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AFIELD WITH A WOLFMAN

Dec. 18, 1989
Dec. 18, 1989

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Dec. 18, 1989

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AFIELD WITH A WOLFMAN

David Mech has spent his adult life studying the breed

On the ragged edge of the World
I'll roam,
And the home of the Wolf
Will be my home.
—ROBERT SERVICE

This is an article from the Dec. 18, 1989 issue Original Layout

If any place qualifies as the ragged edge of the world, it's northeastern Minnesota in the winter. On this February day, snow is not so much falling as it is flying sideways. The flat terrain is uniformly white; there are a few nasty-looking gray clouds overhead; and the wind makes it feel like it's 10°. That's not enough to stop Dave Mech.

He stands on a tiny island in the middle of frozen Birch Lake, in Superior National Forest, with the snow swirling and the wind howling around him and the remains of a yearling deer at his feet. The small buck was killed by a wolf three days earlier, and Mech (rhymes with peach) is puzzled. He wonders precisely how the wolf made its kill and also why this particular animal was the chosen victim. As he runs his fingers down the deer's sinewy legs, he feels for a deformity or an injury, because he has shown that wolves usually go after the lame, the sick or the aged. There is little sign of struggle around the carcass, just a few dull maroon splashes dried in the snow. "This wolf must have been a vampire," Mech says with a smile. "No blood." He cannot explain it. Wolves still can confound Mech.

Mech walks across the frozen lake toward a plane—a single-engine Piper Super Cub; his boots crunch the ice beneath the snow. His beefy hands are bare, and unruly wisps of what little hair he has stick out from under a fake-fur hat. Suddenly he stops to gaze across the monochrome landscape. He flings his arms out and says, "Isn't it glorious?"

Lucyan David Mech has seen more dismembered deer than he would care to count, but dead animals go with the territory when you study wolves. And Mech, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been a student of the wolf for more than 30 years. He is regarded by the scientific community as the world's preeminent authority on the species. Mech has trapped wolves; he has measured them and analyzed their blood; he has seen them kill moose, caribou, arctic hare, deer and musk oxen. He has tracked them on snowshoes. He has raised their pups in his home. Name just about anywhere wolves live, and there's a good chance that he has been there. If someone discovered that wolves lived on the moon, he would probably find a way to get there, too.

Mech spends most of his time in Superior National Forest, in Minnesota, the only state in the lower 48 with a sizable established wolf population. All told, about 1,200 wolves live in the state, (about 300 of them are concentrated in the 4,200-square-mile Superior Forest). Data is sparse, but it is estimated that less than half that number lived in the state two decades ago. It was Mech who was largely responsible for persuading state officials and ranchers that wolves are not the bloodthirsty livestock killers they have historically been made out to be. He was also a behind-the-scenes force in backing Wisconsin's wolf research program and in getting the red wolf reintroduced to North Carolina, and he is active in the movement to return timber wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

Although it's safe to say there is no greater champion of the wolf than Mech. he isn't afraid to disagree with others who share his affection for the species. He refused to condemn Alaska's controversial wolf-hunting program, for example, because he thinks the Alaskan wolf population is large enough to warrant it. That stand has put him at odds with many wolf enthusiasts.

Mech, 52, works six days a week, arriving at his office at the University of Minnesota, in St. Paul—where he is an adjunct professor in two departments (fisheries and wildlife, and behavioral and ecological science)—by nine every morning, then returning after supper to work on research reports and his correspondence. In three decades he has published four books and more than 225 scientific papers. A few years ago, he dictated a novel into a tape recorder during the 250-mile drives he makes between Minneapolis and the Kawishiwi Fish and Wildlife Service Lab he uses, near Ely, Minn. But he scrapped the project when he realized that he had too many story lines going all at once.

It's surprising that Mech was able to come to such a realization, considering that his life appears to have as many subplots as an episode of L.A. Law. A recent sampling of his schedule: On Sunday night he drove the five hours from Minneapolis to the Lab, the log cabin that serves as a field station for his work in Superior National Forest; he drove back 48 hours later; on Thursday he flew to Anchorage, Alaska, where he gave two lectures; and then it was on to Denali National Park, a four-hour drive north of Anchorage, where he consulted with biologists running a study for him. He flew back to Minneapolis the following Tuesday, for a four-day scientific convocation. To relax, Mech will indulge his passion for the opera, usually at performances in the Twin Cities.

When he travels to places like New York or Chicago for conferences, he tries to spend a night or two at the opera and to sample the latest trends in haute cuisine, another of his passions. But the definition of haute has to be expanded for a man who spends so much of his time with wolves that he has begun to resemble the animals in certain respects. For instance, he'll eat just about any meat. If it's bigger than a cockroach, he has tasted it. He has eaten venison steaks sliced off a wolf kill. He has sampled moose, bear, lynx, mink and, if truth be told, wolf. He has even eaten sheep's eyeballs. That was at a banquet thrown for him by Soviet biologists. His hosts awarded him the eyeballs in a you-are-what-you-eat kind of gesture—eat these eyeballs, comrade, to improve your ability to observe the wolf. "The eyeballs were okay," Mech says. "It was the vodka I couldn't stand. They kept pouring me glass after glass until finally I refused and offended everybody."

Mech's name is known to biologists around the world, and privately he enjoys the fame, but he's not especially interested in fortune. More than half of the royalties from his latest book, The Arctic Wolf: Living with the Pack, are being split between the International Wolf Center, in Ely (of which he is vice-chairman), and The Wolf Recovery Program of the Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife. When he's on Fish and Wildlife business, he drives a government-issue Plymouth. It smells faintly of dead animal—a couple of winters ago Mech tossed a frozen muskrat into the trunk and only remembered it the following spring.

There was little in Mech's upbringing in Syracuse, N.Y., that suggested he would eventually turn into the foremost expert on wolves. Certainly it wasn't the blue-collar neighborhood in which he grew up, where the wildest animals a youngster might encounter would be the drunks staggering from bar to bar on Friday evenings. Mech, the oldest of three children, was named after his father, who worked all his life as a laborer in Allied Chemical's Solvay Processes chemical plant.

But Mech could escape to the birch and pine woods just to the north of Syracuse, which he did at every opportunity. When he was 14, he attended a conservation camp in the Catskill Mountains, where professional fur trappers taught the boys the rudiments of their trade. He still takes time off from his wolf studies to run trap lines. "I liked hunting and fishing, but there was something about trapping that meant so much more to me, and still does," he says. "There's a phrase known as trapping fever, and any trapper knows what you're talking about. It's an obsession."

The profits from his trapping and other part-time jobs helped Mech get through his conservation studies at Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in Ithaca, N.Y. He trapped animals in the Adirondack Mountains during Christmas and spring breaks. In the summer, Mech worked for the N.Y. Department of Conservation, trapping and releasing black bears. In 1958, his senior year, he met Betty Ann Smith, a fellow Cornell student, and they were married that August, after he spent the summer alone studying the interaction of wolves and moose in Isle Royale National Park, which is on an island in Lake Superior.

In 1963, Mech and Durward Allen, the founder of the Isle Royal wolf project, wrote about their experiences in National Geographic. Three years later, Mech's The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species came out. That wide-ranging look at the wolf—in which Mech describes the tactics and selection practices wolves use when hunting, and which proves that they are not indiscriminate or very efficient killers—has been ranked as one of three books published this century that have drastically revised perceptions of the species. The other two are The Wolves of Mount McKinley, naturalist Adolph Murie's treatise published in 1944, and Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf, a work that Mech deeply resents.

When Never Cry Wolf was released in 1963, Atlantic-Little, Brown, the publisher, sent Mech a review copy of the book, an account of Mowat's experiences as a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service living with a pack of wolves in northern Canada. The book stunned Mech. "I'd just spent three years trying to get near the wolves on Isle Royale without success," he says. "Here this guy shows up doing all these things nobody else had been able to do.

"As a scientist, I hate to see the public think that book is true. It's not," Mech says.

Mowat stands by his book, though he readily admits to having embellished some of the facts. He calls himself a "subjective nonfiction writer" and says, "I have a little saying: Never let the facts interfere with the truth. I'm a little teed off at these scientists, because I, more than anybody, set the stage for the general interest in the wolf. I would say, frankly, that most of them were just bloody jealous."

Mech snorts at the idea that his criticism of Mowat is motivated by jealousy. "Passing that book off as fact is cheating, is what it is," he says. But it is a fact that because Mowat's book was made into a critically acclaimed movie in 1983, some of the thunder was stolen from The Arctic Wolf, Mech's account of living with the white wolves on Ellesmere Island, which was published in 1988.

Mech first became interested in Ellesmere when he was researching The Wolf He read an ornithologist's account of a pack of white wolves that, unlike its counterparts in the forests of Canada and the U.S., showed no fear. But it wasn't until 1986 that Mech could get to Ellesmere, a barren rock outcropping only 450 miles from the North Pole. He and Jim Brandenburg, a photographer, camped near what they had identified as one of the wolves' trails, and gradually the animals began approaching the men.

Mech hit the jackpot late one July night, when he found an actual den. The wolves' home was a cave at the bottom of a rock face, and as he crept down a hill opposite the opening, a tall wolf came from around the rock and bounded up the hill toward him, hackles raised. Another wolf woke up and gave a hoarse bark. Suddenly the rest of the pack had surrounded him. As it turned out, the wolves were more curious than alarmed, and eventually they accepted him as a sort of honorary pack mate, allowing him to camp nearby and sit with them at the opening of the den.

Only once has Mech been frightened by a wolf. That was in 1959, his second summer in Isle Royale National Park. His pilot had set him down half a mile from a pack of wolves that were eating a moose. Mech struggled through deep snow, hoping to get a close look, but the wolves sensed him and scattered when he got within 300 yards. Half an hour later, he was intently examining the moose carcass when the pilot of his plane buzzed him. Mech looked up to see two wolves charging toward him. Almost by instinct, he reached for the revolver he had in his pack. The wolves turned tail and fled. "I instantly regretted having reached for that gun," says Mech. "I've never carried one since."

In 1987, Mech and Brandenburg returned to Ellesmere and filmed "White Wolf," a television program for the National Geographic Explorer series. The men returned to Minneapolis to collaborate on a book but were unable to agree on how to split royalties. They eventually published separate accounts—Brandenburg's is titled White Wolf: Living with an Arctic Legend—and they haven't spoken to each other since.

In general, people seem to cause Mech far more trouble than animals. He is politely guarded around new acquaintances, and though his students call him Dave, there's a stilted formality about their conversations. "I don't really need people that much," says Mech. "Not only do I not need them, I'm rather uncomfortable around them."

Mech was divorced in 1985, and he now lives near the university in a two-bedroom condominium. He dates, he goes to the opera, and he takes friends to plays at the Old Log Theater near Minneapolis. He sees his four children, all grown, from time to time. "I liked being married," he says. "I liked having a family. But now I really feel free."

Snow is falling in big, fluffy blobs at Kawishiwi as Mech and his assistants prepare to test a new type of collar. Mech has trapped more than 400 wolves in Superior National Forest and fitted them with radio collars. Over the years, they've gotten wise to him.

"These wolves are the most trap-educated in the world," he says. His favorite, number 2407—a female—wore a transmitter continuously for 11 years. During that period she had to be recaptured eight times to put fresh batteries in the transmitter. "Number 2407 was sooo bright," he says. "The last time I tried to catch her I put the traps underwater, and she just pulled them all up."

The new collar carries not only a transmitter but also a tiny receiver, a computer and tranquilizer darts. When a researcher sends the proper radio signal, the computer orders one of the darts to be fired into the animal's neck, and the drug knocks it out. That means Mech won't have to use leg traps to recapture animals anymore. "If I wanted wolf number 2407 now, all I'd have to do is push a button," he says.

But before he fits a wolf with the new dart collar, he wants to make sure the thing works. Mech and his assistants put on snowshoes and tramp out into the storm in search of one of the three deer that have already been fitted with prototypes of the collar. They locate a doe about half a mile from the cabin. She's out of sight in a coppice of balsam spruce, but her signal comes in loud and clear. Kyran Kunkel, one of Mech's grad students, pushes a button on a radio transmitter to activate the dart.

They find the doe lying on her side, her brown eyes wide open. Steve Van Asselt, a 23-year-old volunteer on the project, throws himself on top of the animal in case the drug hasn't completely knocked her out. At the same time, Kunkel injects the doe with another dose of tranquilizer and covers her eyes with a protective cloth hood. Mech stands to one side taking pictures. One assistant draws blood, another snips a bit of hair and skin from the deer's flank for later analysis, and somebody else readies a syringe of yohimbine, an antidote to the tranquilizer. Then the deer's legs are strapped together so she can be weighed. The deer groans as she's hoisted in the air, tipping the scale at 175 pounds. Finally, Van Asselt injects her with the yohimbine.

On the return trip to the lab, Mech is ecstatic. "That was a historic moment," he says. "I've been working 20 years to be able to do that. Now we can look at the wolves more frequently. We can weigh them, test their blood and learn more about their reproductive capacities if we can easily knock them out for a brief period. You just can't do that if you have to spend most of your time trying to recapture them by trapping."

After spending 48 hours at the lab, Mech returns to Minneapolis, where his desk is strewn with papers and phone messages. Posters of wolves are pinned to the walls of his office. There's a stuffed toy wolf in sheep's clothing, two wolf mugs and a framed rendition of the Robert Service line, "On the ragged edge of the World I'll roam." Mech absently picks a tape from the pile on his desk and pops it into the cassette player while looking through his mail. The music is Arrigo Boito's opera Mefistofele, in which the devil makes a bet with God that he can quench Faust's obsessive thirst for knowledge. There is a similarity in Mech's thirst for knowledge about wolves. After three decades of dedicated research, often under hellish conditions, he has become privy to the smallest details of their lives—he knows when they go hungry and how many pups they whelp. He has watched a wolf return again and again to the place where its mate died. "Please don't ask me why I study wolves," Mech says. "If you look certain species in the eye, there's just a charisma about them."

It comes as no surprise when a visitor learns from Mech that Mefistofele is his favorite opera.

PHOTOLAYNE KENNEDYEn route to being given a radio collar, a tranquilized timber wolf is carried by Mech.PHOTOLAYNE KENNEDYMech has logged thousands of air miles tracking down wolves equipped with radios.PHOTOLAYNE KENNEDYWolves still abound in Superior National Forest.PHOTOLAYNE KENNEDYNear Ely, Minn., Mech called to a pack of wolves—which responded in like manner.PHOTOLAYNE KENNEDYA zonked wolf gets some z's while Mech draws a sample of its blood for later study.PHOTOLAYNE KENNEDYMech's assistants bring in a whitetail, wolf prey that must be scientifically examined.PHOTOLAYNE KENNEDYMoose can also be the quarry for a hungry wolf, and thus subjects for Mech's study.