Extinction of wolves could lead to extinction of study on Isle Royale

Jun 8, 2012

We've been posting radio pieces, videos, and blog posts all week as part of our series Lessons from Isle Royale's Wolves and Moose.

Researchers like Durwood Allen, and Michigan Tech's John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson have been keeping a close eye on the animals on the island for more than five decades.

Peterson has been doing it the longest. He's been watching and documenting things on Isle Royale for 42 years.

Vucetich is the new kid on the block. He started only in the past decade.

But the torch in this continous study has been passed. Michigan Tech's Vucetich now leads it with Peterson along as a trusted "volunteer."

The two still fly the island together for the winter studies. Winter, with its white backdrop and tracks in the snow, is the best time for the two researchers to get a good view of the wolves and moose on the island.

And this past winter, they got a big surprise.

Nine wolves left

An island that once carried three packs of wolves, was down to two packs. The population went from 16 to nine in one year.

Vucetich wrote about the recent winter study in a series of New York Times blog posts "Scientists at Work."

This winter we observed the wolves of Isle Royale National Park experience one of their toughest years ever — high mortality rates and low recruiting left relatively few wolves. The Middle Pack is gone. The Chippewa Harbor Pack may not have any females. The future of this population may well rest with the West-End Duo.

There's one breeding age female in the "West-End Duo."

The alpha male of the Middle Pack was killed by the Chippewa Harbor Pack. As for the other six wolves that died over the last year, Peterson says they just don't know what happened to them.

As they continue to look at the die-0ff, Peterson confidently says "we will know what happened to them, though."

Earlier this week, we posted on what Peterson felt were the possibilities for such a large wolf die-off on Isle Royale.

Chief among them was the return of canine parvo virus, "a potent wolf disease," that returned to the island in 2007.

Another was an imbalance in the sex ratio of the wolves on Isle Royale. They think there are only two females out of nine on the island. From their 2011-2012 annual report:

Chippewa Harbor Pack was frequently observed howling during winter 2012, an uncommon behavior during previous years. Wolves typically howl most frequently during the breeding season, and we speculate that increased howling in this pack may result from lack of suitable females.

Turning an educated guess into a clear picture

The population's current sex ratio is an estimation. Right now, they don't have the funds to do DNA analysis on the wolf scat they've collected.

Here's Peterson explaining why such analysis is important to their research. Especially at a time when there are only nine wolves left.

In their annual report, Peterson and Vucetich refer to "funding limitations"  - limitations that preclude them from knowing more about the wolf population on Isle Royale.

They've had some recent success in raising half the money they need for this analysis.

On a Kickstarter-type website for scientists (PetriDish.org), Peterson and Vucetich raised around half of the $25,000 they need to get a better understanding of the wolf population.

In their pitch, they say the money raised will help tell the story of the nine remaining wolves on Isle Royale. From PetriDish.org:

This project will either be a remarkably detailed case study of how a population goes extinct (if that’s what happens), or it will be a remarkably detailed case study of how a scientifically and culturally important wolf population comes back from the edge of extinction.

So what will happen if the wolves on Isle Royale do go extinct?

Peterson says, from everything they know, the moose population is a "ticking time bomb" in terms of population growth.

The island will be out of balance, he says. The moose population would likely spike in the absence of wolves, and then it would likely crash as food becomes scarce.

Peterson shared his views on what he thinks should happen on Isle Royale.

"It's strictly an opinion and it's my own opinion, but given political realities of the National Park Service and the tradition of not interfering out here, and the talks I've had with the public, I think I'd be inclined to recommend doing nothing at all until they’re all gone. And then start over, just restore a brand new population with brand new genes," said Peterson.

The decision lies with the National Park Service

But the decision is not up to Peterson. It's up to the National Park Service. And Isle Royale is a designated wilderness area, which means humans are not supposed to interfere here.

"I think [wolf reintroduction would] be easy in terms of external audiences politically, but might be more difficult bureaucratically in terms of policy," says Peterson. "The Park Service is trying to decide now to essentially mitigate for climate change, because that's what this is."

New wolves can't get to the island because ice bridges don't form nearly as often as they did 4o years ago. Calm winds and several days of subzero Fahrenheit temperatures are needed. Conditions that don't happen as often.

The National Park Service is just now beginning the process of discussing what to do should the wolves disappear from Isle Royale.

Isle Royale Park Superintendent Phyllis Green says they're convening panels of scientific experts to try to best determine a "logical response" to a wolf extinction on Isle Royale.

She says she thinks they have time. The current nine, she says, could be around for another seven to nine years, which gives them enough time to come up with a reasoned response.

"Right now, I have more questions than I have answers," said Green. "Every time you tinker with nature, you can have outcomes that could be good, or could be bad."

An end to a historic ecological study?

If the wolves disappear from Isle Royale, it might not only mean an end to the wolves, it could mean an end to the longest running predator-prey study in the world. The researchers probably wouldn't remain to watch what happens to moose on Isle Royale without wolves.

After 54 years of study, project leader John Vucetich thinks funding could dry up, since their study would no longer be seen as unique by the National Science Foundation. The NSF, Vucetich says, only funds innovative studies.

"They have found our work to fit that bill because it is VERY rare to study a population of wolves feeding on moose feeding on a forest, where none of those elements are hunted or harvested by humans.  By contrast, studies of moose in the absence of predation are VERY common.  It is my sincere professional opinion that the National Science Foundation would be far less interested to fund such a study.  The extinction of wolves on Isle Royale would almost certainly be the end of the longest predator-prey study in the world," said Vucetich.

But as Vucetich and Peterson point out, if there's one thing they've learned from all the research they've done on Isle Royale, it's that these natural systems can be full of surprises.

The wolf population is at its lowest point in the history of the 54-year study, and the wolves are hanging "by their teeth," as Peterson says. But it is still possible they'll pull it out.

If it does, Peterson and Vucetich will be there to watch it unfold.

For more insight into the history and significance of the wolf-moose project, you can watch the film Fortunate Wilderness by George Desort. Here's a trailer: