Isle Royale wolves should be left alone

One of the remotest and least visited of our national parks is at the center of in interesting debate – should man step in and bolster a sagging animal population or should nature take its course?

Isle Royale National Park tucked away in the northwest corner of Lake Superior is the park, and gray wolves are at the center of the debate.

My experience with wolves on the island go back to 1979 when a I camped with a group of friends and we enjoyed hearing howling in the distance. My wife and I ventured out to the park in 1987, and not only did we hear them but had a night-time visit by several that paced the woods not far from our backwoods tent site on the north shore of Siskiwit Lake.

Their presence certainly enhanced my visits to Isle Royale, although the close encounter had a bit of a strange feeling to it.

Last winter’s wolf census turned up only eight animals, the lowest since the 1950s, with researchers estimating there were two pups born this year.

This extremely low count – they’ve averaged 23 over the years – is what has lead to the current debate.

The park has always been touted by researchers as a wonderful closed ecosystem in which the predator-prey relationship between wolves and moose can be studied.

Moose arrived on the island, which is about 15 miles from the Canadian shore, around the turn of the 20th century, with wolves arriving in the late 1940s. It’s not known exactly how either made it to Isle Royale, but researchers believe the wolves crossed on an ice bridge from Canada and it would be logical to believe moose also trekked across the ice.

Since they both have called Isle Royale home, the island’s populations of moose and wolves have fluctuated: Moose numbers were up so wolves would flourish, then the moose population dropped and wolf numbers followed suit as their food base was diminished.

But now, researchers estimate a combination of factors – including inbreeding and disease, as well as a shortage of moose – has caused the major reduction in the wolf population.

Researchers out of Michigan Tech University – who have studied the moose and wolves of Isle Royale for decades – want to bring a few mainland wolves to the island to bolster the population.

They said humans are already influencing the populations through such things as climate change, and because of this humans should intervene to preserve a valuable ecosystem.

Others are not so sure that’s the right thing to do.

One who has voiced concern is renowned wolf researcher David Mech of Minnesota, who was among the first to observe wolves on the island in the 1950s.

In a recent Associated Press article, Mech said valuable information about wolf genetics and behavior can be learned by letting nature take its course.

Park officials are also reluctant to step in. For one thing, the park is almost entirely classified as a federal wilderness area, a designation that supports natural evolution over human intervention.

“If you start to tinker … you’re changing from being an observer to making it an experiment,” park Superintendent Phyllis Green was quoted in the same AP article Mech’s comments were in.

Isle Royale has always been held up as a shining example of how nature can be left alone and humans can use it as a place to study animals on their own terms.

This leads me to believe the wolves should be left on their own and if they do disappear, we’ll be able to watch and see what course the moose take, as well as if a few other wolves can find their way to the island on their own as the originals did.

Editor’s note: City Editor Dave Schneider can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 270.