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Biologist never tires of watching wolves

Rolf Peterson, a wildlife biologist at Michigan Tech University, poses some of the hundreds of moose antlers he has collected during three decades of studying moose and wolves at Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior in this May 20, 2004, file photo. (AP Photo/John Flesher)

Rolf Peterson has watched a bleeding female wolf struggle to survive, helped by a turncoat male from the rival pack that had mauled and left her for dead.

He has come face to face with a wolf while lying on a forest path shooting video; the animal casually detoured around him.

He and his wife have spent three decades of summers in an old fishing cabin without electricity or running water. The nearby storage shed is jammed to the rafters with moose skulls and antlers.

And he has chronicled with endless fascination the not-so-peaceful coexistence between wolves and moose on Isle Royale, a wilderness national park in Lake Superior whose isolation provides a rare setting for predator and prey to interact with minimal human contact.

"I've seen a lot of amazing things," Peterson said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press, summing up his life's work as a wildlife biologist in one understated sentence.

He has no intention of stopping, although he'll officially retire as a Michigan Technological University professor at the end of May. His "second career" is already lined up: continuing to study moose and wolves on Isle Royale as a faculty researcher.

"It's something he'll do as long as he physically can," says his wife, Candy, who shares her husband's love of nature and cheerfully welcomes park visitors to their waterfront cabin.

Peterson, 56, is sometimes likened to the legendary primatologist Jane Goodall, although he notes that -- for obvious reasons -- he can't develop close-up, affectionate relationships with wolves and moose as Goodall does with chimpanzees.

But in one respect they're definitely alike: Both try to demystify animals that are often misunderstood.

"The wolf is a hot-button species," Peterson says. "It never fails to ignite passions, either for or against."

Feared and vilified by European settlers and Western ranchers, the wolf was driven almost to extinction in the 20th century until rescued by the Endangered Species Act. Nowadays, most people recognize the crucial role played by wolves and other predators in the balance of nature, Peterson says.

Wolves are not the efficient killing machines portrayed in myths, he says -- at least when going after moose.

"They have a very poor success rate," he says.

With powerful kicks, young moose can fight off a pack of hungry wolves -- or simply outrun them in winter. Wolves have better luck with old, sick moose or calves.

"Moose can trot through two feet of snow at 20 miles per hour," Peterson says. "That's faster than the world champion cross-country skiers. Wolves cannot keep up if the snow is soft."

The "selective nature" of wolf predation is among the discoveries Peterson and his research associates have made, he says.

Another is that Isle Royale moose are uniquely susceptible to arthritis, which he learned by examining their bones. Malnutrition in infancy is known to be one cause, but Peterson suspects there's a genetic link -- and that his moose research may eventually have crossover benefits for humans.

"We know things about arthritis in moose that we don't even know for people," the Minneapolis native says. "It's time we try to bridge that gap."

Peterson's fascination with wolves and moose was triggered in part by a high school graduation present: a book by Durwood Allen, a Purdue scientist who in the 1950s began studying the two species on Isle Royale.

Moose are believed to have swum to the 45-mile-long archipelago from Minnesota in the early 1900s. Wolves apparently migrated across the frozen lake a half-century later.

Peterson enrolled at Purdue as a graduate student after earning a biology degree at the University of Minnesota at Duluth and began working with Allen on Isle Royale. When Allen retired in 1975, Peterson took over the program and moved it to Michigan Tech in Houghton, a Michigan town about 60 miles southeast of Isle Royale.

He has spent summers on the island ever since, doing field work such as gathering moose bones and scouting wolf dens. For seven weeks each winter, he returns for aerial observations.

The National Science Foundation is the research program's primary sponsor. The National Park Service also provides funding, although a Department of Interior official who hated wolves tried to kill the program during the Reagan years, Peterson says. Park Service personnel pulled out in the middle of the winter study, leaving him with only an airplane pilot for help.

"The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources flew in some food for us," Peterson says, adding dryly, "Foreign aid was important that year."

Peterson and his assistants compile a yearly census of the wolf and moose populations, which are influenced by factors such as weather, disease, parasites and food availability.

At present, the wolves number a healthy 30, while moose are at an all-time low: 450. But Peterson says wolves are sure to decline in the next few years as the scarcity of vulnerable moose reduces their food supply.

Despite the moose's slump, Peterson says the wolf is more vulnerable to extinction. Should that happen, he hopes the National Park Service will transplant more wolves to Isle Royale.

In a 1995 book, "Broken Balance," he argues that people have an obligation to keep wolves in the park because a tourist who illegally brought a dog there 15 years earlier caused a parvovirus outbreak that nearly wiped out the wolves and has affected them since.

Peterson promises to continue making the case for the wolf's recovery in the Upper Midwest and elsewhere, a job he's uniquely qualified to perform, says David Mech, founder of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.

"He's the amiable, plain-spoken fellow who gets along well with the general public, gets his points across very well," Mech says.

Despite his love of wolves, Peterson isn't among those who oppose lethal control to keep them from killing livestock and pets.

"If you don't provide those tools, you really undermine public support for having any wolves," he says. "Their best chance for recovery is to keep them in the wild. The worst thing for them is to lose their fear of people."


Editor's note: John Flesher is the AP correspondent in Traverse City, Mich., and has covered environmental issues since 1992.

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