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Rescue of Isle Royale wolves still under discussion, but with lessened urgency

Park Superintendent Phyllis Green said “there are no timelines” for settling on the specifics of a management response to the wolves’ low population numbers, and that all options — including nonintervention — remain open.

isle royale
Any effort to intervene in the survival of Isle Royale’s wolves will represent a policy decision and management program with little if any modern precedent in the national park system.

About 20 people interested in the fate of Isle Royale’s wolves gathered for an informational update from the National Park Service in St. Paul on Tuesday, and heard that the program consists, for now, of more talking and thinking about the right thing to do — if it becomes necessary to do anything at all.

Earlier this year the park’s superintendent, Phyllis Green, had indicated that a formal decision-making process could be expected by autumn. But in yesterday afternoon’s two-hour session she said “there are no timelines” for settling on the specifics of a management response to the wolves’ low population numbers, and that all options — including nonintervention — remain open.

Clearly, the detection of two and perhaps three new pups on the island this summer, after a year in which it appeared no pups had been added, has eased the time pressure on Green and the park service to choose among three available responses:

  • Let the wolves die out and leave mainland wolves to decide whether, and when, to recolonize the island.
  • Let the wolves die out, then reintroduce new packs captured for the purpose.
  • Attempt a “genetic rescue” by bringing a small number of new wolves to the island, in hopes that adding new genetic material will improve the population’s health and resilience. This is the option now favored by John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson, longtime directors of research into the wolf/moose population balance on Isle Royale.

Critical passage ahead

It remains to be seen whether the new pups discovered by Peterson in July will make it through their first winter, a critical passage, but for the moment the island’s wolf population has risen slightly from its lowest point in decades to at least 10 and perhaps 11 (and possibly more, as identifying wolf pups by howl is an inexact enterprise).

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But Paul Brown, the park’s director of natural resources, said yesterday that the gender balance is now thought to be a favorable 1:1, an improvement from earlier observations that had the distribution a little light on females. And Green said after the meeting that the age distribution also appears to bode well for further pup production.

But she also stated unequivocally — and more plainly than I’d heard previously — that while nature is being allowed to take its course for the moment, she will not let it take the genetic rescue option out of her hands: If the wolves should make another sudden lurch toward extinction, the Park Service can and will accelerate its decision-making.

Barring further catastrophe, though, the next big step in the process is likely to be a policy discussion among 22 experts in various facets of the problem. Maybe in January.

Setting a policy precedent

Last June, when the National Parks Conservation Association brought park officials and wolf experts together for a panel discussion of the Isle Royale situation, the discussion of human intervention centered on such familiar questions as:

  • Why shouldn’t nature determine the wolves’ fate unaided by humans, especially in a place that’s federally designated wilderness?
  • Who’s to say what the island’s “natural” balance is anyway, given that wolves first arrived on the island in the late 1940s, and moose a half-century earlier?
  • Do we know enough about these wolves and their resilience to be certain what the final turn toward extinction would be?
  • Would this discussion even be occurring but for the appeal of wolves and moose to the park’s human clientele?

But yesterday’s discussion turned often toward another important consideration: that any effort to intervene in the survival of Isle Royale’s wolves will represent a policy decision and management program with little if any modern precedent in the national park system.

Park Service policy is to consider such intervention in cases where human actions have directly caused the extinction (or extirpation) of species considered sufficiently important to a park’s mission of natural resource preservation.

Green termed the guiding philosophy as “restoration ecology: we mess something up, we try to put it back the way it was.” The leading recent example also happens to involve wolves, which were reintroduced to the Yellowstone ecosystem after being extirpated by sportsmen and ranchers.

The Isle Royale wolves, by contrast, have been recipients of far more human care and cultivation than of cruelty in a sanctuary whose bans on hunting and trapping predated endangered-species protections elsewhere by decades.

About those zoo wolves

big jim and mrs. smits
Courtesy of Lee Smits/National Parks Service
One forebear of today’s Isle Royale wolves, according to
the National Park Service, is “Big Jim” — a wolf raised in the Detroit Zoo.

And though the first wolves are thought to have arrived via ice bridge in 1949, Brown told me that recent discovery of documents in park archives have fleshed out a long discussed but somewhat vague tale of additional wolves that were, to borrow Chrysler’s contemporary tagline, “imported from Detroit.” As the park website now tells the story:

In the 1940s and 50s wolves across North America were being persecuted as vermin. Their numbers dwindled and few areas, if any, in the United States had healthy wolf populations. Then in 1949 one or two wolves made it to Isle Royale.

Just after this a proposal to make Isle Royale a refuge for wolves surfaced at the same time that the Detroit Zoo wanted to “trade” several surplus zoo-born wolves for more moose from Isle Royale. The logistics of getting moose from the island did not work out, but four fully vaccinated wolves from the zoo were sent to Isle Royale in 1952.

 The zoo wolves had been sired by a male from Michigan and a female from northwest Canada (likely the Yukon). Negative interactions between the wolves and Isle Royale residents happened quickly.

The zoo wolves had been hand-raised by humans and were more “dog-like” than wild. The “tame” wolves created enough conflicts that it was decided to remove the animals. One of the female wolves was captured and returned to the Detroit Zoo. One male was shot and killed.

The remaining two wolves were shot at (but not hit). These wolves were occasionally seen and presumably reverted to a “wild-state” and augmented the population.

Wolf populations have now rebounded in the Lake Superior basin, especially in Minnesota but to a lesser extent in Wisconsin and still lesser degree in Michigan; the Ontario population is larger than that of the three U.S. states combined.

The problem now is, ice bridges seem to be forming less frequently and reliably as the climate warms and otherwise shifts away from historic patterns, and only one additional wolf is known to have come to Isle Royale by ice since those listed above, in 1997.

But it’s difficult to see human-caused global warming as the same kind of direct driver of extinction as shooting, trapping and poisoning. Although much work has been done on how changing climate is likely to be felt on Isle Royale, Green said the peculiarities of “island biogeography” make the species impacts especially difficult to predict.

Now, ‘resilience ecology’

She said the more plausible rationale for genetic rescue of her park’s wolves would be to treat it not as a mitigation measure but as justifiable “tinkering” with natural balance in an ecosystem whose isolation gives it a sort of laboratory character, aiming for discoveries that have usefulness far beyond Isle Royale’s shoreline. Not “restoration ecology,” that is, but maybe “resilience ecology.”

However, she said she remains to be convinced by Vucetich, Peterson and other proponents that this can be done with sufficient rigor to qualify it as real research, as opposed to a manipulation undertaken for other reasons but given a scientific gloss.

Throughout yesterday’s discussions I was impressed especially by Paul Brown’s delineation of the island’s complex history of biodiversity, replete with extinctions and recoveries, the rise of entirely new species and the occasional mysterious emergence of a critter that’s common in many places but previously unknown to Isle Royale.

Personal favorites: the recently established and still unexplained emergence of gray tree frogs, and the recent “discovery” of American martens, who were thought to have gone extinct some 70 years ago but now seem to have been merely in hiding.

And while wolves inevitably get the most attention, special projects in behalf of other, already vanished species are also under active consideration — including possible reintroductions of both caribou and Canada lynx, erased from the island decades ago by hunters and trappers, respectively.

In the case of the lynx, at least, a reintroduction plan is all set and ready to go, according to Brown. But it’s been “put on hold” until the wolf questions are resolved.

* * *

The Park Service is presenting another “information exchange” on the Isle Royale wolves this afternoon in Duluth.