Will you be there to see Glacier’s last glacier melt away? Would you race to Yellowstone if the geysers were drying up, or to Denali if the grizzlies were on the brink? Dumb questions, right? What backpacker wouldn’t max out the Mastercard to witness the last of these iconic national park symbols?
That’s why my friend Mike Kooi and I made a pilgrimage to Isle Royale last autumn. The island’s legendary wolves could become the first such icon to disappear in the 21st century. The predators have been a defining and haunting presence here since they first crossed a 15-mile ice bridge from Canada 60 years ago. But there’s only one pack left on this isolated, 45-mile-long, boreal atoll deep in Lake Superior. And the wolves’ time looks to be running out. They might not survive to howl at your kids. Heck, they might be gone by 2020.
We know the odds of actually seeing a timber wolf are against us. Even in places like the Boundary Waters, where wolves are plentiful, humans rarely glimpse the elusive animals. (But imagine the odds against wolves establishing themselves on this island in the first place.) And if we fail, the booby prize isn’t so bad—five days of hiking some of the 165 miles of raw, Northwoods trails that crisscross the island.
As we unload from the ferry at the Windigo dock at Isle Royale’s western end, a smiling park ranger assembles the nearly 20 passengers (mostly day-trippers) for a mandatory Leave No Trace talk. He also shares good news: “You’re here at a very special time of year, the moose rut. It’s when our bulls are drunk on testosterone.”
“I hope we see a bull moose getting devoured by wolves,” Mike quips sotto voce.
Moose came to Isle Royale about 50 years before the wolves, crossing the ice, or maybe going for a long swim, sometime in the early 1900s. The phenomenon—an isolated wolf population on an island with an all-you-can-eat moose buffet—spurred a groundbreaking wildlife research study that started in 1948 and is now the longest-running such study worldwide. The research findings have been legendary: They have influenced not only wildlife management regulations but also unexpected fields like arthritis research (poor nutrition in early years increases risk by 50 percent). Scientists have witnessed some incredible population surges, such as the mid-1990s, when Isle Royale had more than 2,500 moose (more than six per square mile), and the late 1970s, when 50 wolves in seven packs patrolled the island (that’s a wolf density five times larger than Yellowstone’s).
But now both moose and wolf populations have dipped to their lowest levels in decades, and the wolf needs a miracle to keep from being snuffed out. At press time, only nine remain. Five exist as the island’s Chippewa Harbor pack (with only one female); on the other end of the island, a male and female make a tandem biologists have dubbed the “West End Duo;” two more males roam as loners. The winter of 2011-12 was tough for the wolves: The Chippewa Harbor alpha male might have died, and no pups were born. Ecologist John Vucetich, one of the study’s researchers, says, “The future of this population may well rest with the West End Duo.”