- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Gnawing leisurely on the remains of a moose carcass, the wolf pack’s alpha male seemed unaware that mortal danger was coming ever closer.

Suddenly, an eight-member rival pack burst into view. The alpha scrambled to his feet, but too late. The enemy chased him down and mercilessly attacked, killing the hapless victim within a couple of minutes.

It’s not unusual for the gray wolves on Isle Royale National Park to target each other, said John Vucetich, a Michigan Tech University wildlife biologist who witnessed the carnage from an airplane in January. But the rival pack’s brazen invasion of another’s territory was a sign — the wolves are hungry. The reason is a steady decline of moose, now at their lowest level in the 48 years that scientists have studied the two species in Isle Royale’s closed environment.

“One of the ways the wolves struggle through a food shortage is to try and usurp territory from their neighbors,” Mr. Vucetich said.

He and fellow researcher Rolf Peterson estimated the moose population at 450 this winter, down from 540 last year. Four years ago, they totaled an abundant 1,100 in the national park, located in northwestern Lake Superior and accessible only by boat or airplane.

Meanwhile, the wolf census held at 30 for the second consecutive year. But their numbers are sure to drop because there won’t be enough moose to feed them all, the scientists said. Presently, there are about 15 moose for every wolf. The normal ratio is 40 to 50 moose per wolf.

“The bulk of the moose population at any point is invulnerable to wolves, because they’re young and vigorous enough to fight off the wolves,” Mr. Peterson said. Wolves feast mostly on calves and elderly moose, both of which are in short supply, he said.

The moose’s historic low does not mean it is in any danger of disappearing, he said. Its decline will enable vegetation to recover from overbrowsing when the herd was thriving, and fewer will be killed as wolf numbers inevitably fall.

Most of the park’s 30 wolves belong to one of three packs. But one of them, dubbed the Chippewa Harbor pack, is in danger of disintegrating after losing its alpha male and valuable turf to the rival East Pack, Mr. Vucetich said.

The Chippewa Harbor pack is “done for” if it fails to find a strong replacement for the alpha male and loses its alpha female, he said.

“The others would disperse. Some would join other packs, some would starve,” Mr. Vucetich said. “It’s a live by the sword, die by the sword kind of thing.”

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