The Environment Report
8:55 am
Thu August 15, 2013

Wolf pups a good sign for struggling population on Isle Royale

An interview with Superintendent Phyllis Green.

The wolves of Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park have not been doing well, but there’s some unexpected good news.

Earlier this year, researchers from Michigan Technological University who study the wolves reported there were just eight wolves left - and they reported they were unable to find any evidence of pups born to those wolves.

But now, that has changed. Michigan Tech researcher Rolf Peterson heard two or three wolf pups in July.

Peterson doesn’t have phone access on the island. But by email, he told me he thinks the pups were born this spring, and they were probably born to a pack called the West End Trio. Here's an excerpt from his email:

"The pups born this year mean that the wolves have not completely lost all genetic viability, but it doesn't mean they're about to recover, and it doesn't mean that they have somehow escaped from genetic problems.  Twenty years ago the population was in approximately the same situation, with a dozen wolves present (the difference now is that the population is lower, because of the mortality from the mine shaft incident) - only two of the three packs present were reproducing, and litter size was small.  Now we have one of two packs that reproduced (this year, no packs reproduced last year), and litter size was small.  In the early 1990's the situation was resolved by the arrival of an immigrant male with some more competitive genes, and the wolf population was strong for another 15 years."

The National Park Service is in the process of figuring out what to do about the island’s wolves.

Park Superintendent Phyllis Green says the pups' birth might buy the NPS a little more time to make that decision.

"We are excited that there are pups this summer and in that sense the wolves of Isle Royale continue to surprise us with their resiliency. And I think that’s one of the questions that we have, is whether we disrupt the current pack orders or whether we let them live their lives there until such time as it passes. So at this point in time we’re still in the deliberative stage. We’re happy to hear there’s an addition to the wolf population but they’re still tenuous and it’s still a significant decision," she says.

The three main options on the table are:

  • Let the current population go extinct, and do nothing.
  • Let the current population go extinct and then reintroduce wolves to the island.
  • Attempt to genetically rescue the current population by bringing in some new wolves.

Green says the NPS might add one or two more options. They're preparing material for the "scoping process," which is when the public gets a chance to weigh in.

Isle Royale is mostly wilderness. I asked Green how difficult it is for the Park Service to consider stepping in to help the wolves in this situation:

“Wilderness is a factor but it doesn’t preclude action, is what I would tell you. It’s a combination of a number of policies. I think most of the American public does want their parks to be relatively hands-off with nature taking the lead in how change occurs at a park. For the most part, that’s what happens at Isle Royale. The question that is raised of course is the fact that with climate change and the potential loss of this ice bridge being frequent enough for genetic replenishment – should you make a change in policy at this point in time? And that’s why we’re taking the time to discuss it pretty thoroughly," she says.

You can let the Park Service know what you think should be done about the island’s wolves by emailing:  isro_wildlife@nps.gov

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