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Isle Royale: Manage for Wilderness Not Wolves

A controversy has split conservationists over how much influence humans should have on the wilderness of Isle Royale. The debate revolves around wolves and moose.

The National Park Service has announced it plans to translocated 20-30 wolves to the island. On the surface this might appear to be something that wolf lover, and ecologist such as myself might support, however, I believe this is a mistake.

The Isle Royale was originally wolfless, but around 1948-50 wolves crossed to the island over ice. The wolf population grew to 50 individuals and then fluctuated for many years around 25 animals.

But genetic inbreeding is thought to have reduced the overall fitness of the wolves, and the island’s wolves have been in decline for years. Some fear without a “transplant” of new wolves, the wolf lineage on the island will disappear. Others, including Wilderness Watch, believe that reintroduction of wolves to the Isle Royale Wilderness is inappropriate and needless meddling in a wilderness ecosystem.

Michigan’s Isle Royale is a national park, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a 132,018-acre wilderness protected under the 1964 Wilderness Act. The park is one of the more remote wilderness areas in the lower 48 states. Lying in Lake Superior off the “coast” of Ontario, Canada, the park contains the main island, which is 45 miles long, as well as 450 smaller islands that comprise the archipelago. The island can only be reached in the summer months, and then only by boat or float plane.

Beginning in 1958 researchers began to study the moose-wolf dynamic. The study, which has continued to this day, is the longest running predator-prey study in the world and has provided immense insights into ecological relationships.

The island wilderness has a number of attributes that make this a unique place to study such predator-prey interactions. First, the wolves are the only predator on the island large enough to prey on moose. And moose are essentially the only prey for wolves. In addition, since this is a national park, there is no hunting or trapping of wolves. Finally, because of the island’s distance from the mainland, emigration of moose or wolves is rare.

Due to inbreeding, the remaining one to two wolves, closely related, and likely suffering from genetic inbreeding are in decline. Some wolf advocates recommend “genetic rescuing” the wolves with transplants.

Part of the justification for transplants is that without the presence of a significant predator, the island’s moose population is growing by 20% a year. Some fear the moose will over browse (which is a human judgment value, not an ecological value) the island, “harming” the vegetation and ultimately the moose numbers will crash. Another consequence of declining wolf predation has been an increase in beaver from 100 to 300 animals.

The National Park Service is poised to transplant wolves to the Island. Wilderness Watch believes this is interfering with a natural scientific experiment, which is one of the primary purposes of Wilderness.

The wolf-moose research that has occurred on Isle Royale has provided many insights into predator-prey relationships.  What happens when you no longer have a major predator?  This is just as interesting a question as looking at what happens with a predator. Keep in mind that moose existed on the island for as much as 4-5 decades without wolves.  Now we can study what happens without wolves. How do moose affect the vegetation? What happens to the moose genetics over time?  Not to mention, there is always the chance that wolves will cross the ice and recolonize the island at some future date.  So, the scientific research can and will continue.

Ultimately the essence of the 1964 Wilderness Act is that we minimize the human influence upon the land and allow the land to be “self-willed.”  We have as much to learn from a wolf-less Isle Royale as we have learned due to the presence of wolves.

And perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn is restraint and humility. Who is to say that Isle Royale is “better” with wolves? Are we willing to allow nature to operate without our continued manipulation and management? At least for me, as much as I am a wolf advocate, I want to see what happens without human interference. I want my wilderness to be “wild” not an artifact of human manipulation.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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