“Wolf Island” and Local Pups

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

excerpts from “Wolf Island,” by L David Mech, University of Minnesota Press, 2020

We knew that wolves survived largely by eating large hoofed mammals. We knew they traveled in packs. We knew they once inhabited nearly all of North America but that in the last half century had been exterminated from the Lower 48, except for a few hundred in the wilderness of northern Minnesota, perhaps a scattered few in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and a handful on Isle Royale in the midst of Lake Superior. Otherwise, we didn’t know much about wolves. … It was just too hard to count them or to actually catch them in the act of hunting. They traveled too fast and far for humans on foot to stand a chance of keeping up. … Radio collars and telemetry were still a pipe dream. I was here to add something new to the scientific knowledge of the wolf.

Beginning in 1958, we plotted out a multi-year project to better understand how wolves hunted, what they ate, how their numbers tracked with the abundance of their primary prey, and how successfully they killed. (If one believed their critics, and even many biologists, wolf packs were killing machines that could catch their prey at will.)

This is the story of the first three years of that study — the time I spent on the island, hiking hundreds of miles on trails in summer, flying hundreds of hours over the island in winter, learning all I could about the habits of wolves and the island’s only significant wolf prey, the majestic moose.

By the time I left, we had set in motion a research program that continues today. The Isle Royale study has been the longest continuous predator-prey study in all of science. And it has been one of the most successful. The Isle Royale fieldwork has upended our understanding of the ‘balance of nature’ and cast serious doubts on our ability to predict the contingencies that drive wildlife population dynamics.

Continued full protection for flourishing wolf populations creates a problem. Because when wolves proliferate where they conflict with people, they will be killed — legally or not.

As we developed the recovery plan for Great Lakes wolves, we recognized that the rural residents who actually live close to wolves have a limited appetite for the animals. So we recommended that states such as Minnesota be zoned to allow lethal control of wolves in areas where conflict with humans was inevitable. We also envisioned that once recovery goals had been met, the wolf would be delisted.

As wolf populations in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes continue to increase far above recovery goals, animosity grows among many rural residents, especially ranchers, farmers, hungers, and hunting guides, who feel wolves are in direct conflict with them. These folks support lethal wolf control in far greater numbers than people who don’t live in wolf country. It leads to poaching and similar lawlessness, and increases hostility toward the Endangered Species Act.

When wolves are delisted, management will be returned to the states. The states have management plans that would protect a sustainable number of wolves while dealing with problem animals or an overabundance through regulated taking by professional wildlife agents, sport hunters, or landowners.

The wolf is neither a saint nor a sinner except to those who want to make it so.

Axel & Grayson, 2016, International Wolf Center, Ely. Photography by Heidi Pinkerton, rootriverphotography.com

Related News

Wolf Pups Are Coming

The International Wolf Center in Ely is expecting pups, perhaps arriving in May from the Wildlife Science Center in Stacy, Minnesota. If all goes according to plan, including pandemic-related precautions, the pups will become visible to the public the first weekend in June, when a pup naming contest will begin. Advance tickets are required to visit the Center. Details here.

Endangerment Status

Gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes area were removed on January 4, 2021, from the Federal Endangered Species List. Biologists in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are now switching gears from recovering a species to managing the predator. Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity are seeking to overturn the rule, which was determined by the United States Fish & Wildlife on November 3, 2020.

Wildlife Center Support

The Wildlife Science Center (WSF) participates in the species survival plan for the red wolf and for the Mexican gray wolf. Both were reduced to near extinction before governmental and private efforts to restore them began. Conservation trapping efforts in the 1970’s located only 14 reproductively viable red wolves and 7 Mexican gray wolves, which formed the base for all future endeavors to keep extinction at bay. Their survival since 1980 relied on captive facilities.

  • To support WSF, you can order spring flower bulbs, which will be shipped to your home. Online orders end May 1. Find the catalog of options here.
  • A Canine Carnival will be held at the WSF on May 22, 11am-4pm. Find details here.
  • To follow a variety of animals live, visit Explore.org
  • To follow the wolves at the International Wolf Center,visit Wolf.org