There’s a struggle for survival going on in northern Michigan and scientists are asking me for my opinion on what the outcome should be. So here it is.
On the 45-mile long rock that juts above the frigid water of Lake Superior, known by us as Isle Royale, wolves chase moose for their dinner and moose run for their lives. This sounds like an ages-old food chain scenario, but surprisingly, the drama is relatively new to the island.
According to the National Park Service, the island did not have any moose until they swam to the island in the early 1900s. Life was good there for those early arrivals as predators, including the Canadian lynx that once inhabited the island, were gone. But in the late 1940s wolves, perhaps smelling dinner, crossed over to the island from Canada on frozen Lake Superior. The island is about 15 miles from Canada.
Since then wolves have chased moose and kept their population in check. There has been an ebb and flow of the two species numbers, with wolves reaching an all-time high of about 50 in 1980. Moose numbers reached a peak of about 2,500 in the 1980s, and on a small island, that’s a lot of large ungulates browsing on the vegetation.
In August, as I stood on the ferry dock at the island’s Rock Harbor lodge listening to a ranger while I wobbled on my sea legs from the rough crossing from Copper Harbor, she said there were more than 900 moose and about 8 wolves on the island. I hoped to see both.
The next morning I set off in my kayak for the other end of Rock Harbor. My slow paddle strokes pushed me past some of the finest wilderness scenery in the Midwest. Every once in a while a hiker popped out of an opening on the lake shore trail. I hung my camera with its telephoto lens around my neck, just in case a wolf would trot by or I came around a rocky point and surprised a moose in the shallows.
Ever since I was a teenager I had wanted to visit the island. “There’s wolves up there,” I would tell people of why I wanted to go.
I have heard a couple of wolves howl before. Those eery sounds came from wolves in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, where the wolf and moose struggle is part of the catch-phrase “circle of life.” Algonquin is also the place where I saw my first moose, a calf, as it strolled out in front my car on a two-track some 25 clicks back in the bush.
But I wanted to see Michigan wolves and Michigan moose, which would fulfill a quest I had been on for three years. Each summer I would load the car with cameras, binoculars and a spotting scope and head over the bridge into the Upper Peninsula. I looked along the north shore, up around Whitefish Point and Tahquamenon State Park. Guidebooks said there were moose there. I asked the locals at gas stations, stores and restaurants, “Seen any moose lately.” “Oh, a couple years ago,” was always the answer.
I moved west, looking through the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. I saw eagles and endangered trumpeter swans, but no moose.
So I decided the best place to look for Michigan moose and wolves was on Isle Royale and the best technique would be to paddle slowly in a kayak in the mornings and then get out and walk the trails in the daytime.
The evening sky and water of Rock Harbor blend together at the Daisy Farm Campground. (Photo by Roger Schneider)
My first slow paddle ended at Daisy Farm Campground. I set up camp and then inched my way up the trail to the top of Mount Ojibway. Along the trail I saw paths busted through the brush by moose. I almost stepped on what I thought was wolf scat. I stopped to explore the Alpine-like rock outcroppings covered in colorful lichens. I never spotted a wolf or moose.
I pushed on to Moskey Basin, slowly trolling along the rocky, rugged outcrops interspersed with tiny, quiet bays that look like those on calendars that show moose feeding in the water with aquatic plants sticking from the sides of their mouths while they look back over their shoulder.
I paddled past noisy loons and gregarious broods of mergansers. I spotted a shorebird I couldn’t identify. Again, no moose, no wolf.
When I had set up camp at a Moskey Basin shelter, the neighbors said a moose had been visiting the bay each evening, just across the water from the row of shelters. I set up the camera and read, cooked dinner and waited for sunset. I stared through the telephoto until the exposure meter told me a photo, even with the digital camera capable of capturing a candle flame at that distance, would not be possible.
I packed up the gear and sat outside in the dark. Then it began to get lighter. The moon, a full, bright-shining, northern moon was coming up. Its low light made the jagged tops of the trees across the bay look like an old saw blade. I dug deeper into the down sleeping bag and read a novel until sleep came.
Hours later I sat straight up. A noise, something different, had told my sleepy brain that that was the action needed. The moon was high overhead now, its bright light making it easy to see across the bay.
“What?” I wondered, as I tried to figure out what sixth-sense caused me to sit up.
Then I heard it. Way down the bay, the soulful howl of a lone wolf carried across the mirror of the water and into the shelter.
“Wow!” I said to the rocks and trees.
I tried to figure out how far away the wolf was when it decided to speak to the moon. Three miles was my guess.
Wide awake now, I listened hard. Five, 10, 15, 20 minutes went past.
Then, just across the bay, perhaps a half-mile away, another wolf barked, then bayed at the moon. Its hearty howl was long, climbing octave stairsteps to end in the classic “oooooh.”
I grabbed my camera, not to take a picture, but to use its recorder. I turned on the video and let it run. Nothing happened. The forest and the bay were still. Not even the crazy loons let out a sound.
Twelve minutes passed, and then, from far down the bay, a series of howls, much fainter, drifted in on the night air. The howl was even farther away than the first one. Today, if I turn up the sound on my camera’s video and listen with headphones, I can barely make out those wonderful howls.
I finished up the trip without ever seeing those nightly howlers or their favorite prey, the moose. I did see moose tracks, but as hunters will tell you “you can’t eat tracks” and I couldn’t photograph moose.
This trip came to mind this week when I received an email from researchers asking me to comment on the future of the island’s wolves. The wolves are down to 8, all believed to be related, and are not reproducing.
The National Park Service governs the island, which is a national park. The NPS standard policy is not to interfere in the interactions of animals. But wolf advocates want the NPS to bring in new wolves to revive the old pack and to control the moose population, which may grow so large as to endanger the plant life on the island.
There are three options the NPS is considering. Do nothing; bring in new wolves to introduce new genes into the wolf population; remove or let the current pack die off, then bring in new wolves.
I like the do nothing option, but I am open to change based on future events, such as a surging moose population or lack of ice. This wolf-moose relationship is a wonderful feature of the island, but it’s new, and is unusual in the island’s history. Other wildlife once roamed the island, including lynx and caribou and they arrived, lived and left on their own and nobody is suggesting they be reintroduced. So why mess with the wolf population?
Wildernesses are supposed to be islands within North America where wildlife can get along without out us. We visit their lands as observers and take nothing but photographs and memories.
There is no doubt that mankind has caused the global warming impacting the island. I see the expanding effects of global warming each growing season in my garden, where roses bloom earlier and later each year. Yet this winter has been cold enough to form ice over to the island, so there’s a possibility new wolves will arrive on their own four feet and solve the problem of watered-down genetics.
The island is a unique place that has been used as a laboratory to study moose-wolf relationships since 1958. I think Isle Royale is also a very good place to study the impacts of global warming and tracking what happens there to wildlife and plant life as the globe warms. Leaving this wilderness and its animals alone seems to be the best choice for now.
If you want to follow what is happening to Isle Royale’s wolves this winter visit isleroyalewolf.org.