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Isle Royale: A Wildlife Biologist’s Dream

Isle Royale is a wildlife biologist’s dream. A remote, federally-protected island located in Lake Superior, it is almost completely undisturbed by humans. It provides the ideal location for the famous, 60 year-old study of its wolf and moose populations—the longest ongoing study of a predator-prey relationship in the world. Resting at the top of the island’s food chain, the wolf population has historically kept the much larger moose population under control, thus achieving an ecological balance that has been untouched by humans.

Then, that balance got out of whack. A severe lack of genetic diversity contributed heavily to a woeful stretch for the island’s wolf population: It fell from 25 in 2009 to just two in spring 2017. Both wolves were elderly and inbred. In June 2018, after a three-year-long study by the National Park Service (NPS) that incorporated ecological research and solicited recommendations from the general public, the NPS resolved to rescue the wolf population by relocating 20 to 30 wolves to the Isle Royale over a three-year period, starting immediately. The Park Service’s goal is to restore the Michigan island’s sacred ecological balance. For the first time, however, that balance has been deliberately touched by human hands.

“Your stewardship role as a manager is to look at the systems that you have right now as a part of your protection role, and make a decision on how to best support those systems,” said Phyllis Green, the Isle Royale park superintendent, in an interview with The Politic. “When you’re trying to keep an environment as healthy as it can be during times of stress or change, what are the components that help keep that in place?”

Very rarely does the NPS undertake relocation of a species into a national park. Gray wolves were killed off by the NPS itself in Yellowstone in the early 20th century, and were reintroduced in the 1990s. That decision was much less controversial: humans were “righting a wrong” in Yellowstone. But not so much on Isle Royale. Both sides of the Isle Royale debate have had to grapple with the question: When, if ever, should man tamper with wilderness?

“We humans like to think that we know all the answers, and therefore it’s okay to manipulate wildernesses,” said Kevin Proescholdt, the conservation director at the advocacy group Wilderness Watch, in an email to The Politic. “But in truth, we don’t know all the answers, and we should let nature (or wilderness, or the wolves) decide what happens. So for humans to intervene in wilderness such as [what] the National Park Service is now doing at the Isle Royale wilderness flies in the face of all that the Wilderness Act stands for.”

Proescholdt is referring to the 1964 federal law, written by environmental activist Howard Zahniser, which legally defined wilderness “as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The Wilderness Act also officially protected more than nine million acres of federal land, including most of Isle Royale, and directed the NPS on how to manage—or leave alone—places like Isle Royale National Park.

“We can either be gardeners or we can be guardians,” said Roderick Nash, an environmental historian who wrote the book, Wilderness and the American Mind.

“[Zahniser] said, ‘I want to be a guardian.’ That’s what the Wilderness Act is about,” Nash told The Politic in an interview. “Be a guardian to protect the place, and leave it alone… Don’t be a gardener. You don’t try to introduce different plant or animal species or eliminate plant or animal species. You just let the evolutionary gyroscope spin on in a designated wilderness.”

During the drafting of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the NPS received 3,583 pieces of correspondence, which, according to Green, helped inform the final decision.

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Isle Royale is unique. It is home to a top predator, an ungulate, and a forest—none of which have been disturbed by humans. The wolves and moose aren’t persecuted by guns or careless drivers, and the forest is not logged. According to John Vucetich, who leads the official study of the wolf and moose populations on the island (and is only the third person to do so since 1958), Isle Royale is likely the last forest ecosystem on the planet where all three trophic levels “are doing their thing without humans interfering in that basic way. And it seems like that’s a good thing to protect.”

Vucetich supports the wolf relocations. “I’m not riddled with doubt on this one,” he said in an interview with The Politic. “I have pretty strong reasons to think it was the right thing to do… I believe the purpose of a park is to protect ecosystem health, and I think in a place like Isle Royale, where there are large ungulates, the presence of predators is really key to ecosystem health. And if that requires putting predators back, then that’s fine and right to do so.”

Green, who oversaw the drafting of the March 2018 EIS, echoed similar sentiments. She noted that data from Vucetich’s research project informed the final decision, but in no way was the decision made to further the predator-prey study.

“The primary purpose of parks is to maintain the natural resources that are there,” Green said. “Isle Royale certainly has a unique role, and this assessment is unique to this park because the circumstances are unique to this park. But it’s based on ecosystem needs and the results when certain predator-prey dynamics don’t exist, not on whether you can continue a research program.”

The EIS proposed four potential courses of action: No action; relocation of 20-30 wolves; relocation of six to fifteen wolves; or no immediate action, but with further research of the island’s ecology sans wolves. Its drafting took about three years, which Green says is relatively quick for an EIS. She told The Politic that writing an EIS usually takes five to seven years.

To some, including Marvin Roberson, who serves as the forest ecologist for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, the Isle Royale EIS was too rushed and too few alternatives were considered.

“[The NPS] simply took an emergency notion and said, ‘We’ve got to do it right now,'” Roberson told The Politic in an interview. “At the moment, they have not done sufficient analysis and have not demonstrated any emergency for doing it that way, and have precluded other options without analyzing them. So that’s what we’re opposing. We’re opposing reintroduction at this time, in this manner, under these circumstances, with this low level of analysis.”

Roberson says that the NPS should have considered even more alternatives, such as culling the moose herd.

Roberson also pointed to island biogeography, a theory that predicts a precarious existence for large predators on islands, as a reason to not relocate wolves now. Island biogeography helps explain the demise of the current wolf population, and according to Roberson, it also predicts that the relocated wolf population will eventually die out like this one.

What else could explain the wolves’ decline? According to Vucetich, climate change has contributed heavily to tipping the balance between the wolf and moose populations. Historically, ice bridges formed most winters between Isle Royale and the mainland, allowing wolves to cross over to the island and increase the population’s genetic diversity. But between 1998 and 2007, not a single ice bridge formed.

“The frequency is lower, undoubtedly because of climate change,” Vucetich said. “And as a result wolves from the mainland don’t come as often. It’s kind of a subtle, indirect thing—wolves didn’t get too hot, and their habitat didn’t even really change. It’s a complicated, causal chain, but it’s not an unambiguous causal chain. And it’s not a causal chain that’s any bit in doubt… We don’t want to be too dismissive of climate change when it does those indirect, subtle things. “

Other factors have led to the wolf population’s near-demise, too. In 2011, when there were only about nine wolves left, three—including a breeding pair—fell through the ice in a flooded mine shaft and drowned.

Whatever the cause for the decline of the wolf population, the debate still rages on about tampering with wilderness, and the wolf numbers still ebb and flow—by mid-November 2018, one of the relocated wolves had already died after being on Isle Royale for less than two months, and one had died during capture and sedation.

Unlike Vucetich or Proescholdt, some are more conflicted about the relocations. Dave Mech, who was one of the first scientists to work on the Isle Royale study in 1958, takes issues with human interference in national parks, but has a soft spot for Isle Royale’s wolves.

“On [Isle Royale], I believe the wolves declined naturally, so my citizen side says government should not intervene,” Mech said in an email to The Politic. “However, my bias as a wolf biologist makes me believe it is a good idea, because we can learn much more about wolves that way.”

But Nash thinks Zahnhiser would remind the NPS that its job is not about preserving beauty or a place’s “original state,” but rather about letting things be wild.

“You have to protect wilderness from its enemies, but you also have to protect it from its friends,” Nash said. “And I think most people who want to put wolves on Isle Royale consider themselves friends of parks and wilderness, they just don’t have the restraint.”