In Wolf Island, wolf expert L. David Mech reminisces back to his first time studying the wolves residing in Isle Royale in Lake Superior as a young researcher in the late 50’s. The author was lucky enough to be offered a researcher position right after his undergraduate studies in the field in Isle Royale where moose and wolves seemed to coexist in relative balance.
The author begins his memoir with a scene of chasing the wolf pack from the air while they were making a moose kill. Mech cannot help himself and wants to approach the carcass to gain more information even though the wolves were still feeding off it. Spotting the wolf pack during a chase from the air, especially a successful one was not common, given that the plane regularly ran low on gas and that the researchers had to become experts at discerning and following wolf and moose tracks.
The project sounds fascinating: an island cut off from the mainland provides the perfect isolated environment to study predator and prey relationships and their effect on the environment. Still back in the late 50’s wolves were considered pests and were hunted and killed at every opportunity. Why would anyone want to study them? Mech spent his first year of research gathering wolf scat to analyse their diet and collecting moose mandibles to determine their health status and age. The researcher jokingly recalls that he built a large collection of frozen wolf poop. As time went by, Mech was getting closer and closer to his subjects and had a few encounters with some wolves who seemed both comprehensive and curious about him.
The author figures that there are 19 wolves on the island who regularly hunt and kill moose. There seemed to exist a big pack of about 15 wolves with one wolf trailing them but never coming too close. They named the wolf Homer and for years the researchers followed him and the bigger pack. Some interesting research questions that arose included how the wolves and the moose made it to the island. The author hypothesised that the wolves likely walked over the frozen Lake Superior from the mainland while the moose probably swam. Were the wolves the perfect predator and if so how did the moose and the wolves coexist in Isle Royale without one of them dying out?
Reading about the summers and winters in Isle Royale and finding out about the first big study on wolves was interesting for someone like me who enjoys anything wolf related. It is also a great perspective in the early field studies and how they were conducted 60 years ago when the equipment was severely lacking and tracking methods were not as evolved. It’s a short, easy to follow memoir of adventures following wolves on an island, great for fans of nature or wolves.