Wolves at Isle Royale: An Island Dilemma

Isle Royale National Park is a remote island in Lake Superior that is 99% federally-designated wilderness.  It is also home to the longest predator-prey study in the world focused on the interplay between the island’s wolf and moose populations.

However, the route that brought these mammals to the island – naturally occurring ice bridges that form in winter from the mainland – are now rare because of the warming climate, making it nearly impossible for new wolves to arrive at Isle Royale.  Coupled with a period of disease and other factors, the wolves on the island are now inbred, which negatively impacts the health of the pack.  This has caused a decline in the number of wolves at the island, from an all-time high of 50 in the early 1980s, to a current population that numbers 8 adult wolves and 2-3 pups.  These wolves now face possible extinction, raising questions as to what, if anything, should be done to address this.

The National Park Service is responsible for protecting and managing the wildlife of the island, and so ultimately must determine the response to the dwindling wolf population. Currently, the park is in the process of consulting subject-matter experts and conducting other research in order to better inform their decision.  NPS recently held public meetings about this issue and also released the report Using Climate Change Scenarios to Explore Management at Isle Royale National Park. Information on the meeting and report can be found here

To better inform the public about the issue and potential responses, NPCA co-sponsored a public forum in Minneapolis in June 2013, where panelists discussed the various alternatives.  At the forum, the park’s superintendent described the park’s decision-making process and outlined potential options the park may consider, including non-intervention (letting nature take its course), intervention only if wolves do become extinct, and intervention now by bringing in new wolves, a type of genetic rescue.  A panel of experts, including the lead wolf-moose researcher at the park Dr. Rolf Peterson, discussed the various options.  You may view this forum in full here.

In October 2013, during the International Wolf Symposium in Duluth, Minnesota, filmmaker George Desort interviewed several attendees about Isle Royale’s wolves.  Desort asked each interviewee questions in order to solicit their opinion/perspective on the wolf population issue and the available management alternatives.  You may view the interviewees’ responses to Desort’s questions here.

This issue was also featured in NPCA’s National Parks Magazine, Winter 2014 Issue, in an article titled "The Last Wolf?" and in a recent Park Advocate blog post titled "Lone Wolves on Michigan’s Isle Royale: An Island Dilemma".


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