The Far Reach of David Mech
The lifework of a Minnesota wildlife biologist circles the world.
By Greg Breining
"God, I love this place," Dave Mech says, dismounting his ATV and spreading his arms. "It's all this wilderness, and, of course, there are all these memories too."
We look across a swale to a jumble of rocks where Mech has studied arctic wolves at their den for most of 17 years. "I've looked at that outcrop so many times when it had a wolf sitting on it or at the entrance of the den," he says. "Even though I didn't expect it to be there this year, the memories come, you know. I know it's over."
It is a lovely scene-big sky and contoured hills under the 24-hour summer sun. Ellesmere Island, northernmost island in the Canadian Arctic, is a barren, eroded desert, with glaciers in the far mountains and ice on the nearby fiord. We cross the swale to the den. Old bones lie everywhere: musk ox femurs, vertebrae, a shoulder blade. Mech pokes his head into the opening. There are a few fox scat, but no fresh sign of wolves.
"I do get philosophic. I did have my good time. But things don't last forever."
Returning to the ATVs, we check two more den sites with the same result: The wolves are long gone. Ellesmere is generous of space, stingy of sustenance. Life here, like life throughout the Arctic, runs in cycles and fluctuations-boom and bust, plenitude and scarcity. Arctic hares dot the tundra like white flowers one year and vanish the next. Musk oxen die in mass. Wolves come and go. These variations define a land. They also, as L. David Mech is discovering, define the reach of a man's life.
Quite a reach it's been. Mech (pronounced Meech) is one of the pre-eminent wolf researchers in the world. A senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey and a University of Minnesota adjunct professor, he has studied wolves and influenced wolf management around the Northern Hemisphere. Through his research, the International Wolf Center in Ely, and popular books and articles, he has introduced wolves to the public, replacing the myth of the marauding beast with a more dispassionate and scientific portrait.
"He's certainly one of the foremost wildlife biologists in the world," said Ronald Nowak, who retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Scientific Authority in 1997. Though Nowak has differed with Mech over the hunting and trapping of wolves, he calls Mech's contribution "incomparable. I have no words to praise enough his devotion to conservation, the wolf, and all wildlife."
Mech-at 66, ancient by the standards of active field biologists-is full of incongruities.
For example, that a man associated with the protection of wildlife came to study animals because he enjoyed trapping them as a boy in Syracuse, N.Y. Even now, Mech drives the back roads of east-central Minnesota each winter, tending 200 mink traps.
Or that a man who loves to trap has also loved opera ever since watching the movie The Great Caruso.
Or that he doesn't own a dog. "People expect I'm going to love dogs because I'm this big canid guy. I don't even like them, to tell you the truth."
Or that a man known for the recovery of wolves would advocate killing them.
Forty years ago Mech was a graduate student at Purdue University, studying the wolves of Isle Royale in Lake Superior with the renowned Durward Allen. Mech spent hours aloft, observing and photographing wolves as they stalked, chased, and killed moose. Among his important findings: Wolves, far more often than not, fail in their attacks on large prey.
Because of his thesis (later published as The Wolves of Isle Royale), a publisher asked Mech to author a popular book on wolves. Mech declined, eager to write a scientific book instead. Eventually he wrote The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. Though the work of a young man at the beginning of his career, The Wolf has stood as the most authoritative source on the species for more than 30 years.
In 1968, as an assistant professor and research associate for Macalester College in St. Paul, Mech went to Ely to study wolves in Superior National Forest, the only place in the lower 48 states except Isle Royale where wolves had continued to thrive.
In the late 1970s, Mech joined scientists developing a plan for the recovery of wolves under the new federal Endangered Species Act. The plan set numerical goals for wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and recommended reclassifying Minnesota's wolves from endangered to the less restrictive threatened, so problem wolves outside wilderness areas could be killed. In an article for the Volunteer at the time, Mech wrote a statement he would repeat throughout his career: ". . . for the sake of successful, long-range conservation of the wolf in Minnesota, some individual wolves will have to be sacrificed."
Since 1978 he has chaired the World Conservation Union's Wolf Specialist Group, working with wolf scientists around the world. In 1986 he began studies of wolves and caribou in Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve. In the 1990s he helped reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. He helped found the International Wolf Center in Ely, which in 1993 opened a $3 million, 17,000-square-foot facility featuring its "Wolves and Humans" exhibit.
As wolves have far surpassed the goals of the recovery plan, Mech continues to argue that wolves in settled areas must be controlled, most economically through public hunting and trapping, to minimize human-wolf conflicts.
Karlyn Atkinson-Berg, a wolf advocate for several organizations, acknowledged Mech's contributions to science, but, like many activists, faulted his willingness to sanction hunting and trapping.
"Why is Dave studying all these wolves for 30 years if we're just going to pull out the traps? Science is great and everything, but there's got to be a reason to it, there's got to be heart to it."
"If most people are mad at you, I think you have found the middle of the road," said Carrol Henderson, supervisor of the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program. "Extremists live on their opinion," he added, but Mech "sees the whole perspective-that protection of the wolf depends on how you deal with management of the wolf."
One of the most thrilling of Mech's research projects began in 1986 when Minnesota photographer Jim Brandenburg told him of white wolves he had seen on Ellesmere Island during an assignment for National Geographic. Mech recognized the opportunity of a lifetime. Never hunted, the wolves had little fear of humans. On the barren tundra, no trees or brush would hide them from view.
That summer Mech found the den near the weather station and military base at Eureka. Then began an incredible experience. For weeks at a time, Brandenburg took photos and Mech watched pups cavort and tumble among the boulders. He studied the interactions of the alpha pair and the subordinate members. Following the pack at a distance on ATVs, the men watched as the wolves hunted and killed musk oxen. Mech learned things about wolves no scientist had ever seen.
"The kind of stuff I got here was not just the objective behavioral stuff, but the kind of thing you get from living with a pet of some sort. You get an insight into the thing. You get to know the animal." Together Mech and Brandenburg produced articles and a film for National Geographic. They intended to produce a book, but after fieldwork in 1987, the relationship fell apart. Mech attributes the blowup to a disagreement over royalties. Brandenburg agrees: "We found the treasure. And this is a sad, old story. Sometimes you just can't share the treasure." Each man pursued his own book.
Mech continued to study the wolves, traveling to Ellesmere every summer and adding to his wealth of knowledge about their behavior in a pack. But in 1998 he arrived on Ellesmere to find only two wolves. "That's when I discovered something was really screwy here. Lots of dead musk oxen. No calves. And no young hares. I started thinking-What is something common to both hares and musk oxen?" He investigated weather patterns and discovered that an extremely short summer-snow began to accumulate in August-preceded the die-off. Snow came early again in the summer of 2000, and the following year he again found no young musk oxen or hares.
Without prey, wolves presumably dispersed and died. In 2001 Mech saw no wolves, only a single set of tracks that seemed to pass through his study area. In 2002 he saw no sign of wolves at all. Nonetheless, he decided to return to Ellesmere a week each year to monitor the recovery of oxen and hares and wait for the wolves to reappear.
As we motor and hike across the tundra, I ask Mech what he considers his most important achievement. He mentions a new book, Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, Conservation. He spent 10 years on the project, assigning and editing chapters from biologists around the world. "I could see it lasting 50 years," he says.
Mech says he would like to write another book-not about wolves, but about broader issues such as land use or conservation. "There are so many problems in the world. And here I am studying wolves. When you compare it to the things that need doing, it doesn't amount to much. When thousands of people are dying, saving wolves doesn't seem to count."
In 1999, Mech says, he traveled north to check on his wolves. He reached Resolute Bay, on Cornwallis Island, but couldn't catch his last flight because he had wrenched his back. Hobbled by pain, he lay on a baggage cart and was wheeled into his hotel, where he rested for several days before returning home. Mech's doctor told him he would need major back surgery, perhaps within five years. Mech hopes he has longer but imagines a time, perhaps soon, when he will not be able to traverse these wide-open spaces. Cycles of prey. Cycles of wolves. Cycles weave the weft of a man's life and then finally, the thread of one man's life ends and another thread takes its place.
Dave Mech imagines a day he cannot do the fieldwork he loves.
Just before eight in the morning comes a banging on the door of Mech's shack near the weather station. "They're right out here. They're right out behind the building."
We scramble to dress and look outside. We spot a wolf by the waterfront, and then two more, white and shaggy.
We mount our ATVs and putt-putt toward the wolves. "Look at the feet on that thing," Mech says of the big male, the largest he has seen here. "What we're going to do today is really fun."
During the morning we follow the three on our ATVs around the weather station grounds and then up Station Creek to a deep ravine, where the wolves lie down to sleep. We do the same, casting an occasional glance toward the wolves. One hour. Two. Six hours later, the wolves roust themselves and stroll back down to the station. But soon they trot back up the ravine and rest again.
Judging by the older female's condition, Mech says she doesn't have pups. But because the big male marks every place she urinates with a stream of his own, they are almost certainly a bonded pair. With adequate food, they might breed next year. "The third wolf could be a 1-year-old or 2 years old-their offspring."
Suddenly, the female howls. The male responds.
"It's not unusual for them to do this before they travel."
They rise and begin a determined lope up the creek. We motor to the end of a sandy ridge. We watch as the wolves vanish up the coulee, toward the old den.
"It looks like they're going to include this in their territory," Mech notes. "That bodes well. That's just what we want, a mated pair in this territory." Joy fills his voice. "It's so nice to be following those little white specks across the country."
There is hope he will see the cycle again.
Greg Breining is a freelance writer from St. Paul and a contributing editor of the Volunteer. Reach him at email@example.com.