The Island Wolves

Photograph by Phil Seu.

IN THE BONE GARDEN, moose antlers sprout like pale stalks of mutant corn. Skulls, lined up one behind the other, bear tags that sketch moose lives: “2 yrs. old starved, winter ’96” and “Died 1989. Wolves dug through 2 ft. of snow to feed on it in 1990.” The curious visitor to this small plot on Lake Superior’s Moskey Basin in Isle Royale National Park can also marvel at thematic displays: worn skulls by a sign declaring “The Odd Fellows corner—old bulls no longer reproducing, antlers in decline” and shelves of the skulls and antlers of dead young males labeled “Darwin Award Winners.”

No wolf bones lie here—they have been sent to a lab at Michigan Technological University with thousands of moose metatarsals—but the Bone Garden’s skulls and antlers are a library of wolf sagas written in gnawed jawbone. Isle Royale, an isolated wilderness of boreal forest and sheltered swamp surrounded by a rocky shoreline and dotted with plentiful loons, is the site of the longest-running study of predator-prey dynamics in history, spanning almost six decades. To ecologists, these bones tell some of the most famous animal stories in the world, framing ideas about what it means to eat and be eaten, and how the battle to survive shapes the land.

But now, it appears the stories have been misinterpreted.

“I was dead wrong,” says Rolf Peterson, who has been studying wolves and moose on Isle Royale since 1970. Peterson, dressed in a plaid shirt and down jacket patched with duct tape, gray beard still streaked with a hint of red, gives me the garden tour, pointing out two skulls locked together in what must have been a battle to the death. His speech is slow and thoughtful, marked by a rueful chuckle.

For years, Isle Royale National Park has been considered the perfect natural lab: a closed system with one dominant predator, the wolf, relying heavily on one kind of prey, the moose. A forty-five-mile-long island in one of the world’s largest lakes, Isle Royale is defined by solitude. Miles from the mainland, in the summer, the park can only be reached by seaplane, private boat, or a half-day ferry ride from either Michigan or Minnesota; in winter, the park is closed, abandoned to deep snows and wildlife. Though few in numbers, the wolves marooned in the park thrived for years, seemingly free of the deformities and stillbirths that plague populations where close relatives breed. Recording wolf and moose numbers and documenting hunting and fleeing, biologists charted two species intimately intertwined. But recent revelations resulting from DNA tests took everyone by surprise.

“You think if you watch a place for a long time, you’ll have a deeper understanding,” says John Vucetich, lead scientist of the wolf-moose study. But the new information upended expectations. “It’s not as though it was an accumulation of knowledge; it was a full-scale reversal of what we know.”


FOR CENTURIES on Isle Royale, there were no wolves, just caribou sheltering in the balsam fir and lynx chasing snowshoe hares over the stone outcroppings, until hunters and trappers cleared them out. Moose arrived on the island by the early 1900s, probably by swimming, and lived there for about fifty years without any predators. Then the wolf rumors started, spurred by possible signs: an outsized paw print on a beaver dam. Scat laced with moose hair.

In the early 1950s, Lee Smits, a newspaper man and conservationist, saw Isle Royale as the perfect spot for a wolf refuge, a place the predator could be safe from the poison, guns, and traps that killed off most of its kind in the Lower 48. There were no ranchers to anger or sheep to harass. Maybe wolves would find their way to the island themselves. Maybe they already had, Smits thought. But he wanted to be sure. He asked trappers on Michigan’s mainland to keep an eye out for pups that could be introduced to Isle Royale to start a pack. When they didn’t find any, he turned to the Detroit Zoo.

Lady, Queenie, Adolph—the chosen wolves had names. The fourth was Big Jim, a bulky male descended from Saskatchewan stock and bottle raised by Smits and his wife. Big Jim learned to retrieve ducks by playing with their water spaniel. Not surprisingly, when brought to the island in August 1952, the zoo wolves didn’t know how to behave. Instead of chasing down moose, they chewed up fishing nets, raided laundry lines, and hung out near the Rock Harbor Lodge. As a New York Times headline summed it up, “The Wild Calls in Vain to Four Urbane Wolves.”

Rangers hauled them to a more desolate spot, but they came back to the lodge, startling tourists. By then, the rangers had had enough. They shot Adolph. And then Queenie. They captured Lady and took her back to the zoo. Big Jim escaped. He turned up here and there over the years. In 1957, a park service biologist reported a wolf trailing him like a wary dog. But no one much cared, because before long there was solid evidence of other wolves, too, wild ones. A year later, Durward Allen, a professor at Purdue University, and his graduate student L. David Mech launched a study of these wolves, the moose, and their entanglement.

The scientists’ conclusions quickly found their way into textbooks about predators and prey. Pick one up, even today, and you will likely find pictures from Isle Royale: wolves like black bullets tearing through snow, biting at the heels of a calf stumbling in the deep drifts. The spray of blood and exposed spine on a creek bank. A whole pack, photographed from above, spreading out over the frozen lake, scribbles of tracks and shadow, like graphs on white paper.

In these textbooks you will also find actual graphs—all this behavior abstracted, slobbering tongues and flicking whiskers and clumps of hair smoothed away—because they illustrate the lesson so neatly. Allen and Mech’s research fit perfectly into the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey model. Developed in the 1920s, the model is a set of differential equations that show the predictable way the fates of species are tied together. As the prey population grows, the predators, finding more food, also flourish. As young are eaten and adults harried, the prey population falls. The predator population then also falls, as their food grows scarce. The equations produce graceful waves, one trailing the other—a field mouse leaping, a fox leaping after.

In his book Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson described Isle Royale and these early studies as “a simple and instructive example of the balance between predator and prey.” He highlighted the benefits of this balance for the prey, often pitied as victims:

The moose, by unwillingly supplying the wolves with one of their members about every three days, have stabilized their own population. . . . As a curious side effect, the moose herd is kept in good physical condition, since the wolves catch mostly the very young, the old, and the sickly individuals. And, finally, because the moose population is not permitted to increase to excessive levels, the vegetation on which they feed remains in healthy condition.

In Wilson’s description, the orderly cycles gestured at an irresistible, uplifting tale. The Isle Royale study has the same appeal as a Jack London novel—harsh beauty, high drama, and, importantly, an explanation for the violence of the natural world.


AS A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT in Minneapolis, Rolf Peterson read about Durward Allen’s work in the Star Tribune and plastered newspaper photos of Isle Royale foxes on his wall. A 1963 National Geographic article, “Wolves Versus Moose on Isle Royale,” further whet his appetite. It showed a golden-eyed wolf staring down the research plane used for winter counts and a pack swarming at a faltering cow moose. It described wolves howling, a sound few in the continental United States had ever heard. As a college senior in 1969, Peterson wrote to Allen at Purdue and asked to be part of the study. Allen said yes.

Peterson tells me this story at the kitchen table of the weathered Bangsund log cabin that, for decades, has served as the base of operations for the Isle Royale study. The cabin has bright red trim and a sign on the door that reads, This is old glass. Please do not let the door SLAM in the wind. Inside is a small wood stove. Island maps cover the wall, the table, and the low, sloping ceiling. The decor consists of a howling wolf in stained glass, a hanging moose skull, and beaver skulls on the windowsill. The overall aesthetic is that of a field-research station crossed with Little House in the Big Woods. At night the cabin glows with the light of solar-powered paper lanterns.

Peterson traces wolf-pack movements on the map on the table, takes out the 1963 National Geographic, and reads lines near the end of the article about the island: “Our studies thus far indicate that the moose and wolf populations on Isle Royale have struck a reasonably good balance.” The wolf numbers had remained stable, at around twenty or so, and the moose numbers, as best as they could count them, seemed to be holding steady, too. “The notion of balance was firmly ingrained in everything,” Peterson says. When Peterson joined the study, it had already been running for twelve years, and the chief ranger said to him, “You’re in the twelfth year of a ten-year study. What are you going to do?”

But Allen told Peterson, “Just watch, something will happen.” And it did.

During Peterson’s first summer season, everything began to break loose. After a series of harsh winters, wolf numbers soared, going up to fifty in five packs at one point. Behavior changed, with wolves chasing moose off cliffs and eating just the organ meat before killing again. Moose numbers plummeted, then wolf numbers plummeted. Then wolf numbers rose again. What was causing such dramatic shifts?

As the scientists plotted the data, tidy Lotka-Volterra waves vanished, replaced by something else. “It’s like a big historical novel. Every five-year period looks completely unlike any of the previous five-year periods, and the dynamics are driven by external events that we cannot imagine, let alone predict,” Peterson says.


THOUGH THE BIOLOGISTS flew over in helicopters, recording all they could see, unseen forces governed the island. In 1997, one of the coldest winters of the century, the lake froze. Blizzards battered the Lake Superior shore, and a hulking wolf, who would grow silver as he aged, struck out from Ontario in the direction of Isle Royale.

He found an island reeling. In 1981, an infected dog from Chicago, brought in illegally on a private boat, had carried canine parvovirus to the island. No pups survived that year and the wolves had not entirely bounced back. Two years before the lone wolf’s arrival, the moose, up to almost twenty-five hundred head, had chewed balsam fir to nubs and starved, crashing down to about five hundred individuals. Wolves suffered as a result: old ones died, pups died, and those who scraped through did so on empty stomachs. Hungry survivors gnawed the hide of a moose that had been dead for a full year.

Unconcerned by the bleak conditions, the newcomer took over. With him at the head, the Middle Pack, one of three packs on the island at the time, aggressively expanded beyond its moose-poor territory, claiming richer areas such as Chippewa Harbor. The new wolf raised six pups in 1998 and three the next year. The island’s wolf population surged. Noting a clear new pack leader with increasingly pale fur, and not knowing he came from the mainland—not knowing any wolves still came over from the mainland—the biologists dubbed him Old Gray Guy.


THE IDEA of a balance in nature is at least as old as Herodotus, the Greek historian, who tried to understand why prey animals weren’t entirely consumed. Investigating, he gathered reports from the Middle East: “Of a truth, Divine Providence does appear to be, as indeed one might expect beforehand, a wise contriver. For timid animals which are a prey to others are all made to produce young abundantly, that so the species may not be entirely eaten up and lost; while savage and noxious creatures are made very unfruitful.” For many years, this sense of balance was the hinge between religion and biology. William Derham wrote in his 1713 book Physicotheology, or, a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, from His Works of Creation that divine management can be seen in the “Adjustment of the Quantity of Food to the Number of Devourers, so that there is not too much, so as to rot, and annoy the World.” Though underneath the cheerful accounting lay the niggling question: Why was this violent, unending cycle part of the divine plan?

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some writers came up with an answer: it wasn’t. Plains were empty of bison, woods had only a few deer. Conservationists predicted that predators would do what Herodotus thought they couldn’t: eat prey into extinction. Teddy Roosevelt, in his 1893 book The Wilderness Hunter, wrote, “The wolf is the arch type of ravin, the beast of waste and desolation.” Ravin connotes robbery, greed, and plunder. William T. Hornaday, in Our Vanishing Wildlife, constantly referred to wolves as cruel, and said insatiable human hunters have “the gray-wolf quality of mercy”—by which he meant none. This language fed the vicious predator-extermination campaigns.

Against this wave of righteousness, author Ernest Thompson Seton built a seawall of romance. In his most famous story, “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” the noble outlaw Lobo, who is the leader of a wolf pack, is done in by his love for the beautiful but ditzy Blanca. The narrator, a wolf hunter, who traps Lobo at last, finds himself moved to mercy: “Yet before the light had died from his fierce eyes, I cried, ‘Stay, we will not kill him; let us take him alive to the camp.’” Lobo dies anyway.

Seton’s books are the definition of charm. Ink sketches adorn the margins: a nest at the top of a tree that runs the whole length of the page, musical notes showing the various caws of the crow, a fox tugging a chain to release her son, a jotting of poison sumac, partridge tracks wandering over the paper field. The title type is like something burned into wood over a cabin door.

Seton’s prose is as idiosyncratic as his books’ design. In Wild Animals I Have Known, Seton lays out his methodology for what might be a book of natural history or a collection of short stories or a series of animal fables for children: “I believe that natural history has lost much by the vague general treatment that is so common. What satisfaction would be derived from a ten-page sketch of the habits and customs of Man? How much more profitable it would be to devote that space to the life of some one great man. This is the principle I have endeavored to apply to my animals.”

Seton’s weird notions about how to write about grizzlies and rabbits faded from popularity. But Lobo lived on in what is probably the most significant story of the American conservation movement, 1949’s “Thinking Like a Mountain” by Aldo Leopold. The dying wolf at the end of Leopold’s essay is an echo of Lobo: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain.” What she and the mountain know is that wolves keep the deer in check, deer that would otherwise destroy the mountain. The 1963 National Geographic Isle Royale article used Seton’s character as a stand in for all of his kind: “The truth is that Lobo is gone from nearly all his old haunts.” For a long time, when someone said wolf, Lobo came to mind.

That is until the Isle Royale wolves replaced him in the American imagination, swapping out one wolf tale for another. Lobo is the story of an individual, heroic and tragically flawed. The Isle Royale wolves have long been interpreted as characters in a narrative about how a good system works. No less noble than Lobo in their way, they restore the balance of nature. In this update of the ancient idea, though, balance results from natural selection rather than a divine manager.

If Isle Royale is the textbook example of the predator-prey relationship, Yellowstone is the Imax movie. Only a few years after wolves were reintroduced there in 1995, they were credited with the park’s transformation. They ate elk. This reduced elk browsing, allowing aspen and willow to shoot to heights they hadn’t reached in decades. Healthy groves of aspen and willow, in turn, sheltered beavers and birds. This chain of effects is called a trophic cascade, where a predator sends ripples throughout the food web. It is a similar idea to that of a keystone species, where, for example, a sea star on the Washington coast, once removed, causes mussels to flourish and limpets to decline. According to this view, some species have an outsized effect on the entire landscape, shaping the ecosystem. But brush the soil off these notions and “balance of nature” appears as their bedrock: “Wolves keep Yellowstone in balance” declares a blogger on the website Canis Lupus 101.

Yet as Peterson and his colleagues counted wolves, counted moose, and tracked Old Gray Guy and his offspring through meadows and bogs, balance on Isle Royale proved increasingly elusive.


IN FEBRUARY 2000, Rolf Peterson and his pilot saw a wolf cowering on a rock offshore as their plane skirted the coast. The Middle Pack waited on the bank to finish her off. Lead by Old Gray Guy, the pack had become a powerhouse, taking over 75 percent of the island and killing a stray male from the East Pack two days before.

As Peterson watched, the wolves surged into the water, snarling and biting at the wolf on the rock, then retreated. After weathering a dozen attacks, the lone wolf jumped into the icy lake and swam to another rock, then another. The pack followed on land, rushing through the waves to tear at her whenever she paused. A photo from above shows the pack on a submerged stone, arrayed like a sea star around a point—the wolf in the center, downed and invisible.

Peterson, talking into his tape recorder, said three times, “I think she’s dead now.” But she kept getting back up. Finally, after making it to shore only to be attacked again, she seemed definitively gone.

The men eventually flew to Windigo for a body bag and to refuel. When they got back, a male who had been far behind his pack mates approached the carcass. And then, as Peterson later wrote excitedly in his report, “the lone female raised her head!” (See The Ecological Studies of the Wolves of Isle Royale, 1999–2000.) The next day, both wolves were gone, leaving behind bloody indents in the snow where the female had slept.

Several days later, Peterson found the pair. The female was standing up and the male was licking her neck. Every now and then he’d dig in the snow to imitate caching food—courting—and she’d growl, and he’d go back to licking her neck. The scientists dubbed her the Cinderella wolf, but Cinderella doesn’t seem right. Maybe the second wolf staged a rescue, but invoking the fairy tale obscures the first wolf’s own swimming and fighting and snarling determination to live. There was no fairy godmother or party dress. A better name for her is Ferocious Warrior. The male wolf—he can be Prince Charming.

In the end of his account in the 1999–2000 annual report, Peterson concludes with this description of the pair: “Two individuals, one focused on mere survival and the other on reproductive imperatives, neither with much chance of success outside the existing territorial packs.”


The map of wolf territories shifted. They fought over borders. They staged coups. Fortunes rose and fell. Packs gathered strength, then disappeared.

When Ferocious Warrior recovered from her injuries, she and Prince Charming founded the Chippewa Harbor Pack on the east end of Isle Royale. She had a scarred nose, a scarred throat, and a broken canine tooth, but she and her mate raised litter after litter of pups and killed two alpha males of the East Pack, one after the other, as they ate into East Pack territory, eventually controlling a fourth of the island.

But by the winter 0f 2006/2007, the Chippewa Harbor Pack was weakening. The East Pack ambushed and killed Prince Charming as he ate a moose calf on the territory border between McCargo Cove and Chickenbone Lake. As Vucetich described it, after a making a beeline toward the dead moose through thick snow, then stopping to howl, the East Pack lunged at the male in a clump of trees: “In less than three minutes, [the East Pack] left only a lifeless carcass and blood in the snow,” he wrote in that year’s annual report. Ferocious Warrior lived for another year and gave birth to more pups, but the East Pack eventually killed her, too. The researchers found her skull and radio collar at Angleworm Lake.

The same year, Old Gray Guy died. His body was never found, leaving behind only his genetic legacy—in every single wolf on the island.


JUST AS THEY hadn’t seen his death, the biologists hadn’t seen Old Gray Guy’s arrival. They still thought the island was a closed system with no wolves coming in or out. They still puzzled over unexplained population leaps and drops. They were in the habit of collecting whatever they could get their hands on. This included wolf scat, which they kept for more than a decade, waiting for funds for DNA tests. After they finally had the money and commissioned the tests, Peterson, on a rare mainland visit in July 2010, got a call from DNA expert Jennifer Adams requesting he come to her office. The results from the tests glowed on her computer screen.

“Sit down,” she said.

The DNA tests showed that Isle Royale was not an isolated lab at all. It was just another part of the messy, complex world. Fresh genes had come in with Old Gray Guy in 1997 and possibly in the late ’60s as well, triggering the wild population fluctuations Peterson had witnessed. But Old Gray Guy chose his daughter as a second mate, and then she chose her son. Inbreeding depression—which scientists thought wolves avoided—haunted the Isle Royale population. As relatives mated, negative traits carried on recessive genes had an opportunity to express themselves. The parvovirus outbreak worsened matters, severely limiting the gene pool, a situation eased only briefly by the arrival of the virile new male (Old Gray Guy). Looking back through decades of field notes, Peterson saw them in a different light: the black wolves that skulked through the island when he started on the study; the fact that in the 2000s, a number of males turned white as they aged—these coat colors were genetic traits brought in by newcomers. He’d been looking for answers in weather and pack dynamics, but genes were the unseen engine of it all.

The Isle Royale study, over its lifetime, has shown all kinds of unexpected things, including information about the effect of diet on arthritis and evidence of a decline in mercury pollution documented through moose teeth. But when scientists were finally able to track genes, it was as though a map was pulled back to reveal another map underneath, one with unimagined mountains and strange rivers. The DNA tests uncovered the power of chance events (a tourist ignoring the rules and bringing his sick dog to the island) and individual personalities (the dominance of Old Gray Guy, the resilience of Ferocious Warrior) to shape populations. It undermined the notion of a natural balance.

On the bulletin board at Isle Royale’s Daisy Farm campground, a hand-scrawled sign announces a talk about the moose and wolves of the island. It’s a chilly evening, and eight people—this early in the season, mostly park employees—sit on stumps or in the tall grass. Carolyn Peterson, a longtime field assistant married to Rolf, unpacks a collection of bones. She used to stress that wolves don’t suffer from inbreeding depression. Now she holds up a moose jaw and says, “Things are much more complicated than we thought. . . . Things are changing all the time. We don’t use the word balance anymore.”

And that is the conclusion many researchers are drawing as models falter. A recent article in Nature argued that the concept of trophic cascades is flawed in its simplicity. Studies at Oregon State University are showing that the idea of a keystone species, a lynchpin for an ecosystem, may also be too basic: other species and environmental conditions play essential roles.

In a paper evaluating the case for trophic cascades in the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, Peterson, Vucetich, and Douglas Smith, who trained on Isle Royale and now is a project leader for the Wolf Restoration Project at Yellowstone, argue that ecosystems are too complex to trace neat relationships, particularly in Yellowstone where grizzly bears, black bears, cougars, and wolves eat bison, deer, and elk. They also point out that, when you follow the threads of prey fluctuations, you often find at the source not wild-animal predators but human beings. We are part of these ecosystems, too. We decide to kill off bison, decide to bring them back, conclude there are too few elk, then—too many. Perhaps we are always, forever, just studying ourselves, like Pooh and Piglet tracking the Woozle around and around a clump of larch.

There’s no doubt that wolves and other large predators have an effect on ecosystems—that effect is just growing harder to graph. And there’s no doubt that some questions are dangerous to ask. What are the conservation implications of questioning an idea that made such a reasoned case for wolves’ importance? Peterson, Vucetich, and Smith remind their readers that, whatever their conclusions about trophic cascades, “The answer is also a weapon.”

It’s difficult for agencies to make management decisions without a sense of the way things will unfold, and one of the main lessons of Isle Royale is that the future is unpredictable. What if, for example, you had a highly inbred wolf population, developing extra vertebrae and bad eyes, failing to reproduce? And what if the moose population were spiraling upward, chewing trees to bits, just at the time that balsam fir might have recovered enough to drop the first seeds in a century? Should you bring more wolves from the mainland and stage a genetic rescue? No model can say.


IN FEBRUARY 2015, an ice bridge from Isle Royale reached the mainland. Looking for the island’s remaining wolves in a wind-buffeted plane, John Vucetich glimpsed something out of the corner of his eye. On the western side of the island, on a hillside near Mud Lake, two wolves slept curled against the fierce gusts. One, a solid female with brown and tan fur, patchy with mange, wore a radio collar. The other, slender and long legged, had lighter fur, almost cream-colored toward the feet. They were strangers to the island.

The two had been sniffing around for three days. The collared one liked to roam. Before her radio signal died, biologists with the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa charted her explorations south toward Duluth and west to Voyageurs National Park. Whatever she and her companion smelled at Isle Royale—maybe a lodge of fat beavers or a scrap of ancient moose hide—it wasn’t many wolves.

Three years prior, three of the island’s wolves had drowned in an abandoned mine shaft. A park biologist found their bodies floating in the pit. The carcasses included a vigorous male, alpha of the Chippewa Harbor Pack, and a young female. Other wolves simply disappeared, leaving only three on the island: a couple (who were half siblings and father and daughter) and a crippled pup unlikely to make it through the winter. Together they were the remains of the Chippewa Harbor pack, grandchildren of Ferocious Warrior, with a healthy mix of Old Gray Guy thrown in.

The new wolves trotted south along the shore. The future of the population was right there, listening to raven calls echo off the ridges, exploring snow-buried creeks, catching a rank whiff of fox. Natural genetic rescue, without any environmental impact statements, fighting, or government funding. But when they reached Cumberland Point, the southern tip of Isle Royale, the newcomers headed back to Grand Portage, through hills that looked like piles of broken glass and beaches of fine ice. Not long after, the ice bridge melted away.

“For whatever reason, they went home.” Peterson shrugs as he tells me the story. “That’s what wolves do—they do what they want.”

A year and a half after the mainland wolves turned around, a moose stands up to its chest in a lake tucked against a hot slope covered with trees in pale May leaves, soaking. Desiccated wolf scat curls on the trail nearby. Another moose dunks its whole head underwater to yank up last year’s water shield rooted at the bottom, vanishing for what must be a very long breath. When he surfaces, the splash of the ungainly head breaking the surface, the water draining off antlers and through ratty, tick-filled spring fur, is the wettest sound in the world.

Nothing disturbs the young bulls this afternoon. The wolves are down to two. But maybe not for long. After delaying for years, the National Park Service recently released a draft environmental impact statement that advocated importing as many as thirty wolves in a three-year span, for the sake of the moose, for the sake of the plants. Human judgment about the value of wolves will reshape the predator-prey landscape yet again. And the future of both the wolf and moose populations will depend, in part, on who those wolves are as individuals—cautious, brave, aggressive, intelligent.

An accident in a mine; the spread of a mutant virus; a stranger coming to town; a survivor, left for dead, beating the odds and flourishing; a dynasty overthrown. We know these stories; we just don’t think of them in terms of wolves. But maybe Seton was right. Maybe there’s value in discussing Big Jim, Old Gray Guy, and Ferocious Warrior, in looking at the impact of specific personalities, as much as there’s value in searching for universal models. Maybe looking at the impact of specific personalities will help us to understand what is actually going on.

“What if nature is a little more like human history? When the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union collapsed, no one predicted that,” Vucetich says. Isle Royale now “allows us to understand the stories of individual wolves,” he adds. “This is Shakespeare in the nonhuman world.”

Kim Todd is the author of four books of literary nonfiction, the most recent of which is Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters.” Her last piece for Orion was about Isle Royale before the translocation: “The Island Wolves.”


  1. Scripture teaches man was charged to tend and keep. Man’s involvement is the Creator’s plan. Time to set aside the hands off romanticism.

  2. They need to bring in fresh DNA. Look at how the Florida panthers rebounded after fresh DNA was introduced from Texas. We intervene all the time in National Parks. Why should Isle Royale be any different?

  3. Several new packs of wolves need to be introduced now. If not moose will overgraze. The 50 year study has come to an end……………….. but more wolves are needed and climate change may not allow that to happen naturally. Please………….. introduce several new packs of wolves .

  4. Several new packs of wolves need to be introduced now. If not moose will overgraze. The 50 year study has come to an end………. but more wolves are desperately needed and climate change may not allow an ice bridge to happen. Please…….. introduce several new packs of wolves as soon a possible.

  5. Great Story, I have never visited Isle Royale but it is on my bucket list of things to do before I leave this earth.

  6. About 99% of Isle Royale has been designated by Congress as Wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Unlike at Yellowstone (which has no designated Wilderness), at Isle Royale the Wilderness Act requires us to protect the area as unmanipulated and untrammeled by humankind and that we use restraint and humility with respect to the wolf situation. This requires us to let Nature decide what happens on Isle Royale and not to impose our human desires or values. If wolves cross an ice bridge to Isle Royale and stay, or if wolves become temporarily or permanently extirpated, these are Nature’s choices. Let the wolves decide!

  7. Excellent read. We visited in September 2015 and were disappointed that we didn’t have much of a chance to see a wolf track, find scat or possibly hear a wolf howl during the night. I would like to see the wolf population retransmit stabilize on Isle Royale, even if man must lend a hand.

  8. Every time I visit the Island and Rolfe and Candy it seems the story changes a bit. Maybe we aren’t as smart as we think! Isn’t that great!!

  9. Introduce as many wolves as possible to Isle Royale… ASAP! Research and talk are done. It’s time to take action!

  10. I read this yesterday and commented on post. Excellent article, well researched. Now can we please bring in the new breeding pairs for the ecosystem and for the ongoing study?

  11. Thanks for a great essay, Kim. It valuably complicated my existing notions of population dynamics. Now we just need to figure out ways to predict individual behaviors in our models….

  12. Thanks to all for the wonderful summary. I submit that it is OK to introduce fresh bloodlines because that would only be a corrective measure for the error we (collectively) made when we interfered by creating such items as the mine shafts into which a fair proportion of the wolf population fell and drowned, maybe not for the first time. It might not be a bad idea to create a log/rock ladder there.

    Now select the most suitable candidates, probably one or more established families for least conflict.

    JP, Mining Engineer/Geologist, 11.02.2017 .

  13. Thanks for a Great essay Kim
    Predict the individual behaviors of wolves, when we as humans can not even predict our own.
    Somethings in nature man is not meant to understand. If man thinks he understands something his next step is to try and control it, history shows that has never worked. Give wolves room to be wolves and let it go at that. We have our own problems destroying the ecosystem to curtail.

  14. Canada’s Michipicoten Island and Slate Islands on the north shore of Lake Superior used to be refugia for woodland caribou. Wolves arrived there on ice bridges in recent winters. The wolf populations exploded far, far beyond what the caribou could sustainably tolerate. Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) is clearly aware that, without some type of intervention, these wolves will eliminate the caribou. Caribou are much smaller and less capable of “fight” than moose are; outcomes of confrontations with wolves are rarely unknown. Upon extirpation from these islands, the southernmost extent of the woodland caribou’s range will leap about 100 miles further north overnight — yet another massive loss of range which overall has seen the animal pushed well back from its original home in the upper US states into northern Canada. This is shameful for, as the article notes, caribou are at home on Superior’s shores and islands. There’s been a concerted call by the citizens of Ontario, Canada, to move their island wolves — big, strong, and healthy — to Isle Royale; in principle, Isle Royale would accept. They are animals native to the watershed and are least-likely to introduce pathogens from elsewhere as compared to other wolf reintroduction candidates. Unfortunately, the MNRF seems content to let the caribou be eliminated — probably by this winter — after which the wolves will starve. Should this be allowed to transpire, the watershed will suffer an irreversible loss of biodiversity. There’s at least one important lesson in this great article: There is no “balance”; we are, therefore, deprived of an excuse to not act. Another important lesson: As the world’s foremost caribou biologist A. T. Bergerud reminded us, we can have it all: Caribou, moose, and wolves — but we must make that choice and then commit to the actions to make it so. Ask your Canadian neighbors where they stand on this, and why their MNRF won’t act. Time is exquisitely short. We could have it all, including international cooperation, if we so choose. See

  15. Isle Royale may be a designated wilderness, but we are the cause of there being fewer ice bridges, global warming. With fewer and fewer ice bridges there’s less of a chance for nature reoccupying the island with whatever creatures decide to migrate. We are responsible for taking the wild out of wilderness in this case.

  16. Thank you for this thoughtful and nuanced antidote to the sentimental narratives that spread so easily, especially now on social media.

    I love the quote from Vucetich: “What if nature is a little more like human history?” Not that humanity should be the ideal and standard against which everything should be measured, but that our curiosity and empathy should extend to other creatures fully, without any implicit assumption that we are deeper souls, better or more whole examples of creation, or in any way more complex beings, than other animals.

  17. I last visited Isle Royale while on assignment for Traverse Magazine at the end of the summer 1998. I had been there earlier in the year when the first boat from Minnesota made its way to the island. Being one of the first visitors, I had ample opportunity to see wolf scat and track on the trails before the “off-season wildlife highways” once again became trails for backpackers.
    In discussions with park rangers about the moose/wolf dynamic, it came to light that there was great concern about the impact of winter ticks (Dermacentor albipictus) on the moose population. The ticks cause the moose to lose their fur and makes them much more susceptible to the rigors of winter and to the wolves. The concern was that the ticks infected the entire population of moose and thus rendering an otherwise healthy animal to increased vulnerability.
    Wolf genetics and population balances aside, without a viable moose population to sustain the wolf population, the whole system can collapse. The matters are only being made worse by global warming as we see the expansion of all types of ticks with the change in weather patterns.
    I did have the good fortune to glimpse a wolf and moments later the fox that was following. I would hate to imagine an Isle Royale without the wildlife that “comes to you”. Isle Royale National Park is the least visited of the national parks but offers so much for those that make the effort.
    I’ve enclosed a link to a photograph of a grazing cow, showing the effects of Winter Tick.

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