How the Isle Royale wolf-moose study began
"Wolf Island," a new book by renowned wolf researcher L. David Mech, highlights the start of the now famous Isle Royale predator/prey study back in 1958.
Dave Mech wrote the book on wolf research, literally, back in 1970, and has just kept going ever since.
Renowned as among the most influential wolf biologists worldwide, Mech, set the bar 50 years ago with the book “The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species” that became the bible for wolf researchers everywhere. Wolf research was picking up in earnest as more attention was being paid to a newly protected species that had been hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in the Lower 48 states.
Since then Mech, now 83, has studied wolves all over the world, including the Arctic, Alaska and Yellowstone. And he’s written a dozen books about his exploits, studies and interactions with the big canines.
But Mech (pronounced Meech), a senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, is most known for his work in the Northland, with much of his early wolf research done in the Superior National Forest out of Ely.
His very first field research on wolves, however, was on Isle Royale, Lake Superior’s largest island, located about 14 miles off Minnesota’s North Shore, way back in 1958. It was on Isle Royale, with its unique and isolated population of moose and wolves, where Mech, then in his early 20s, formed much of his basic knowledge of how wolves and their prey interact.
Mech (officially it's Lucyan David Mech) set the stage for what has become the world’s longest running predator-prey study, on the island where moose and wolves are isolated in a life-and-death relationship for survival. And now he’s written a new book about the genesis of the Isle Royale wolf/moose study: “Wolf Island, Discovering the Secrets of a Mythical Animal,’’ was written with Greg Breining and released in October, published by the University of Minnesota Press. It’s available in paperback for $24.95 at upress.umn.edu and bookstores across the Northland.
The moose-wolf relationship on Isle Royale eventually went sour for the wolves. With warmer winters limiting ice bridges to the mainland, and no new wolves venturing out the island, the animals became inbred and suffered genetic deformities. By 2017 the island’s wolf population, once numbering in the dozens, had dropped to just two — a father and daughter unable to successfully mate.
That’s when the National Park Service decided to intervene and transplant more wolves to bolster the population. It was a somewhat controversial move to intervene in nature in a designated national park wilderness, but the action allowed the predator-prey relationship to continue and allowed the Isle Royale wolf moose study — which Mech started 62 years ago — to continue today under the tutelage of Michigan Technological University professors Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich.
There are now about 1,800 moose on the island and — thanks to the Park Service's reintroduction of wolves from Minnesota, Michigan and Ontario in recent years — about a dozen adult wolves and several new pups.
The News Tribune recently asked Mech — a Syracuse, New York native who has called the Twin Cities home for many years — a few questions about his new book and his early wolf research on Isle Royale.
News Tribune: What inspired you to go to Isle Royale to conduct that first research in 1958? Why there?
Mech: As an undergraduate student, I was offered the project by Dr. Durward L. Allen of Purdue University for my graduate work, and needing a project and being interested in large carnivores, I accepted.
News Tribune: It’s been 60 years since you first studied wolves on the island. What made you decide to finally write this book about it? Why now?
Mech: Because the original population (of wolves) whose ancestors I had studied was going extinct and the Park Service proposed a reintroduction, it seemed like an ideal time to discuss the origin of the project.
News Tribune: What makes Isle Royale so unique in the universe of wolves, in predator/prey dynamics?
Mech: (The island is) an almost closed ecosystem which makes the study easier (with) no ingress or egress for wolves or moose, (and it’s) one of the few wolf prey systems where wolves have only one major prey animal… That combination makes Isle Royale unique as a wolf research lab.
News Tribune: Did you learn anything while studying Isle Royale wolves and moose that really inspired or helped you as you moved on to other regions?
Mech: The main finding was that wolves have a difficult time obtaining prey and a very low success rate. This finding has inspired several of my later studies, and the findings have been the same with different prey in different areas.
News Tribune: What’s your assessment of the current wolf situation on Isle Royale? Did you support the relocation of new wolves onto the island, and if so, why?
Mech: The reintroduction has been a success, with new litters being produced, and I supported it because the original population was about to go extinct.
News Tribune: Is there anything more the National Park Service can or should be doing for wolf conservation on the island, and why?
Mech: Nothing more needed except to study and monitor the situation.
News Tribune: Isle Royale is far different from the mainland moose-wolf relationship in Minnesota, with no hunters, no vehicles and no brainworm-carrying deer on the island. But are there messages or insights learned in the ongoing Isle Royale study that might apply to Minnesota?
Mech: The main finding that applies is that winter weather, primarily annual snow depth, is one of the most important factors that affect wolf depredation success with prey. Deep snow allows wolves higher success and vice versa (less snow favors the prey) so that helps drive the effect of the wolves on the prey numbers.
News Tribune: Are you at all surprised by how popular/beloved wolves have become in modern society? While still reviled by some hunters and farmers, are you surprised that a recent University of Minnesota survey for the DNR found that 86% of the general public polled want the same, more or even many more wolves in the state, while only 14% wanted fewer or no wolves?
Mech: Not surprised. Once wolves went on the endangered species list and became a poster child for endangered species, the media glamorized the animal and the public bought that.
News Tribune: What’s your assessment of wolf’s status globally today? They seem to be in better shape now than when you started your work.
Mech: They are much better off worldwide and no longer in danger in most places.
News Tribune: What’s next for Dave Mech?
Mech: Continuing studies in Northeastern Minnesota and Yellowstone via assistants and grad students and analyzing data for scientific articles and books.