Protect the wolves at Isle Royale

Jill Fritz

Isle Royale National Park appears to have only three wolves remaining, a disturbing decline. The end of the world’s largest, continuous predator-prey study is near, according to the 57th annual Wolf-Moose Project conducted this past winter by Michigan Technological University researchers.

John Vucetich, the project leader and renowned wolf scientist, said he would not be surprised if no wolves are found on the island next winter, because their numbers have been depleted by years of inbreeding.

Disturbing, too, has been the bureaucratic response of the National Park Service, which is waiting to do an environmental assessment of Isle Royale that could delay a final decision on the wolf population for two or three years. The wolves don’t have that long to wait.

Wolves play an important role in the ecosystem by keeping the island’s moose population in check. With the drop in predation, moose numbers have doubled in recent years, threatening the island’s forests. Researchers are concerned that as the moose population grows, long-term damage will occur to the island’s vegetation. An ecosystem that once had a strong balance of predator and prey has been thrown out of whack.

There are two options, according to the researchers. One would be to reintroduce wolves to Isle Royale to get more genetic diversity and encourage healthier breeding. The other option, which the National Park Service seems to be taking, is to do nothing and let nature take its course. The underlying problem with that option is that global warming has already altered the landscape by diminishing the regular ice bridges that allowed the wolves to populate the island more than five decades ago. In other words, we’re dealing with a different nature now, and adjustments must be made.

During the debate over wolf hunting during last November’s election, proponents for the trophy hunting of wolves cited trumped-up statistics of wolf-livestock conflicts and even made up false stories out of whole cloth about wolf encounters that didn’t happen. Michigan voters saw through the political rhetoric and distortions and decided in overwhelming numbers to protect wolves from trophy hunters and prevent the unelected Natural Resources Commission from declaring them a game species that could be hunted and trapped.

Michigan voters from all regions of the state said they want common-sense wolf protection policies. We can achieve that, and still provide relief to farmers and ranchers and deal with the occasional problem wolf. That’s why Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, the Detroit Zoo, Detroit Audubon and the Humane Society of the United States have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Great Lakes wolves as a threatened species, rather than endangered, to give state agencies the tools to remove the rare wolf that poses a threat to farm animals or human safety.

We have also put forth a proposal that would allow capturing wolves on Michigan’s mainland and releasing them on Isle Royale, where there are no farm animals or year-round human residents. An augmented wolf population, infused with new genetic material, would help control moose numbers, thus protecting the forests and helping to restore the ecological balance on Isle Royale.

Wolves also provide an enormous economic and ecological benefit to the Great Lakes region. People will trek to wolf-inhabited forests precisely because they are there, boosting tourism-related commerce. Wolves also limit deer and moose populations, depressing crop depredation and shrinking the number of collisions between these animals and cars. Through their killing of weak, sick, and older deer and moose, beavers, and other animals, they have a broad, balancing and beneficial impact on ecosystems.

It’s time for the National Park Service to recognize the valuable role that wolves play in our ecosystem and help restore their population on Isle Royale. And it’s time for Michigan lawmakers to recognize that the people have spoken and we need common-sense solutions for wolf management.

Jill Fritz is director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected.