sparked a novel idea in me: what if the wolves knew they were in trouble and decided to do something to help themselves? To heck with management by the scientists. To heck with the park service. What would the wolves do?
I let the question ping around in my brain for a few years and I took some novel writing classes. Then, for 17 years as the wolf population slowly rebounded, I worked on writing the story and finding a publisher. I combined the real issue of the wolf population decline with Native American myths and a little steamy romance between the human and wolf characters.
My first novel, Eye of the Wolf, was published in 2011, just in time for the wolf population to take another dip and all the old arguments to return. Suddenly, I became a local wolf expert, giving talks on the issue and my book to local conservation groups and the news media. As the population rose slightly again, the issue died down. But the park service recognized they needed to develop a policy about the wolves. They held open houses to gather public input on what should be done.
I attended one of the open houses and provided my input, which was that the park service should let the wolf story play out on its own without interference. That’s what makes national parks special – they’re places where people don’t have their fingers into everything, messing it all up. I am a wolf-lover, but I feel like the wolves might have something to teach us in this situation, even if they die out. If they die out, then perhaps new wolves could be brought in, but I prefer a hands-off approach to this situation.
After all that effort, the park service announced a plan to develop a plan. (Don’t you just love the bureaucracy of that?!) They intended to convene a panel of experts to discuss the issue and to recommend the best course of long-term action. That hasn’t come to pass yet.
Well, guess what? The Isle Royale researchers just came back from their latest winter trip, and report that the wolves number only three now. They found two adults and a yearling. They are not sure if the adults are the pup’s parents, or even if they are different genders, but they are pretty sure the other is a young wolf.
Unfortunately, this new wolf is not a cause for rejoicing. It has problems – it’s small, with an arched back, pinched waist, and a hunched tail. Researchers don’t expect it to live much longer, and they despair that the chance for a genetic rescue of the wolves (introducing new wolves that can interbreed with the island population) is past. If this pup dies and the other wolves are a mated pair, there’s little chance for breeding with new wolves. With the lack of predation, the moose population has increased to 1,250, which is stressful for the moose (lack of food) and the island’s plants (because the moose eat the heck out of everything).
All this begs the question: what happened to the six wolves that have disappeared since last winter? The researchers know that one died. It had a radio collar on it, which started emitting a mortality signal. Did the five others die, did the researchers just not see them, or did they escape somehow? The researchers will learn more about whether they didn’t see the wolves by examining the DNA in the fresh wolf scat they collected this winter.
There is a good chance the five wolves escaped the island across an ice bridge to the mainland in Minnesota, which is 14 miles away. An ice bridge was in place for 20 days last winter, which would allow plenty of time. However, life is not easy for wolves on the mainland. One wolf did escape across the ice in 2014. Unfortunately she was killed by some #$%&@! person brandishing a BB gun who shot her in just the wrong place.
Then there’s the more literary possibility that the wolves knew they were in trouble and tried to get humans to help them escape. In my novel, a wolf pack tries to escape the island on a tour boat with the help of a boat pilot and his girlfriend. There were five wolves left in this pack. Hmmm. There are five wolves missing on the island now. Coincidence? You decide! (Smile.)
True to my novel, I hope the five missing wolves saved themselves instead of waiting for the park service or the researchers to do something. Let’s hope they genetically rescued themselves by escaping to Minnesota or Canada, and that they are happily romping with their new friends (if they haven’t been torn apart by them!)
The novelist in me also suspects the three remaining wolves are a family, and that the two adults stayed on the island because they knew their pup could not survive the journey across the ice. If their pup dies this summer, maybe the adults will have a chance to save themselves next winter unless it’s too warm for an ice bridge.
In any event, the Isle Royale wolf situation is a quiet long-term drama that’s been playing out for years. What we, as humans, decide to do about it will tell a lot about our relationship with nature and how we think about wolves.