Opinion: Wolves play key role on Isle Royale
In 2019, the U.S. The National Park Service began to restore wolf population to Isle Royale National Park. Some think the decision is relevant far beyond the remote island park and its denizens and has implications for what could be a new development in our relationship with nature.
The decision is noteworthy because it could seem in opposition to a century-old philosophy for letting nature take its course in protected areas like Isle Royale. Because Isle Royale is small and isolated, the wolf population has always, and quite naturally, been small and isolated. Nature’s course drives such populations to extinction.
Reasoning of that ilk benefits from a better account of the circumstances.
Here’s the best scientific understanding in a nutshell:
For decades wolves slipped past the adverse effects of inbreeding by occasionally receiving an infusion of fresh genes when, perhaps once a decade or so, a wolf would come to Isle Royale by crossing an ice bridge. With each passing decade, ice bridges have become less frequent, and the flow of new genes diminished. The wolves became inbred, and the population failed. The root cause had been human-caused climate warming which led to the loss of ice bridges.
Increasingly, climate change is stealing the beauty of our protected areas. One response is sad, limp resignation. Another response is to restore (when feasible) the beauty we defiled.
The big unresolved concern is knowing when and how we have an obligation to right past wrongs against nature.
That duty-filled thinking stands in palpable contrast to a more common consideration: What is the utility of restoring wolves to Isle Royale (and elsewhere)? The oft-repeated answer is that wolves (and other top-predators) have a massive influence on the ecosystems they inhabit.
Wolves can reduce abundance and change behaviors of the herbivores (deer, elk or caribou) upon which they prey. On Isle Royale, the herbivores are moose and beaver. When wolf predation is functionally absent, moose and beaver eat enough plants in forests, ponds and streams to affect the lives of birds that feed and nest in the forest, fish that swim in ponds and more.
I have contributed to the scientific understanding of how wolves effect the ecosystems that they inhabit, and I am impressed by those influences.
But, considering wolves’ impact alone has a serious shortcoming. By itself, that reason sets a pitiful standard for humans’ relationship with biodiversity. Twenty percent of all vertebrate species are at risk of extinction. Most of the planet’s terrestrial ecosystems have lost most of their native mammal species. Deciding to keep only the species that we find useful or beneficially impactful — that’s not a recipe for averting the biodiversity crisis. That’s the cause of the on-going biodiversity crisis.
Wolves and national parks are bellwethers for our relationship with nature. The decision to restore wolves on Isle Royale is a good decision, not least of all because it offers clues about the kind of reasoning required for averting the biodiversity crisis.
John A. Vucetich is a professor in the school of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Technological University.