On Isle Royale, A Fragile Balance Between Wolf and Moose

Begun in the winter of 1959, the Isle Royale Wolf & Moose Project is the longest-running large animal study in the world.

From the water, Bangsund Cabin looks like what it is: a bright refuge in the wilderness, where kindly strangers take in wayward children and feed them cinnamon rolls hot off the hearth. From the woods, however, you might think you’ve stumbled into The Blair Witch Project, and that you’re about to be eaten by a hungry woman with hair all over her body whose hoofs never touch the ground.

Begun in the winter of 1959, the Isle Royale Wolf & Moose Project is the longest-running large animal study in the world — longer than Jane Goodall’s study on chimps or Dian Fossey’s gig with gorillas. Its most tenured custodians and devotees, Rolf and Candy Peterson, keep the world’s largest collection of moose bones behind their tiny summertime outpost at Bangsund Cabin on Isle Royale’s eastern shore. Piled up on sepulchral risers are hundreds of mossy skulls, a veritable amphitheater of moose mortality. There’s much to learn about the island’s moose and wolf population from decoding these bones, and the Petersons and a cadre of volunteers spend huge tracts of time pickled in bug dope, bushwhacking for the dead. It’s unsentimental work in an unforgiving habitat.

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The world’s largest freshwater island (and the country’s least-visited National Park) floats in the great sea of Lake Superior, shrouded in fog and biologically cut off from the rest of North America. Isle Royale is a bit like the Petersons’ compound: both savage and inviting. Everything is edgy here. The air has an edge to it, courtesy of a perpetual chill off of Lake Superior. The rocks have sharp edges. The light is sharp. Civilization clings to a narrow strip of the shoreline, its comforts magnified by their proximity to Stone Age nothingness.

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Accounts vary on how Isle Royale became an outpost for moose (and a giant offshore icebox stocked with lip-smacking deliciousness for its wolf population). The moose either swam out, crossed from the mainland on an ice bridge, or were stocked on the island by hunters in the 1920s. Anecdotal evidence points to the late 1940s, during an especially cold Minnesota winter, when a pair of wolves dared to cross miles of trackless ice and set the stage for a predator-prey feedback loop — one that, because of the hermetically sealed ecosphere of the island, is unlike anything else on the planet.

Civilization clings to a narrow strip of the shoreline, its comforts magnified by their proximity to Stone Age nothingness.

For 38 of the 56 years that the Project has tracked the ebb and flow of these symbiotic populations, Rolf and Candy Peterson have taken part in the work. Rolf arrived as a graduate assistant in 1970 and never left. Though currently retired from his teaching position at Michigan Technological University, he still spends eight months out of the year on the island, and he and Candy — who raised two boys in the gossamer tarpaper Bangsund Cabin — serve as the emeritus campground ambassadors of the Isle Royale.

Disputes between the Petersons and the National Park have tested their saintly patience: the question of whether or not to rescue the wolf population on the isle is a heated one, as the population is closer to collapse now than any other time in its history. Peterson estimates less than 10 wolves remain on the island while over 1,000 moose are thriving. “Genetic rescue” — in other words, the artificial injection of new DNA into the inbred gene pool that afflicts the island’s wolves — is a fiercely debated topic among the environmental cognoscenti. Though the Wolf & Moose Project grants science a glimpse of disaster prowling on the horizon, some feel human tinkering will corrupt the value of what amounts to the ultimate data set. Some feel the small population, marooned as it is, is doomed to extinction: a question of when, not if.

Peterson is convinced that saving the population by importing a handful of new wolves from the mainland is the correct path ahead. As someone who has spent most of his adult life with the beasts, one can hardly imagine him feeling differently. In this fiendishly complex juxtaposition of law, science, and long-term stewardship, Peterson insists: “We should let nature take care of herself, and not be meddling presumes that Mother Nature is intact. But”, he adds, “we started cutting off her fingers some time ago.”

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