ON A STORMY MAY MORNING last spring, with lightning striking and thunder rolling over Lake Superior, the Voyageur II ferry carried visitors on the two-hour trip to Isle Royale National Park. The remote island, only accessible by boat and plane, had just opened after being closed all winter. Gray waves echoed gray sky as the small boat cut heaving waves. Hikers and backpackers crowded the ferry cabin, ready to shake off the cold and head out into spring.
When we stepped onto the dock, a brown sign, a heap of moose antlers clustered at the base, declared WELCOME TO WINDIGO. A round-faced ranger detailed the rules of the island, pointed us to the campground, reminded us to leave no trace. A chill wind tugged at baseball caps and bandanas. He added that—though we probably wouldn’t see wolves—they were around. Twenty-two roamed Isle Royale last year and twenty-eight this year, including several litters of pups.
What a change from six years before, the last time I’d been to Isle Royale. At the time, only two wolves lived in the island, a father-and-daughter pair who were also half brother and sister, the remnants of an Isle Royale wolf population that once surged to fifty. The final pair had only managed to produce one deeply impaired pup, which didn’t live long. But, finally, after years of debate and a deluge of public comments, the National Park Service in partnership with the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and others, decided to bring in twenty to thirty more wolves over five years, numbers that might spur genetic rescue, save moose from starvation, and preserve the few remaining balsam fir that the moose, with a surging population and few predators, had been chewing to nubs.
The famous Isle Royale wolves, subject to the longest continuous study of predator-prey dynamics in the world, are now becoming part of a new experiment, one about the potentials and perils of the nascent field of reintroduction/translocation biology.
ON SEPTEMBER 26, 2018, the gray-barred cage door swung open. A video shows a wolf, dubbed 1F, lying on the floor. Turquoise tags marked her ears. Outside, sunlight streamed through pale green leaves. She leaned forward a little, looked from side to side and up at the top of the box with a decidedly worried expression. Her affect reminded me of a time when a professor back in a graduate school animal behavior class brought in a domestic dog and a wolf being rehabilitated by a nonprofit in town. The dog, red bandana around its neck, went around the circle, greeting all the students, fluffy tail waving. The wolf remained still in the middle, slowly inspecting us. It conserved energy, was cautious, did not exude or assume goodwill.
With similar deliberation, 1F eyed her surroundings, then, with a clattering of nails on metal, launched herself out and into the new environment.
In the next few days, three other wolves, each from separate Minnesota packs, were set free on Isle Royale, including a tan and gray female with a long snout, 3F. She emerged in a crouching posture and then took off into a landscape of fat beaver, wary foxes, and rocky outcroppings crusted with lichen. And, like all the new transplants, she faced the pressing need to form alliances, hide, or establish herself as a wolf to be reckoned with.
Almost immediately, though, things went awry. One female never made it to Isle Royale, dying after capture, a bad response to anesthetic. The sole male of these newcomers caught fatal pneumonia. Translocations often have a high rate of failure, and this was shaping up to be no different.
When you start the record again, does it play the same song?
Some, like 3F, didn’t wait to see what might happen. After a few months of killing moose calves on her own and traversing the island in short, furtive movements, perhaps to avoid conflict with other wolves, perhaps not liking the survival odds on this strange island, she left. On January 31, she took off across an ice bridge. She had ventured out on the frozen lake before and returned, but now she continued all the way to the mainland, near the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, where she was originally captured. After lingering a while along the Lake Superior shore, she spent the spring ranging south toward Duluth and north, exploring lakes and cities deep into northern Ontario. Satellite collar data showed her working her way around open-pit iron mines in Minnesota’s Mesabi Range and spending a lot of time in and around Atikokan, Ontario, and the Trans-Canada Highway, perhaps eating roadkill. Eventually, a year after she had been released, her collar stopped transmitting. She had traveled 3,000 miles.
IN HUMAN TERMS, too, much had happened since I last visited six years ago. I remember chatting with project volunteers in the sunny grass outside the field research station cabin. They wanted my opinion of the upcoming 2016 election, when all I wanted was to block it out. Couldn’t this remote spot be some kind of escape to think about wolf dramas rather than human ones? But now, on the other side of a Trump presidency, a global pandemic, and the loss of women’s bodily autonomy, our fragility was equally clear. The smallest genetic mutation could affect death rates in Italy, school closings in Minneapolis, and quarantines in China. The lives of humans and fates of human societies were clearly fragile and unpredictable, no less than the wolves.
The male wolf’s measurements are taken. USFWS / Courtney Celley
The weather was raw in the way of spring, like paper that has been rain soaked then ripped. Skunk cabbage unfurling purple bracts in the boggy water; feathery sprouts of ferns; shed birch bark, rotting in pale curls. It was the time of year when, after the snow melts, before it’s too leafy, the ground gives up its dead. New leaves, torn earth, hunger still raging, but with the hope of being satisfied.
After pitching my tent in a lean-to, I went to find Rolf Peterson. A researcher who’d joined the original predator-prey study more than fifty years ago, he’d advocated for the wolf introduction, and I was curious to see what he thought now. He looked the same: gray sweater, muddy boots, though any trace of red in his hair was gone. Peterson had officially retired from Michigan Tech, but continued studies on the island.
“I just get to do the fun stuff,” he said, before asking if I wanted to tag along as he went to cut the hoof off a recently thawed dead moose. I did.
WHEN 3F EVACUATED on the ice bridge in 2019, the wolf population was down to four: two new females and the original pair. But the importation was not over. That February and March, the Park Service released four additional wolves, two from Ontario and two from Michipicoten, another Lake Superior island, one where wolves had eaten all the caribou and were growing very hungry. The goal was to import genetically diverse animals to avoid, at least for a while, the inbreeding that plagued the final pair. And a few weeks later, with this goal in mind, the Park Service brought in seven more: three males and three females from Michipicoten and one male from Ontario. This was followed up by a final release in the fall—four more wolves from Michigan.
The deaths continued. One died from an infection. And near a trail, park staff found the remains of the male of the pair who had been living on Isle Royale for the past ten years. Cracked ribs and other injuries indicated other wolves had killed him. The female of the pair hadn’t been seen for months before the discovery of his body and hasn’t been seen since.
Three more wolves expired, at least two from fights with other wolves. By the winter of 2020, of nineteen wolves brought to the island, eight had died and one left.
IN SEARCH OF the dead moose, Peterson and I veered from the trail, following a GPS route through the woods, past downed branches peppered with woodpecker holes, skirting pools of water. Peterson checked on a mossy vertebra, a half-buried pelvis. Isle Royale is strewn with bones. Many of these animals died in 1996, when a disease brought to the island by a domestic dog killed many of the wolves. In the absence of predators, moose populations rose to almost 2,500 before plunging to below 1,000 in one brutal year as they ate all available food and starved.
Read more from Kim about the island wolves here.
The island is also littered with research experiments. An orange stake from the 1960s marked some forgotten territory. Four stunted balsam fir, no more than chest high, bore metal tags from the 1990s. Only one was left alive. The others, some tops broken clean off, were chewed to death by moose.
We climbed a muddy hill, passing a peeling birch, flags of white bark waving. And there, in the dark patch of forest, was a mass of hair and hide. This moose was a casualty of the island’s more recent upheavals. For the past few years, as the moose population grew, she hadn’t found enough food. And she finally succumbed to starvation, leaving her body fox scavenged, tick riddled. Rolf cut off a piece of hoof to see how lean years were recorded there. Avoiding another moose crash like 1996 is one of the goals of the new translocation.
Among the wolves, after all the initial chaos, packs began to coalesce. The animals thrived, and the population grew. The latest Annual Report (2022–2023) estimates thirty-one wolves. An East Pack of eleven individuals, a West Pack of five, and smaller groupings of two and three are carving up the territory. Working together, they are bringing down moose, lessening the chance of future ecological disaster. Pups have been born each year since April 2019, when a Michipicoten female was captured pregnant and released. The first female reintroduced, F1, who had darted from the cage in a blur, had pups with a Michipicoten male. Another pair, a brother and sister from the same island, also had pups, potentially setting the stage for another genetic bottleneck.
It’s “unfortunate from a genetic standpoint,” Peterson said. “But you can’t engineer everything.”
STILL, IT WAS SPRING. Hope wafted through the air like pollen. Nights in the lean-to, I listened hard for even the most distant howls. Crying children and mournful loons pierced the quiet, but no wolves. Though one morning, a crashing made me glance up in time to see a moose scrambling up the far side of Washington Creek. What looked like a toilet seat hung around her neck, adding to the impression of ungainliness. It was a satellite collar, outsize as a moose is. Numbers of moose are down (estimated at 967 in 2023 from more than 2,000 in 2019, just as the wolves arrived), and they hew closer to humans with predators back in the forest.
An artistic photo shows the first gray wolf translocated to Isle Royale National Park
on the move away from her carrier, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. NPS / John Pepin
Though glimpses of wolves are rare, their presence is felt. One volunteer, who comes to search for moose bones each summer, commented, “There have been a lot of sightings on the trails, just popping up, seeming curious.” One of the researchers, Michigan Tech assistant professor Sarah Hoy, said that, though she rarely saw wolves when she first arrived at Isle Royale, now in the winter, in a plane, tracks in the snow lead to many. “You’re flying above and there aren’t leaves on the trees; mid-morning they’ll find a spot to rest, and you’ll find them curled up,” Hoy said. It was “a delightful change, to get to see wolf pups interacting with their parents and siblings,” she added.
It’s the beginning of a new story. The big science question, according to Peterson, is: “When you start the record again, does it play the same song?” Will wolves inbreed again? Will the population require a constant influx of new animals? Will this be the start of another sixty years of wolves thriving on the island? Will new individuals find their way here? If the decades of Isle Royale studies have shown one thing, it’s that the narrative is hard to predict.
“Now we expect the unexpected; we just don’t know what it is,” Peterson said.