On the ragged edge of the World
And the home of the Wolf
Will be my home.
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."