The Sad Story of Isabelle the Wolf, and How You Can Help

Isabelle the Wolf

Isabelle the wolf in 2013, recovering from an attack by other wolves on Isle Royale. (photo by Rolf Peterson)

The story of Isabelle, a lone wolf who lived most of her life on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, is not a happy tale. In fact, there isn’t much happiness at all among the little band of wolves on Isle Royale.

Wolves first came to the island over the wintery ice back in the 1930’s and 40’s when it was common for the lake to freeze solid. But as temperatures have slowly climbed, it has become rare for the great lake to freeze, and the wolves of Isle Royale became landlocked and isolated. As a result, they have had no choice but to inbreed.

At their peak there were as many as fifty healthy wolves on the island, but over the years that number slowly dwindled down to ten. Then Isabelle left.  And now there are nine.

Isabelle, a five year adult female had been unlucky in love, as some wolves are.  Having reached adulthood but not rising to the rank of alpha female, she was rejected by her pack and forced to strike out on her own. The outlook is often dim for a lone wolf, and unless they are fortunate enough to find a mate and a territory of their own in which to hunt and raise pups, their life expectancy is short. On the relatively small island of Isle Royale, there was literally no chance of this ever happening. Isabelle’s life was lonely and sad. When she encountered one of the two packs on the island, they attacked her. This happened multiple times, yet somehow she managed to survive each of the attacks.

Instinctively, she most certainly knew that she needed to get as far away as possible from the wolves that rejected her and find a new home. But, the isolation of the island and the unfrozen lake made this impossible.

Until this winter. For the first time since 2008, and for the first time in her life, the lake froze over completely. Wolf researches who monitor the wolves on the island had great hopes that the frozen lake would be an opportunity for wolves on the mainland to migrate out to the island. Such a migration would infuse badly needed new genes into the inbred population. The last time this happened was in 1997, when a wolf named “Old Gray Guy” made his way to the island and fathered dozens of puppies. Old Gray Guy is credited with saving the population from demise.

But this year, no new wolves came to the island. Instead, Isabelle saw her chance for a new life, and she took it.

Wolf Isabelle Isle Royale

Isabelle’s Final Journey (click to enlarge)

For 20 miles she walked over the frozen, empty landscape of Lake Superior, arriving on the shores of Minnesota, making landfall at the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. And that’s where her life came to a slow, bloody end. Not long after scrambling over the ice to get on shore, she was shot by an air powered pellet gun. The small pellet happened to find an artery, and slowly, she bled to death.

Isabelle was as unlucky in death as she had been in love and in life.

Sadly, the life and death of Isabelle is not uncommon among wolves in the lower 48 states.  Because of old misunderstandings and unfounded fears, we continue to despise and malign this creature which wants nothing more from mankind than to be left alone.  Despite what we see in pop culture and Hollywood movies, wolves do not hunt us.  Nor do they attack us. Yet the number of wolves shot illegally out of hate and misunderstanding continues to rise unabated.

What can you do?  You can learn.  You can stop hating wolves.  You can stop being afraid of them.  And you can teach others to do the same.  You are invited to share this article so that the story of Isabelle might live on, and so that together, we can give meaning back to her life.

(Read more about Isabelle at The WildLife News and The Minneapolis Star Tribune)

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