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Going, Going…Gone?

Wolf howls have echoed across Isle Royale National Park for decades. But with the once-widespread predators down to a single pack, the time to go hear--and maybe spot--them is now.

The last time the wolf population was anywhere close to this low was in the early 1980s. During the wolves’ heyday, a park visitor brought his dog to the island, and the dog brought a case of canine parvovirus. The wolf population fell from 50 to 12 before rebounding to 30 individuals in four packs by 2008. But then a moose decline translated into a food shortage, and this, combined with decades of inbreeding, started to take a toll. There were only two packs by 2010. Then in February 2011, the Chippewa Harbor pack raided the Middle Pack, killed its alpha male, and dispersed the others. If the two females on the island don’t reproduce, the population is doomed. The last time Isle Royale’s wolves had new blood for their gene pool was in 1997—during a severe winter that reconstructed the ice bridge to Canada and allowed a new male wolf to immigrate. But the warming temperature of Lake Superior has deflated biologists’ hopes for another freeze-up.

If Mother Nature doesn’t act, the National Park Service might, by introducing more wolves. It’s been done before (Yellowstone, for example), but it would be unprecedented on Isle Royale, where scientists have remained hands off, observing wolves and moose in an isolated wilderness laboratory. Peterson says he is in favor of introducing wolves if they die off naturally on Isle Royale: “As long as there are moose on the island, I think there should be wolves. Ecosystem health is what’s most important to me. And we know that large ungulates, in a setting without predators, can do extensive damage to an ecosystem if left uncontrolled.”

Reintroduction might be easier said than done, though, given the glacial pace of bureaucracy. So far, all park officials have said is that they’ll conduct an internal study on Isle Royale’s moose and wolf populations in 2012, which will be followed up by a formal environmental review.

In camp, tearing into boil-and-mix tuna curry by lantern light, Mike and I ponder the meaning of the wolf chorus earlier. Were they on a fresh kill? Then another sound echoes across the lake—unnggh, unngghhh, UNNNNGGGHHH! A bull moose, grunting, in search of a mate. But, as before, I can’t see him.

Three days into this trip, having trekked Isle Royale north to south, we’ve heard plenty of wildlife but haven’t seen a thing. But Isle Royale isn’t a zoo. If you want guarantees, go look at a wolf behind a fence. Here, I’m interacting with wilderness—finding antlers, hearing the grunts and moans of the rut, even getting scared stiff by howls. I take a last bite of noodles and walk over to the lake to look at a billion glinting stars. A faint light begins flickering to the north, subtle curtains of amoebic ghostly white. The aurora borealis. Something else you can’t see in a zoo.

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