Fresh Ideas: When the wolves are silent, the moon howls

When the wolves, are silent, the moon howls.

The above is a paraphrase from George Carlin, and I take it to mean everything in nature is interdependent. The moon, in essence, “cries” if there are no wolves.

Wolves originated and evolved in North America more than 10 million years ago, but by the 1920s they had been all but exterminated in the 48 states of America. As a result of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, wolves have made a gradual comeback. According to the updated 2015 U.S. Fish and Wildlife numbers, there are 5,690 grey wolves. Of those, 3,722 are to be found in the western Great Lakes states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Isle Royale National Park); 1,782 of that number are in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest (Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, and Oregon). A mere 100 red wolves (all in North Carolina) in the lower 48 states. Alaska has a population between 7,700-11,200 grey wolves, but they are not protected by the Endangered Species Act. Wolves occupy only about 3 percent of their former range in the continental 48 states.

The only place in the world I’m aware of where wolves in the wild have been under continuous study — for 57 years since 1958 — is at Isle Royale, an island in the northwestern section of Lake Superior about 15 miles from Canada. On this island, wolves are the only predator of the moose which have lived there since the early 1900s and serve as virtually the only food for the wolves. Because human impact here is limited (no hunting of wolves or moose), and the forest has never been cut, it’s about as “natural” a habitat as one could have to study the dynamics of the predator/prey relationship. (The other species that used to live on Isle Royale have become extinct).

During the 57 years of the study, the wolf population has typically held at 18-27 wolves organized into three different packs. The moose numbers have fluctuated between 700 and 1,200. At the present time, the moose population is around 1,200, while the wolves are down to 3. Not a promising outlook for the wolves. According to the biologists who have studied them, the most important events in the history of the Isle Royale wolves and moose have been “essentially unpredictable events — disease, tick outbreaks, severe winters, and immigrant wolves.” Climate change and forest growth have also had their impact on the island which in turn has affected the wildlife.

Wolves don’t have cushy lives. Pups are born deaf and blind and weigh not more than a can of soda pop. If they have enough food, they’ll make to age one. As often as not, food is scarce and they don’t. There are usually 3-11 wolves per pack. Wolves share food with some; deprive others. Only the alpha male and female reproduce, and they suppress reproduction among the others of their pack. At age 2 or 3, young wolves, male or female, traditionally leave their birth pack to find a mate and launch their own lives. But because only 1 or 2 of every 10 pups born that survive their first year become alpha wolves, this is not a risk-free move to make. Staying in the pack, biding one’s time to see if an alpha male or female dies, giving the waiting wolf an opportunity to mate isn’t always the solution, either.

There will be much more to say about wolves, their intellect, bravery, magnanimity, all of which I will comment on in my next column in January.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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