Researchers Call for Isle Royale Wolf Management

Isle Royale wolves
Isle Royale wolves (photo courtesy John Vucetich & Rolf Peterson, via isleroyalewolf.org)

Three scientists have published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for the National Park Service to not let Isle Royale’s wolf population disappear.

There are now so few wolves on the remote Lake Superior island that there are questions about whether or not there is enough genetic diversity, and even enough females, to naturally survive.

Wild vs. natural

Because the National Park is managed as wilderness, whether or not the National Park Service should do something to prevent Isle Royale’s wolves from disappearing is a challenging decision.

The challenge is that wilderness was defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act as an area “untrammeled” by humans. Non-intervention has been a guiding principle of wilderness management ever since.

In their op-ed, John A. Vucetich, a population biologist, Rolf O. Peterson, a wildlife ecologist, and Michael P. Nelson, an environmental ethicist, say humans have altered the ecosystem so much already that the Park Service should intervene to save the wolves. In the face of climate change and other massive human-caused changes to Earth’s ecology, the biologists offer an evolved definition of wilderness, as “a place where concern for ecosystem health is paramount, even if human action is required to maintain it.”

Reinforcement or replacement

There are two options that would keep wolves on the island. The Park Service could either bring new wolves to the park now, or wait until the wolves that are currently there go extinct, and then bring in new animals.

The wolves play an important role in the island’s ecosystem, where they are the only predators for its moose, and moose are almost the wolves’ only food source. This unique relationship has been studied since 1958 in what is called “longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world.”

Concerns over the health of the Isle Royale ecosystem are not just limited to the presence of wolves, but also what effects their absence might cause. Moose could become overabundant, decimating vegetation which are essential to other wildlife, including birds, insects and mammals.

Decision point

The National Park Service is currently trying to decide what to do about the wolves. A decision is expected by this fall.

More information is available at the Wolves & Moose of Isle Royale website.

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