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Wolf Island: Discovering the Secrets of a Mythic Animal

Mech, L. David with Greg Breining. 2020. Wolf Island: discovering the secrets of a mythic animal. University of Minnesota Press. 188 pp. color photos, map, index. Hardcover $24.95 US. Kindle $14.72 US.

Imagine traveling back in time when scientists knew little about wolves. Sixty-two years ago, next-to-nothing was known about wolf packs, how they were structured, why they traveled in packs during winter, but – seemingly – not in summer, whether they could kill at will and whether they could really decimate herds of prized game animals. Dr. Durward Allen of Purdue University knew a place where answers to some of these “mysteries” could be sought. That place was Isle Royale – a national park situated in the largest (and very cold) freshwater lake in the world, which as a part of the State of Michigan, actually was closer to Ontario, Canada. By that time – in the late 1950’s – wolves only inhabited nearby northeastern Minnesota, having been eradicated from the remainder of the lower 48 states, although a few stragglers perhaps held out in upper Michigan and neighboring Wisconsin.

Isle Royale was home to the only other U.S. population of wolves, albeit a small one of unknown size. The 45-mile-long island contained few other mammalian species, some of which were potential food for the wolves, including moose, beaver and snowshoe hare. To Allen, Isle Royale provided the perfect laboratory to examine how wolves interacted with their prey, and how these interactions influenced the island environment.

He selected a graduating senior from Cornell University to initiate the field work for a project he envisioned would last ten years. The person he selected, Dave Mech, had extensive field experience trapping and tagging black bears in the Adirondacks. Mech was taken aback when Dr. Allen offered the graduate work assignment to him, and readily agreed to take on the task.

This is a personal account of Dr. Mech’s years investigating wolf-moose relationships as a graduate student. He speaks of his first summer there, walking miles and miles on trails throughout the 210 square mile park in search of wolf scats, documenting moose sightings, talking to the few summer residents (mostly commercial fishermen families) about an earlier era on the island, and hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive wolf. Although he found lots of sign (and poop), he was discouraged by not getting anything more substantial about the wolves that inhabited the island.

Returning to the island that first winter, his luck changed. The notion behind the winter study was to use fixed wing airplanes to search for wolves, follow them and hopefully document their use of the island, their numbers, and their interactions with moose and other wildlife there. Was it even possible? In that endeavor, he succeeded beyond his (and Dr. Allen’s) wildest expectations. And thus, a project was born that today is the longest-running predator-prey study in the world.

This book is a delightful account of the times, the place, the people who helped him along the way, and the discoveries that awaited this graduate student who is known today as the foremost authority on wolves. Get a copy, get one for a friend. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read.