The Long View
Isle Royale National Park draws visitors who like nature rugged and remote. It’s also the site of the longest-running study ever of a predator and its primary prey—even as global warming shows signs of upsetting the natural balance.
The old wooden auditorium at Rock Harbor on Isle Royale’s northeast end, built in the late 1930s by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, looms out of pea-soup fog like a ghost ship. Perhaps the SS America, which delivered vacationers and goods to lakeside resort communities in the early 1900s, when the island was billed as “A Summertime ‘Bermuda’ Paradise in the Beautiful Superior Sea.” The 272-passenger America struck a submerged shoal and sank without loss of life in 1928, adding its ruptured steel hull to a list of famous shipwrecks attributed to Isle Royale’s dangerous waters and Lake Superior’s often-furious moods. This evening the lake is only agitated. Still, waves smacking boulders near the steamship’s old dock nearly drown out a choir of loons bringing down the curtain on a cold, dripping mid-June day.
The America had been an essential conduit for the island’s commerce, returning to Duluth laden with the catch of lake trout and whitefish from several thriving commercial fisheries, and the ship’s loss hastened the end of Isle Royale’s halcyon days. At the same time it fueled an incipient movement to preserve the largely uninhabited island, which sits in Superior’s northwest corner, as a wilderness park. By 1940 the federal government had acquired title to all 210 square miles of land; in 1946, after a wait for the end of World War II, Isle Royale National Park was formally dedicated. Ever since, park scientists and seasonal naturalists have used that old CCC hall to give talks about the local flora, fauna, and geology.
The least-visited national park in the lower 48 states, Isle Royale annually attracts about 17,000 tourists who arrive by boat or floatplane—the only ways to get there—during its three-month summer season. Many of them are backpackers heading to outlying campgrounds. But around Rock Harbor, the hub of park activities with its visitors’ center, marina, and the island’s one remaining resort, these lectures are the only evening entertainment for guests deprived of television sets, cell phones, and BlackBerries. (Plump red thimbleberries, however, will soon be ripe for picking along Isle Royale’s 165 miles of trails.) Last night’s presentation, for example, highlighted the island’s 31 species of wild orchids, including the rare calypso or fairy slipper, a dainty jewel found only in lichen-draped boreal forests.
Tonight’s program, however, might be rated “R” for graphic content. The topic: Isle Royale’s wolves and the moose that are their bread and butter. The wolves are literally the most famous Canis lupus population in the world due to the prescience and determination of Durward Allen (1910–1997), a towering figure among many eminent conservation biologists in the middle of the 20th century, and the work of the young scientists who answered his summons. For it was a half-century ago—in the summer of 1958—that Allen, then professor of wildlife ecology at Purdue University, launched what is believed to be the world’s longest-running study of a top predator and its primary prey.
Early on Allen recognized Isle Royale as a natural laboratory that was effectively isolated from human impact—and the only place in North America where hunter and hunted could be counted and their interactions studied over time. Allen first proposed the project in the early 1950s, when he was a top research scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But Eisenhower-era political appointees had little interest in funding research. His frustration ended when he left the Fish and Wildlife Service for a faculty position at Purdue, winning a National Science Foundation grant for the venture.
A good friend and supporter during my years as Audubon’s editor, Allen once told me that he wanted to study Isle Royale’s wolves and moose because he came along a century too late to study wolves and bison on the Plains. I’m sure he was serious. But what he really hoped was that the study would help change the public’s perception of wolves as terrifying creatures that kill for fun in great orgies of slaughter, cutting out the best animals in the herd, hamstringing their victims, and eating them alive. All myths. Yet at the time the three Lake Superior states still paid bounties on wolves, which were on the verge of extirpation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin. (Minnesota had a viable population of about 600 in the 1950s.) Popular articles about the researchers’ findings, Allen knew, would be a big help.