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Great Lakes Article:

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 Royale superintendent.

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 a fox."

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."

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EDITOR'S NOTE - John Flesher is the AP correspondent in Traverse City and has covered environmental issues since 1992.


 

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