April 09–The National Park Service has opted against conducting an emergency genetic rescue of wolves on Isle Royale, and will instead conduct a long-term environmental review on the park’s diminished wolf population.
Isle Royale Superintendent Phyllis Green announced Wednesday that she won’t allow the introduction of transplanted wolves onto the island at this time — an effort some wolf researches have suggested to revitalize wolf genetics and bolster the population.
“Right now, we don’t feel that’s appropriate,” Green told the News Tribune.
Instead, Green said she has begun the formal environmental impact statement process, an action that could take up to three years to reach a conclusion.
The environmental review will look not just at why wolf numbers have declined in recent years — and whether their inbreeding has doomed the small population — but will include a review of the island’s entire ecosystem. Most important is how wolves relate to moose on the island, how moose relate to vegetation, and how the entire system is being affected by climate change, Green said.
“We still have a breeding population the island” that mitigates the need for any urgent action, Green said.
The Park Service will begin public “scoping” for the environmental review this autumn, seeking public input on the specific parameters to be included in the review. The Park Service also will develop a formal wolf management plan that also involves other species.
Green conducted a mini public input process last autumn when she held open meetings in Michigan and Minnesota on the wolf status. About 900 people submitted informal comments on the situation, and Green said it is clear people care deeply about the island’s big mammals and their future.
“We’re going to look at a much broader list of options” than simply adding new wolves, Green said.
“There are bigger issues at hand than just wolf genetics,” Green said. “We don’t want to bring new wolves in only to set them up to fail because the island is changing and won’t be able to support them.”
At issue, Green said, is how much humans should be “tinkering” with a natural system. Some have suggested a genetic rescue similar to the Florida panther situation in which Texas cougars were released in parts of Florida to bolster genetic diversity among the inbred Florida cats. The effort seems to have worked, with the number of deformed cats now diminishing even as the overall population slowly grows.
The Park Service announcement comes just as the 2014 Isle Royale moose and wolf population survey results are set to be released — the 56th annual survey in what has become the world’s longest running predator-prey study. Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, the Michigan Technological University researchers who head the study, have been among the most ardent supporters of a genetic rescue for the island’s wolves, saying a failure to act soon threatens the population and the fragile predator-prey balance on the island.
Peterson did not immediately return a reporter’s call today.
Green said no major surprises are expected in this year’s survey. The island’s wolf population is stagnant, while moose are increasing. Wolves are the only predators of moose on the island.
Last spring, researchers reported only eight adult wolves remained on the island, down from 24 in 2009 and the lowest level since 1958. There was some good news last summer with two new pups born. But at least one wolf walked off the island this winter, crossing ice into Ontario, where it was shot and killed.
That’s left the island with about nine wolves in just one pack and a population that some researchers say is terribly inbred, reducing pup production and causing physical deformities that affect their ability to survive.
The moose population is expected to be higher than last year’s 975 estimate; continued growth from fewer than 500 moose a decade ago.
On Isle Royale, about 18 miles off Minnesota’s North Shore at the Canadian border, moose numbers hit a high of 2,422 in 1995 and bottomed out at 500 in 1996. It’s believed that moose first swam to the island in the early 1900s and thrived for decades with no predators. Wolves are relatively new to the 45-mile-long, 143,000-acre island complex, having crossed Lake Superior ice to get there in 1949. Their numbers have ranged from a previous low of 11 in 1993 to a high of 50 in 1980.
Green notes that there were no wolves on the island when it became a National Park in 1940.