Wolf Biologist Sarah Hoy

“Steady Gaze,” Boltz, International Wolf Center in Ely
photography by Heidi Pinkerton, rootriverphotography.com

I am a wildlife researcher studying predator-prey interactions. I am primarily doing research to better understand the ecology and behavior of wolves and their main prey — moose — and how wolf-moose interactions can influence the forest  ecosystems. I mainly study wolves in the Isle Royale National Park, but I have also done research comparing the wolf-moose system with the wolf-elk system in Yellowstone National Park.

It is a real privilege for me to study wolves, especially in such a beautiful place as Isle Royale National Park (an island about 20 miles off the shores of northern Minnesota on Lake Superior). In the dense forests, it is difficult to see wolves. You often see wolf-tracks and scat, or hear howls, but it is very rare for people to see wolves. However, in the winter, from a small airplane, you can see something that few people get to witness. 

You might see wolves sleeping and resting in the sunshine on top of a small hill or along the side of a frozen lake. You might see them following the trail of moose or another wolf, or find them gnawing on the bones of a moose they have killed. If you are really lucky you might see courtship or pair-bonding behavior, or see a playful pup interacting with its mother.  You also see other amazing wildlife — foxes, otters, snowy owls, eagles.

Working in the winter seasons as I do is very cold, but everyone is prepared for the conditions. It can be hard being away from friends and family and beloved pets, but you also get to work with amazing people with extraordinary skills and knowledge. There are pros and cons to every job, but for me the excitement of what you might see during the aerial surveys and what you might learn from the valuable data you collect makes it more than worthwhile. 

Over the last few decades we have observed important, but indirect effects of wolves on the forest vegetation. Specifically, when the island’s wolf population became highly inbred and reduced to just two wolves, the moose population increased rapidly and we observed a dramatic increase in the impact of moose on the growth of balsam fir saplings. Moose had eaten virtually all of the new branches grown in some parts of the forest and prevented these saplings from growing into mature canopy trees. 
There is also emerging evidence to suggest that wolves can have important impacts on aquatic ecosystems. 

Sometimes scientists are gaining a deeper and richer understanding of how resilient and interconnected each plant and animal species is to one another, and how the effect or behavior of one species is often counterbalanced by another. 

I firmly believe that it is very important to maintain or restore healthy predator populations. 

Wolves learn how to work together with others to make sure they get enough food for themselves, their partner, and family. They put themselves at risk to do so — there is a risk of being kicked in the head by a 900-pound moose or thrown against a tree. They will fiercely defend their homes and family. 

Their lives are spent on long walks through the forest, or along the shores of rivers and lakes, gorging on a big meal when they get the chance, sleeping and resting, socializing with their family, and raising their offspring. 

Perhaps wolves and humans are not so different.

Profile: Sarah Hoy

Hoy grew up in a small farming village near the steel town of Scunthorpe in northern England. 

“During my PhD I studied how the recovery of a predator of forest ecosystems in the United Kingdom (northern goshawks) had affected its prey population. When I applied to study wolves in the U.S., the research questions I wanted to pursue were similar.”

Hoy had studied frogs in Ecuador and Costa Rica, giant venomous shrews in the Dominican Republic, and birds of prey in England.

Hoy is usually one of six biologists on the island for about seven weeks. They live in a small cabin with a wood burning stove for heat. Every day, someone has to trudge out to the lake and get water through a hole in the ice. 

“Isle Royale has taught me that if you really want close encounters with wildlife, the best way is to just sit very quietly and still and you’ll be surprised at all the amazing things that go on while you’re just sitting and watching,” she says. “It’s a real privilege to be on the island in the wintertime and to get a glimpse into the lives of these wolves as they settle into their home.”

Details: See full profile from International Wolf Center

Next week: What has field work done for understanding
of the impact of wolves on local ecosystems?