Isle Royale’s Wolves Deserve Rescue

FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2006, file photo provided by Michigan Technological University, a gray wolf is shown on Isle Royale National Park in northern Michigan. Six decades after gray wolves made their way to the park by crossing a Lake Superior ice bridge from Canada, the population is on the verge of dying out. Scientists who lead one of the world's longest studies of predator and prey in a closed ecosystem say just nine wolves remain on the wilderness island park. (AP Photo/Michigan Technological University, John Vucetich)

Kyle Magin’s March report on the return of the Canadian wolf to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley detailed how the species was extinguished from the park in the 1920s, not to be heard from again until the winter of 1995 when it was reintroduced. The wolves’ return has been a boon to the preserve both on an ecological and public relations front. Now, 1,500 miles away on a Michigan island in Lake Superior, a similar wolf population is down to three canines. And yet, even as Michigan’s US Senators call for action, the Park Service doesn’t seem to be doing a thing about it.  

By Kyle Magin

Accountability is a serious thing.

Some leaders in the National Park Service, along with well-meaning conservationists, are doing their best to shirk it on Isle Royale.

The 209-square mile Michigan island and national park in northern Lake Superior is about to become wolf-free for the first time in nearly 70 years. Due to global warming, human-introduced diseases and the consequences of inbreeding, the park’s once-vaunted population of 50-plus wolves in multiple packs has collapsed to just three canines this spring. A breeding pair and their deformed, smallish offspring are all that remain on the island.

Wolves necessarily lead violent, short lives due to the way they have to make a living—killing large, hoofed animals. To say the population could disappear within the year or really, any day now, isn’t hyperbole.

Isle Royale’s packs were once depended upon to check its moose population—estimates have that at 1,250 animals—but can no longer control a vegetation-chomping machine that can gobble down about 71 pounds of food daily. The wolves arrived on the island in the late 1940s, crossing an ice bridge that formed on Lake Superior from the shores of nearby Minnesota and Ontario. The moose used the same crossing in the early 1900s and nearly exhausted the island’s food supply before the canines showed up.

The island is the site of the longest-running (50-plus years), world-renowned study of the wolf-moose predator-prey dynamic. It’s been an incubator for biologists, data and ideas that have shaped policy on wolves and wolf-reintroduction efforts far from the shores of Lake Superior.

A confluence of factors have led to the wolves’ population decline. Chief among them is the fact that the ice bridge between Isle Royale and the mainland—it formed almost yearly at one point—has only formed twice in the last 16 years (ironically, over the past two winters), genetically isolating the island’s packs and leading to inbreeding. Canine parvovirus was introduced in the early 1980s from a park visitor’s pet dog (dogs are strictly forbidden on the island) and wiped out a significant portion of the population.

Despite this, the Park Service isn’t moving quickly on a so-called genetic rescue of the island’s wolves: importing animals or whole packs to the island to sustain the predator-prey balance. Some conservationists are openly calling for the parks service to do nothing on the issue—citing the island’s natural history of animals coming and going, Isle Royale’s and cost.

To the mind of wildlife biologist Doug Smith, it’s the Park Service’s responsibility to perform the genetic rescue. Smith isn’t just any biologist—he’s the chief of Yellowstone National Park’s unquestionably successful wolf program. Smith cut his teeth as a young biologist on Isle Royale, so I emailed him to see if he had any thoughts on the situation.

“Genetic augmentation should happen as the cause of the decline is human-caused and Park Service policy is clear on this—if (the) issue is due to humans then our intervention is called for,” Smith says. “This is exactly what happened in Yellowstone.”

Genetic rescue—importing wolves to the island—would be a “tweak to mitigate climate change. It keeps the system functioning quasi-naturally.”

Without it, moose have the potential to run amok on the island—their numbers swelled an estimated 200 in the last year alone.

Anything less than the rescue, Smith says, is a ”good example of (a) lack of bold, thoughtful action.”

The taxpayers who support the parks and the wolves, most importantly, deserve better.