ISLA ROYAL, Mich. (Lansing State Journal) -- One of the highest points on Isle Royale is at the top of Mount Ojibway, a flattened crest above the trees where eagles nest, winds buffet and wild blueberries grow.
From there, you can see all the way to Canada - it's closer than Michigan - and watch the laughing white caps of Lake Superior pound the rocky shores in every direction.
It's from way up there that Rolf Peterson listens for signs of life.
Getting there isn't easy, but even at 64 years old, Peterson barely breaks a sweat despite the terrain. He has made this trek so many times he recognizes individual trees and juneberry bushes.
"You see that radio tower way over there?" he asks, pointing to a steel structure, small and hazy in the distance.
He chuckles with compassion. "It's actually farther away than it looks."
Under the canopy of aspen trees and balsam fir, the trail he follows is little more than a rough-hewn path of jagged boulders and exposed roots, the red soil packed hard by the countless footfalls of nature lovers and adventure seekers who visit the island every year.
When the trail breaks above the tree line, he climbs the 50 steps to the top of the radio tower.
He pulls from his 40-year-old backpack a receiver and two small antennas. He slowly swings the antennas left to right, waiting for a sound, listening for something other than static.
It has been more than a month since he has picked up the ping - the sign that Isabelle or Pip, the two radio-collared wolves on the island, are nearby.
He knows they're not dead. Not yet, at least. He, more than anyone else, would know.
For more than 40 years, he has spent every summer on the island with his wife, Candy, in a cabin with no running water as the chief researcher on a world-renown study through Michigan Technological University called the Wolf-Moose Project.
Now in its 55th year, it's the longest running study of its kind in the world, and it could happen only at Isle Royale.
The island park is the only place on the entire planet where a major predator and a major ungulate - a fancy biologist's term for things like deer, elk and moose - live together without the interference of some other species.
Peterson turns the antenna in another direction.
Several minutes pass.
All he hears is silence.
Nights on Isle Royale used to have a mournful soundtrack. During the wolves' heyday, their howls could be heard all night long, an almost guaranteed wildlife experience for Isle Royale visitors.
The nights have grown silent now.
There are only eight adult wolves left on Isle Royale, and they have little to say.
Though not technically native to the island - that is, there's no evidence of a breeding pack here until shortly after World War II - the wolves here enjoyed a population of 50 in the early 1980s.
The population has steadily declined since then, and those that are left are suffering.
Their backs are bowed and heavy from a genetic deformity, the result of generations of inbreeding, according to Peterson.
He and his research partner, John Vucetich, discovered in 2009 that one-third of the wolf skeletons they'd collected and studied over the years had a condition known as lumbosacral transitional vertebrae. In mainland wolf populations, only 1 in 100 suffer from it.
They have not found a healthy skeleton in 15 years.
The animals are starting to show signs of other deterioration, too. A female wolf died during childbirth last year when her uterus quit working, trapping the pups inside her while she bled to death.
In the past two years, only 2 percent of moose deaths on the island have been attributed to wolf kills. In previous years, it averaged 14 percent.
Though several factors have played a role in the wolves' demise - including a devastating epidemic of canine parvovirus brought to the island in 1981 by a boater and his dog - Peterson and Vucetich assert that the most prominent cause of their plight is something far less direct.
The wolves, they say, are dying because of climate change.
Ice coverage on the entire Great Lakes has shrunk 70 percent since 1973 as water temperatures have steadily increased. The water of Lake Superior alone has warmed by 4 degrees in 25 years.
The ice bridge that used to connect Isle Royale to Ontario, and which allowed wolves to walk back and forth, has all but disappeared.
During the 1940s, '50s and '60s, an ice bridge formed nearly every other year.
Today, ice bridges form roughly once every 15 years.
Peterson wants the National Park Service to try a "genetic rescue" to save the wolves. He wants to bring new wolves to the island to mate with the current packs and literally clean up the gene pool.
What he's asking for, however, is a bigger deal than just moving a handful of animals around. It is, in fact, one of the biggest and most controversial issues facing the National Park Service, planting Michigan in the center of a broader debate about the effect of climate change on our natural treasures.
It also has sparked a passionate debate in the scientific community, pitting Peterson and Vucetich against longtime friends and colleagues who think intervention would make things only worse for the island.
The director of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis, is considering three options.
He could do nothing. He could let the wolves die out and let nature run its course.
He could order the genetic rescue Peterson recommends, bringing in some fresh blood to reproduce and repopulate the island.
He could wait until the wolves die out and then bring new wolves to the island, attempting to rebuild the population from scratch.
Jarvis has promised to make a decision sooner rather than later - least before nature decides for him.
Whichever option he chooses, it will have a ripple effect on the entire National Park Service. The agency has adhered to a strict hands-off policy for managing wildlife in much of its 100-year history, only intervening when animals are endangered or suffering from the direct actions of humans.
If Jarvis chooses a genetic rescue, it will signal a sea change in policy - an intervention because of indirect human activity.
The stakes could not be higher, Peterson says.
For an island revered as timeless, the clock is ticking.
Something smelled bad. Not the normal dank stink of wet forest floor, but the pervasive, pungent rot of dead animal.
It was May 2012, and Isle Royale biologist Ted Gostomsk was out on a routine water testing excursion at Todd Harbor when he smelled it.
He was near an abandoned mine, one of the many hidden relics left behind from the island's 19th century heyday of copper mining and commercial fishing.
He investigated the best he could, peeking down the hole. It was too dark to make out much detail, but he could see one thing clearly - a tail.
It was too big for fox or beaver or any of the other small critters that play hide-and-seek with tourists.
It had to be a moose, he thought.
Which meant Peterson needed to be notified.
A major part of the Wolf-Moose project is the collection of dead moose. It's how they measure the number of animals killed by wolves versus natural causes.
Peterson has the largest known collection of moose antlers in the world - more than 180 displayed and cataloged behind his cabin.
Every moose death is carefully recorded on tags in a fascinating, macabre tableau.
#3138: 12 years old. Died in rutting fight with #3139
#3417: 2 years old. Died winter 2000 near Lily Lake
#3194: 2 years old. Starved winter of '96 southeast of Moskey Basin
#3398: Age 1. Probably killed by wolves. Winter '99.
Gostomsk took a picture of the carcass in the mine shaft and emailed it to Peterson.
Peterson and his wife grabbed their gear, climbed into their boat and motored over to Todd Harbor.
He had a bad feeling, thinking back to January when he and Vucetich made their annual trek to the island to do a winter survey. They couldn't find as many wolves as expected - only nine in total and only one female.
There should have been at least two more males and one more female - a young one they were hoping could reproduce.
Peterson peered down the mine shaft and shined his flashlight into the murky water.
His stomach sank.
That's not a moose.
"You see this one?"
Peterson is headed back down the trail from the top of Mount Ojibway.
The descent takes half as long, but it's no less treacherous.
He stops and takes hold of a 7-foot balsam fir near the path. The bottom two-thirds of the tree is stripped clean to the bark.
"The moose have pretty much eaten it away."
Peterson points deep into the woods, where pinpricks of sunlight illuminate pockets of rock and root.
If you look closely, he says, you can see a clear line where the moose have come through to eat.
Below a certain height, the trees are a collection of skinny bark and twig. Above the line, they swell, lush and green, into the canopy.
If you look close enough, he says, you can see straight into history.
There were a few decades at the beginning of the 20th century when moose on Isle Royale partied and indulged.
They were alone on the island - a major ungulate with no predator. Lynx were long gone, and wolves had not yet arrived.
Isle Royale's vast, undisturbed food supply fueled an uncontrolled population boom.
In 1929, a biologist who visited the island estimated the moose population at 3,000 - unsustainable by anyone's measure.
Experts predicted a crash, and they were right. By 1934, the party was over. The island's balsam fir had been devastated and the moose began to starve.
Within just a few years, the population dropped to roughly 400 or 500.
There are places on Isle Royale where the balsam fir still struggle to recover from the moose overpopulation.
Time is critical, Peterson says. Not just for wolves, but the entire ecosystem of the island.
Without wolves - the only large predator on the island - the moose population would explode again.
With too many moose, plant life would suffer and die, and the habitats of other animals would be destroyed.
A genetic rescue doesn't only save the animals, Vucetich says. It saves an entire ecosystem.
"The one thing on which there is universal agreement," Vucetich says, "is that wherever there are large ungulates like moose or deer or elk, there needs to be a top predator to maintain ecosystem integrity. Absolutely, positively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we know the moose are capable of damaging the forest. The only uncertainty is how quickly they will."
The bodies of three wolves floated at the bottom of the flooded mine shaft at Todd Harbor.
Peterson could only surmise what happened. Judging by the state of decomposition, he figured they fell during winter. The ice over the hole must have been too thin to hold them.
With no chance for escape, they either drowned or died from hypothermia.
In previous decades, the loss of three wolves would have been a blip. But in 2012, three represented nearly a quarter of the population.
Peterson and his wife painstakingly pulled each animal from the water.
He recognized one immediately. Romeo was what they called him, so named because of his eagerness with the ladies. He was one of the radio-collared wolves they couldn't find in January.
Another one was the young female who'd also been missing. It was a critical and devastating loss to the pack. Losing even one breeding female could doom the pack's ability to repopulate.
It was a turning point for Peterson.
Up until then, he had agreed with other biologists that intervention probably was wrong, that they should just wait until the wolves die out before trying to repopulate the island.
Then he saw those three carcasses.
"They didn't dig that hole," he says.
The National Park Service allows intervention to protect species and plant life that have been harmed directly by human activity. They did it with wolves in 1995 at Yellowstone National Park.
Wolves were native to the area but wiped out by human hunting and trapping in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Park Service relocated 31 Canadian wolves to Yellowstone because, according to officials, they needed to correct an historic wrong.
Isn't that what we have on Isle Royale? Peterson asks.
He understands genetic rescue is a scary concept to some. It challenges the longstanding philosophy that nature is always right and humans are always wrong.
Peterson, however, sees it differently.
"This is an opportunity," he says, "to inject positive human influence for once."
But as Peterson learned in June this year, that's a tough argument to make. And the reason lies in the meaning of a single, archaic word.
Critics of genetic rescue agree with Peterson on at least one thing. There's a lot at stake. But where Peterson sees opportunity through intervention, other scientists see a slippery slope. Once we start saving the wolves, they ask, when do we stop? And what if we get it wrong?
Standing at a podium at the University of Minnesota last June, David Mech commanded the crowd.
About 100 people sat in the audience before him at a forum organized by the National Parks Conservation Association to answer questions about the plight of the Isle Royale wolves.
Peterson was also one of the speakers. He would later say it seemed as if the real purpose of the forum was to outline all the reasons why his call for a genetic rescue is wrong.
Mech is founder of the International Wolf Center in Minnesota and - along with Peterson - is considered one of the world's foremost experts on wolf biology.
He was the original researcher on the Wolf-Moose project back in 1958. Isle Royale and its wolves are dear to his heart, he says.
Yet he is adamantly opposed to rescuing them.
"We've been crying wolf about the wolves on Isle Royale for quite some time," he told the audience. "Back in 1989, this article was published."
His PowerPoint flashes to a headline. Wolves Approach Extinction on Isle Royale.
"That was 25 years ago," he said.
He runs through a list of other headlines going all the way through 2013.
"We've had a long history of claiming these wolves are going to go extinct," Mech said. "Maybe someday that will be right. ... However, this population has survived, this inbred population has survived for 60-plus years. Do we really think it can't survive another few?"
One after another, the speakers outlined their opposition to genetic rescue.
Wolf and moose aren't native to the island, one speaker argued. Moose didn't arrive until the beginning of the 20th century, either by swimming from Ontario or - as a handful of people have suggested - were brought there by humans. Wolves didn't arrive until after World War II.
It would violate national park policy to attempt to save animals that aren't native to a region, said Tim Cochrane, park superintendent at Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota and the author of a book about the American Indian history on Isle Royale.
There is also the reality of island ecosystems, he said. Species die out all the time on islands - including Isle Royale. Caribou and lynx used to be the primary mammals, but they died out long before wolves and moose showed up.
And then there's this nagging question, Cochrane says.
"If (wolves) are so common now," he asks, "why were they so rare in the past when ice and access was easier?"
The question gets to the heart of why genetic rescue on Isle Royale is dangerous, he says.
If wolves and moose are not part of Isle Royale's natural state, he argues, we need to leave nature alone to reset the balance.
That has been the accepted philosophy of ecosystem management since 1964, when a pioneering environmentalist inserted a single, controversial word into what would become the nation's groundbreaking Wilderness Act.
That word was "untrammeled."
"It means unrestrained," said Kevin Proescholdt of a nonprofit called Wilderness Watch, "that these areas would be unconfined, unmanipulated, free to take their own course."
Proescholdt's group is a sort of self-appointed guardian of the Wilderness Act, which today protects 100 million acres from development. Isle Royale is among them. Nearly 98 percent of the island was given wilderness protection in 1976.
People tried to talk the writer - Howard Zahniser - out of using "untrammeled" in the law, but he did so precisely because it has such a specific meaning, Proescholdt told the audience in June.
Zahniser, he said, wanted to avoid exactly the kind of situation being debated on Isle Royale today. He understood the human temptation to try to fix things, when all too often we just make things worse, he said.
Proescholdt calls it the slippery slope of manipulation. What if genetic rescue doesn't work the first time? Do we do it again? How many times?
Restraint is difficult, he said. Especially when we're talking about a species as iconic as wolves. But it's what the Wilderness Act requires of us.
"To know wilderness is to know profound humility," Proescholdt said, quoting Zahniser. "It's to know one's littleness. Perhaps in the end, this is the distinction of wilderness to man."
If nature wants to save these wolves, Proescholdt said, it will find a way.
Perhaps it already tried. In 1997. When Lake Superior froze.
LONE WOLF: A TALE OF GENETIC RESCUE If the National Park Service agrees to a genetic rescue, Peterson says there will need to be a clear definition of success. It's not enough, he says, to just boost wolf numbers. The goal should be a healthier wolf population. The story of one wandering wolf demonstrates why.
If the National Park Service agrees to a genetic rescue, Peterson says there will need to be a clear definition of success. It's not enough, he says, to just boost wolf numbers. The goal should be a healthier wolf population. The story of one wandering wolf demonstrates why.
In the winter of 1997, a wicked storm swept across Lake Superior.
An ice bridge formed between Ontario and Isle Royale, the first in several years. At some point during the few weeks it was there, a lone male wolf stepped out.
He walked the entire 15 miles of frozen highway until he reached the island shores.
He went unnoticed by researchers at first, but his impact was immediate. Big and territorial, he quickly established dominance and assumed alpha status in the Middle Pack, one of three packs on the island.
And so began the odd, prolific life of Male 93.
The late '90s were a bleak period in the lives of the wolves on the island. Only 24 remained and food was scarce due to a sudden drop in the moose population in 1996.
It was about this same time - the late '90s - when the Wolf-Moose Project researchers began systematically gathering wolf scat, or, as non-biologists call it, poop.
They hoped the feces would allow them to make use of the latest DNA technology to perhaps identify specific genetic traits that might be unique to the wolves of Isle Royale and maybe shed light on the impact of inbreeding.
Researchers knew it would take a long time and a lot of poop to conduct the research.
During a flyover trip during the winter of 1999, Peterson and the team's pilot, Don Glaser, got a clear view of the animal they had been watching for some time.
He was the alpha of Middle Pack, and under his dominance the pack had grown to 10 wolves - the largest pack on the island in two decades.
He seemed different from the alphas of the other two packs. Part of it was his appearance. His fur was light gray, almost white, unlike any other wolf on the island.
They nicknamed him the Old Gray Guy.
As they circled in their plane, the wolf wandered onto the ice of a frozen inland lake. He squatted, defecated and retreated to the woods.
Glaser landed the plane. Peterson scooped up what the wolf had left.
It was bagged and labeled - alpha, Male 93 - and locked away in a freezer along with all the other samples in the hopes it would one day answer some questions.
Twelve years later, it did.
There's something you need to see.
In late 2010, Peterson and Vucetich got a message from the graduate student who was analyzing the results of the genetic testing.
There's a DNA strain here that doesn't match any of the others, the graduate student told them. It's from Male 93.
Scientists rarely get excited, nor do they believe anything at first.
Peterson and Vucetich reviewed the analysis and promptly set out to disprove it. They called in an evolutionary geneticist, Phil Hedrick of the University of Arizona, to repeat the test.
The results were the same.
There was a new genetic strain on the island, and it traced back to the mysterious Male 93.
Several things finally made sense. There was a boom in reproduction starting in the late 1990s with larger-than-normal litters from the Middle Pack. In the mid- to late-2000s, four white-furred alpha wolves appeared on the island. And then there was the unexplained aggressiveness and size of Male 93. He held alpha status for eight years - twice as long as the average lifespan of an Isle Royale wolf.
The Old Gray Guy, they realized, was an immigrant.
And he had carried out a one-wolf genetic rescue.
Male 93 sired 34 pups in his time on the island. Within a decade of his arrival, every wolf on Isle Royale was related to him.
The tests found something else, too, and it was startling to researchers. Of his 34 offspring, 21 of them were with his own daughter - Female 58.
That's how weak and diluted the existing genetics were on the island before he arrived, Peterson says. Even with other females to choose from for breeding, he chose to mate with one of his own daughters.
Two of the 21 pups he sired with his daughter went on to mate with each other - Male 135 and Female 147. The main breeders of the East Pack also were siblings from one of his litters.
By 2002, five of the six breeding wolves on the island once again were related to each other.
Of the eight adult wolves left on the island today, not a single one is unrelated to the Old Gray Guy.
Male 93 made it possible for the wolves of Isle Royale to rebound and survive longer than anyone expected during the 1990s, Vucetich said. But inbreeding was, and still is, a problem.
Did the Old Gray Guy prove genetic rescue can work? Or did he prove the opposite?
Neither, Vucetich said. He proved that stronger genes are necessary if the wolves are going to survive all the other factors that make life hard, and the success of genetic rescue will need to be defined in broader terms than just how many wolves exist at any given time.
"The Old Gray Guy and his lineage took over Isle Royale," Vucetich said. "His DNA was more fit than the native Isle Royale wolves. If he had not showed up, you could count on the wolves doing much worse."
But the Old Gray Guy also proved something else. And it's the one underlying lesson researchers have learned after 55 years of studying the wolf and moose of Isle Royale.
Just when we think we know what nature is going to do, it has a tendency to surprise us.
UNTRAMMELED HARMONY National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis says the story about the Isle Royale wolves matters because it's not just about one group of animals. It's about the realization that the world we live in today is different than when park policy first was established, that the things we noticed decades ago -- back when the lakes stopped freezing and the glaciers began to recede and the bones of Isle Royale moose began to show an increase in carbon dioxide -- should have warned us that our policies might need to change with the climate.
National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis says the story about the Isle Royale wolves matters because it's not just about one group of animals. It's about the realization that the world we live in today is different than when park policy first was established, that the things we noticed decades ago -- back when the lakes stopped freezing and the glaciers began to recede and the bones of Isle Royale moose began to show an increase in carbon dioxide -- should have warned us that our policies might need to change with the climate.
There were no pups born on Isle Royale in 2012, the first time since the Wolf-Moose Project began.
Peterson had all but given up hope that any would be born this year until he and Candy went backpacking on the island in June - their version of a summer vacation.
On the fifth day of their trip, they set up camp at Hay Bay, a dock and campground at the mouth of the Little Siskiwit River.
The mosquitoes were bad that night, so bad that they were forced into their tent at 9 p.m. As soon as they got settled, Candy remembered she'd left her shirt drying on the canoe down at the dock.
She left Rolf behind and ran down to the water to fetch it.
At 9:20 p.m., she heard it.
Not the deep, guttural longings of a mature adult, but the excited yips of a pup in training.
It sounded close, playful, happy.
She ran back to the tent to tell Rolf.
They huddled awake in the tent most of the night, listening and hoping their ears weren't deceiving them.
They packed their gear early the next morning and set out in the direction of where they last had picked up the signal of one of the radio-collared wolves. Part way there, Rolf stopped to study some tracks in the mud.
Until that moment, he hadn't dared to believe what he'd heard.
The tracks, however, were indisputable.
The wolves of Isle Royale had somehow, miraculously, reproduced once again.
Officials don't yet know how many pups there are - either two or three. If they survive the winter, they have a good chance of reaching adulthood.
They give us time but not much, said Isle Royale Superintendent Phyllis Green. Even if they survive and even if they eventually reproduce, they're just perpetuating diluted, inbred genes.
The Park Service won't make a decision until officials have finished gathering public comments and have a chance to review several scenarios about how life without wolves could impact the island, Green said.
One major factor in the the Park Service's decision will be not just the role of wolves in the ecosystem as it exists today on Isle Royale, but also what visitors expect there.
The wolf is an iconic animal. For some, she said, it is the very face of Isle Royale, the symbol of all that is wild and pure about the island. Which is why the idea of letting them go is so difficult.
"There are people who say, 'I want my children to see what I've seen here,'" Green said. "I hope they can. The island will always be here. The question is, how heavily does man lay its hand on this island? People want you to intervene because we don't ever like to feel helpless in the face of change."
But change is already upon us, said Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. We must adapt where we can, save what we can, and use our parks to educate people about the changing world.
But we also must accept that we've already lost control. There are things happening that cannot be undone.
Someday, there will be no glaciers at Glacier National Park.
Someday, the seas will rise and swallow the Everglades.
Someday, no matter what we do, many of the things we cherish most will be gone.
And all we can do, he said, is learn to say good-bye.
Candy Peterson believes that all of life is term-limited. We are here for a short time and then we're gone, and after us, the life cycle begins again.
Death is nothing to fear. It is, she believes, what makes life valuable.
The pups are a treasure, she says. They are a gift of time that we so often in our hectic lives forget to appreciate.
She is the "heart" of the Wolf-Moose Project.
On Wednesdays during the summer, Candy crosses the inlet from Bangsund Cabin to Daisy Farm, one of the island's more popular campgrounds. There on the dock, she greets fresh-faced day trippers and unwashed backpackers for a conversation and a moment of peaceful restoration.
She talks about the wolves and the moose, about raising three kids on the island, about faith and humanity and how both are restored in the wilds of Isle Royale.
She always ends by handing out the lyrics to an old Girl Scouts song. Everyone gets a different part to sing, a different key for harmony.
All things shall perish
From under the sky
Music alone shall live
Never to die
Sing out, she tells them. Don't be shy. Listen to the lyrics and celebrate the cycle of life.
Music alone shall live
Never to die
For a few minutes on the dock of Daisy Farm, the Isle Royale silence fills with the sound of friends and strangers, their voices blended and spirits revived.
That's what the howling of the pups sounded like that night on Hay Bay in July. It sounded like hope and promise, like the sunrises of a few more tomorrows.
It sounded, perhaps, like life itself.
Unpredictable and miraculous, precious and fleeting.
And if only for a few minutes, beautiful in its pristine, untrammeled harmony.