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Movie Review
Fortunate Wilderness
A new film profiles both the unique relationship between moose and wolves on isolated Isle Royale and the historic half-century wildlife study that chronicles that relationship.

An Isle Royale wolf. During a typical lifetime of 10 to 12 years, an Isle Royale wolf will feed on 200 or more moose kills.
George Desort

Rugged, remote Isle Royale National Park sits in northern Lake Superior, 18 miles off the coast of mainland Ontario. Because of its isolation and the icy waters that surround it, the island—it’s actually a main island and roughly 400 surrounding smaller islands, islets, and rocks—has a unique, and sometimes hard to figure, ecological history. For instance, a mere third or so of the mammals that live in surrounding mainland forests are also found on Isle Royale. Its animal denizens include beavers, foxes, red squirrels, and woodland deer mice, but even the scientists who know this place best can’t explain how they all go tthere.

Biologists believe that moose first showed up on Isle Royale some time around 1910. They arrived to find a paradise—plenty of food and no predators—and quickly flourished. Predictably, though, the moose quickly overwhelmed the forest, and by the mid-1930s, the population crashed. The decline, of course, allowed the forest to recover, which in turn caused a moose resurgence.

This ebb and flow changed forever in 1949, when a pair of wolves reached the island, apparently by walking across an iced-over Superior. They, like the ungulates before them, found a paradise: plenty of moose to hunt and no competition. Eventually a balance between the forest, the moose, and the wolves was reached: The moose population would grow; about a decade later, the wolf population, nurtured by an ample supply of older moose, would peak. That would help reduce moose numbers, which, after 10 years or so, would lower wolf numbers.

Scientists soon recognized that Isle Royale presented them with the ideal place to intensively study the relationship between a prey population and its primary predator. In 1958 the eminent conservation biologist Durwood Allen launched what is believed to be the longest-running study of its kind ever, a study that continues today.

Now filmmaker George Desort has profiled that study, along with the scientists who have conducted it, in Fortunate Wilderness: The Wolf and Moose Study on Isle Royale. (“The Long View,” a written account of the study, ran in the March-April 2008 Audubon.)

Desort’s fascinating film features interviews with the biologists, including Dave Mech, the eminent wolf biologist who, as a graduate student, assisted Allen; Rolf Peterson, spent nearly four decades of his professional life doing groundbreaking work on Isle Royale’s wolves and moose; and John Vucetich, who, in 2000, became Peterson’s partner and eventual successor. Desort also interviewed the pilots who, winter after winter, took to the skies over the snowy island to enable the researchers to observe the wolves. (The wolves are seen primarily in winter and mainly from the air.) The wolf footage is great, though there’s not a huge amount of it. There is, however, plenty of great moose footage (they’re much less secretive and much easier to film), including amazing underwater shots of a feeding moose. Isle Royale is, quite simply, a gorgeous place, and the film would be worth watching even as a mere tour of this wild and relatively untrammeled terrain.

The Isle Royale predator/prey research will continue, even as the animals face new challenges. The wolf population, which descends entirely from the wolf pair that reached the island in 1949, is finally showing signs of the effects of decades of inbreeding. And climate change seems to be creating new problems for the moose. We learn in Desort’s film, for instance, that winter ticks are gaining ground because of warmer winters. Incredibly, a single adult moose can host 25,000 to 30,000 ticks, and if spring comes even a week too late, this can mean the difference between life and death for the animal.

Isle Royale, which was named a national park in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover, is the least-visited park in the entire system. It doesn’t have the amenities of other, more accessible parks—more than 98 percent of the island is designated wilderness—but those who make the effort to get there will enjoy a wild and memorable experience. For more information, click here.

To buy a DVD of the hourlong Fortunate Wilderness or to learn more about the Isle Royale wolf–moose study, click here.

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Related link: “Inherit the Wound