Hunger makes Isle Royale wolves less
fearful of people
By John Flesher
Traverse City Record-Eagle
Published September 11, 2006
For campers at Isle Royale National Park, sighting a
gray wolf is a rare and thrilling experience.
At least, it has been.
But some wolves have gotten a bit too familiar this summer,
wandering into camping areas and showing little of their
customary fear of people.
No attacks or threatening behavior have been reported.
But the close encounters prompted warnings to visitors
not to feed the wolves.
"Wolves are wild animals and potentially dangerous
like any wild animals," said Michigan Tech University
biologist Rolf Peterson, who has studied wolves and moose
on the Lake Superior island chain for more than 30 years.
Wolves seldom target humans, although it's not unheard
of, Peterson said Monday. In fact, a wolf attacked several
people at Lake Superior Provincial Park in Ontario last
week before the superintendent killed it.
Such incidents could happen more often if wolves begin
to identify people as a food source, Peterson said.
"The best thing is that they never associate us
with a speck of food," said Phyllis Green, the Isle
Scientists believe wolves migrated to Isle Royale from
Minnesota in the mid-1900s when the lake's surface was
frozen. They found prey in the moose that had arrived
a half-century earlier and smaller mammals such as beaver.
But beaver have mostly disappeared because of habitat
loss resulting from changes in forest cover, Peterson
said. So the wolves now have little to feed on except
moose, whose numbers also have nose-dived recently.
A census earlier this year counted about 450 moose -
fewest in the 48 years biologists have monitored the relationship
between the two species in Isle Royale's closed environment.
Meanwhile, the wolf population was a healthy 30. Peterson
predicts it will decline because of the food shortage,
which likely is what's making them less fearful of humans.
"They're very hungry this year," Peterson said.
Most of the sightings were early in the season, when
people were beginning to occupy camping areas that had
been vacant through the winter, Green said. The park is
closed from November through mid-April.
The boldest wolves belonged to what's known as the eastern
pack, which has nine members. Some turned up near Rock
Harbor, one of the most developed sections of the park
and a docking site for ferryboats from the mainland.
"They were hunting (moose) calves in one of our
campgrounds," Green said. "They were in there
during broad daylight. One of them one time was chasing
In bygone days, "maybe one visitor in a thousand"
would spot a wolf, Peterson said. "Now, when I give
a talk to 50 people, there will be two or three in the
audience that saw wolves."
Visitors are given a fact sheet advising them to properly
stow food and garbage and to dump fish offal in deep water.
Other words of wisdom: If you see a wolf, get away as
quickly as possible but don't run. Don't follow or howl
at them. If you come upon a moose carcass, don't hang
around; wolves may be nearby even if you don't see them.
"People need to respect the dinner table,"
Green said. "If you're not invited, don't attend."
EDITOR'S NOTE - John Flesher is the AP correspondent
in Traverse City and has covered environmental issues