DULUTH, Minn. — Isle Royale’s decimated wolf population should get a life-saving infusion of 20 to 30 new wolves, National Park Service officials announced Friday.
The Park Service released its draft report on what to do about the Lake Superior island’s wolf population that has been slowly declining due to inbreeding and genetic deformities, and is now down to just two animals.
Scientists with Michigan Technological University who have been studying the island’s wolves and moose populations for 58 years have said for years that the wolves need new blood or they face extinction.
Now, the Park Service appears ready to take that step.
Some people had suggested that the Park Service stay out of the situation and let the island’s wolves run their course, saying the definition of federal wilderness is an area not impacted by human action.
But others say the problems wolves face — including climate change and vastly diminished Lake Superior ice cover, which makes it less likely for new wolves to come to the island — show humans already are having an impact.
“This is about more than wolves,” Park Superintendent Phyllis Green said. “It’s about the entire park ecosystem and where it is heading in the future with changing conditions. This is a complex issue to address. We have sought input from subject matter experts to evaluate the situation, and we would like to hear from the public on the current draft plan.”
The wolf report, a full-fledged environmental impact statement conducted over the past two years, is now open for public comment through March 15. The plan, if adopted, would see wolves trapped elsewhere and transplanted to the island “immediately” and continuing over three years.
The National Parks Conservation Association said it supports the Park Service plan, saying “bringing new wolves to the park will ensure a sustainable population and help balance the delicate ecosystem at Isle Royale National Park.”
“Wolves play a critical role as the top predator on the island, and their dwindling numbers have resulted in a rising moose population,” said Christine Goepfert, the group’s Midwest Region program manager. “In the absence of a predator, the moose population will continue to grow, which could devastate the island native vegetation, eliminating their food source as well as that of other species on the island.”
In addition to the preferred alternative of introducing up to 30 wolves immediately to bolster the population, the Park Service considered a no-action alternative and a slower reintroduction, starting with just six to 15 wolves and waiting to see what happened.
Wolves are relatively new to the island, having crossed the ice in 1949. Their numbers reached a high of 50 in 1980, and 24 wolves roamed the island as recently as 2009.
But the two wolves remaining on Isle Royale are six and eight years old while the life expectancy of wolves on the island has been just four.
Moose came to the island around 1900, peaking at 2,445 in 1995 and hitting bottom at just 385 in 2007. In their annual survey last winter scientists estimated the moose herd had grown to 1,300 on the 45-mile long, 143,000-acre island located about 15 miles off Minnesota’s North Shore.
Without more wolves, scientists say, the moose will continue to increase and cause environmental damage across the island.
Isle Royale National Park officials in 2014 started an environmental review process on what, if anything, to do about the matter. In March, the National Park Service, at the urging of some, including members of Congress, was narrowing its scope of the review in order to expedite the question of whether to bring wolves to Isle Royale in the near term.
The draft report can be seen at parkplanning.nps.gov/isrowolves. A limited number of hard copies are available at park headquarters as well as public libraries in Duluth and Superior, and in Houghton and Marquette, Mich.
Public meetings are expected to be held in coming weeks in the Twin Ports and in Michigan.
Comments may be submitted online at parkplanning.nps.gov/isrowolves or sent to: Superintendent Phyllis Green, Isle Royale National Park, ISRO Wolves, 800 East Lakeshore Drive, Houghton, MI, 49931-1896.