And Then There Were Two: An Update on the Status of Isle Royale’s Wolves

isrowolvesrolfpeterson

The remaining wolf pair on Isle Royale. Photo by Rolf Peterson.

Last week I attended a public meeting by the National Park Service to hear about their preferred plan to deal with the declining wolf population on Isle Royale, a remote island-sized park in Lake Superior.

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you may recall the story I wrote about the issue in 2015. At that point, there were three wolves left on the island. Now there are only two.

The deformed wolf mentioned in my last story is nowhere to be found (presumably dead) and the other two wolves, who may or may not be its parents, are still alive.

Researchers have discovered that they are a male and female wolf who are related to each other in several incestuous ways. (Hard to avoid this when you live on an island.) They are father and daughter, but also half-siblings. And they are old for wild wolves — six and eight years old. As such, it’s not likely they would have any (more?) ultra-incestuous offspring.

During the meeting, the park service staff discussed four alternative plans of action they are considering. Their preferred plan calls for the introduction of 20-30 wolves starting next fall/winter over a span of three to five years. It’s known in the Environmental Impact Statement as Alternative B.

The other alternatives involve taking no action, introducing a smaller number of wolves over a period longer than five years (20 years), and taking no action now but allowing for the option of action in the future.

Under Alternative B, the park service plans to capture packs of wolves, if they can, and to release them ASAP together on the island. They will collect wolves from the Great Lakes area, and ones that are not habituated to humans and are already used to eating moose for food. They want the wolves to spend as little time in holding pens as possible so that they don’t become habituated to them. Initially, the park service will provide moose carcasses (from Isle Royale) for the wolves to eat, but then will leave the wolves to fend for themselves. They will monitor them (with radio collars, etc.) to see how they are doing.

The fact that the park is considering messing with wolf introduction is a big deal. Normally, they are a “hands-off, let-nature-take-its-course” organization. But the wolves are so important to the island’s ecosystem and to controlling the moose population, that public pressure and human-caused global environmental changes have made the park willing to change its philosophy.

When I commented on this issue back in 2015, for nature-purist motives I was against any action. But now since it seems like the wolf population is indeed doomed, and it’s not likely that wolves will wander over to the island from the mainland on an ice bridge during the winter (especially right now as I am writing this and it’s 50-frikin’ degrees in February!), I am okay with the idea of introducing wolves.

What I am not so okay with is introducing the new wolves while the two existing wolves are still living on the island. At the meeting, when someone asked this question, the park biologist dismissed the concern, saying the existing wolves would have a survival advantage over the new wolves because they already know the island’s terrain, etc.

But come on, what chance do two old wolves have against 20-30 young whippersnapper wolves? I fear they will be shredded to pieces by the newcomers. I think it’s kind of inhumane to introduce the new ones while the old ones are alive. But for some reason, the park service is hot to do the introductions ASAP.

Another question that was dismissed at the meeting is whether the park would alter its plans for introducing the wolves if an ice bridge to the mainland was in place. The biologist said that wolf experts have told them the wolves would likely stay on the island.

I question this as well. The park service plans to get the wolves from MN, WI or Michigan. If I was a wolf, and my family and I were taken from our home not that far away (wolves can easily travel 40 miles in a day), dropped somewhere new, and there was a way to escape and go back home, I sure as heck wouldn’t stay there. Studies of wolves introduced in other situations found that they do travel away from the site of introduction toward their site of origin.

One would think the park service would want to ensure that the introduced wolves would stay in place by not introducing wolves if there was an ice bridge, but apparently not. This could be a waste of time and expense to taxpayers.

Another comment that was dismissed, and this time I’m glad it was dismissed, was the idea that people be used to control the moose population on the island instead of wolves. This would involve hunting, of course. Hunting on Isle Royale is currently prohibited by federal law. But also, I’d just rather not have the top predator on the island be humans instead of wolves. There are plenty of other places where people can hunt. And I can only imagine how hard it would be to haul a moose carcass over those island ridges. It was hard enough to haul my own carcass over them when I hiked!

Okay, enough of my ranting. If you’re interested in commenting on the plan, the deadline is March 15. And if you’d like to learn about Isle Royale’s wolves in a fun way, please read my novel, “Eye of the Wolf.”

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2 thoughts on “And Then There Were Two: An Update on the Status of Isle Royale’s Wolves

  1. Marie,

    I was at the same presentation. Wish I would have recognized you when you asked your question. I have enjoyed your writings for I think the past 9 months or so. I’m not all that familiar with your thoughts on this issue nor have I have followed this issue very closely. I had some time and attended just to get more information.

    Thanks for your thoughts on the wolf issue in our Isle Royale park. Its good to hear others perceptive. I need more information on the issue from others which I’m hoping to find out soon. You do bring up an interesting position. If I hear you right, the question is, why not wait until the two existing wolves live out their lives before adding more that could threaten their lives unnaturally.

    I’m wondering if you have been following the City of Duluth’s Western Waterfront Trail extension along the St Louis River Estuary and what if any interest you have in the Western Waterfront Trail in Duluth.

    I’m the chair of a group in Western Duluth called Friends of Western Duluth Parks & Trails that is advocating Rail AND Trail. We are very active in all the projects happening in the western Duluth corridor. This master plan could very well eliminate the tracks that the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad ride on now. If you are interested in this trail and rail project let me know. We would like to get as much information out to the public that explains the possibility of rail AND trail and what value it brings to the area and region. If you are interested in writing about this we would love to have you join us to learn more about the plan and public process.

    If you haven’t ridden the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad I would encourage you try it this summer. Visit their web site for a drone video and an interesting history video of the LSMRR from 1870 to around 1980 and the start of the excursion train.

    LSMRR.org

    Thanks

    Mike Casey Friends of Western Duluth Parks & Trails

    >

    • Hello Mike! Thank you for following my blog. I appreciate that.

      Yes, you are understanding my concern about the existing two wolves on Isle Royale. I fear that introducing so many new wolves while the two are still alive will lead to their deaths (by the new wolves, but indirectly by the actions of the humans who introduced the wolves). I’ve been following the moose/wolf population drama on the island for over 30 years, and from research I did for my novel, know just enough about wolf behavior to be concerned by this part of the reintroduction plan.

      I am aware and sympathetic to the plight of the Lake Superior Railroad. I’ve ridden on it several enjoyable times. I don’t think I’ve ever been on the Western Waterfront Trail, but I had good intentions last summer of taking my dog for a walk on it, which got derailed (ha ha) by weather. For work I am involved in a public outreach committee led by the EPA for the Spirit Lake clean up. Because of that, writing anything about the railroad in my blog could put me in a dicey position, so it might be best for me to avoid the topic. But I’ll think about it!

      Best wishes…

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