Isle Royale's Wolf Population: on the Brink of Extinction
June 15, 2012 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Isle Royale is a 206 square mile island in Lake Superior, over 15 miles from the mainland. Most years, it is isolated from the mainland. The moose and wolf populations of Isle Royale are isolated, and wholly interconnected with each other. In the last decade there has been a decline in the wolf population on Isle Royale. Recent evidence shows that the wolf population has collapsed.

Durward Allen initiated the Isle Royale Wolf and Moose study in 1958. The study is now run by the National Science Foundation, Michigan Tech, and the National Park Service. Researchers now have over 50 years of data about the wolf and moose population - the largest continuous predator-prey study in the world.

In 1980, there were 50 wolves on Isle Royale. In 2010, there were about sixteen. In 2011, there were about nine. Researchers made educated guesses about why the population has declined. Disease (a dog brought parvovirus over to the Island in the 1990's), lower moose populations to feed the wolves, genetics of this inbred population, further isolation due to land bridges not forming now that Lake Superior freezes over less often, and bad luck: a gender imbalance among the wolf pups.

Their concern turned to alarm when they realized the only one of the remaining nine wolves on Isle Royale was female. This sort of gender imbalance was almost certainly a death knell for the population - but where were the other wolves? In May of 2012, Isle Royale National Park staff made a devastating discovery: three dead wolves - an Alpha Male, another male, and a female - at the bottom of one of the island's abandoned mine shafts. If no pups are born to the lone female wolf left on the island, Isle Royale's wolf population will die out in 5-7 years.
posted by Elly Vortex (33 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Nice post, thanks.

For the past few years my wife has spent a couple of weeks every summer working with the Wolf and Moose study. Isle Royale is a wonderful place, and, short of denying all entry to the island, about as protected an environment as you're going to find that close to population.

The decline of the wolf population is a sad event.
posted by HuronBob at 8:42 AM on June 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

The moose and wolf populations of Isle Royale are isolated, and wholly interconnected with each other.

Aw, man, I was hoping this meant wolves with antlers.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:44 AM on June 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

posted by Iridic at 8:48 AM on June 15, 2012

I went backpacking on Isle Royale the summer after I graduated High School. Seeing the wolves and moose in the wild was one of the highlights of my trip. This news makes me incredibly sad.
posted by BZArcher at 8:50 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

In 1988 (I think) I went on a hike from one end of Isle Royale to the other. It was GLORIOUS. On a day when we were strung out along the trail, one of the guys in my group saw a wolf step out onto the trail ahead of him. He froze, he said, and they stared at each other, until the wolf broke off and slipped into the trees.

This was agreed to e much cooler than anything else we saw, including -- especially! -- seeing a moose calf on one side of our planned campsite and its mother on the other. (Whoops, time to go!)

What a gorgeous, gorgeous place.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:51 AM on June 15, 2012

Part of me wants to see another pack brought over. Part of me is not sure. They were introduced by a natural land (well, ice) bridge and human actions have caused them to die off. On the other hand, they have been on the island for only 60 years, although the moose have been there for only 100.

When I went hiking there in 92 with my mother we didn't see any wolves. I was horribly disappointed (I was obsessed with wolves as a kid).
posted by Hactar at 8:59 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe I'm not a biologist or anything, but would it be too much to vaccinate the last remaining wolves for things like rabies and parvo? Also, how about they bring in a new female? When did the Park Service join the Federation of Planets?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:04 AM on June 15, 2012 [20 favorites]

A few years ago my brother visit, part of his journal is online.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:04 AM on June 15, 2012

The population of both wolves and moose is not completely isolated. Both occasionally cross over from the mainland during winters when the lake ices over.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:06 AM on June 15, 2012

Hactar, part of the conversation now is about what the Park Staff should do with the wolf population collapse - the NPS has jurisdiction, and control over the population and any changes they might make. Of course, the lack of wolves will have a huge impact on the moose population: what will happen without any natural predators, and a finite amount of Moose Food on the island?

Some folks want to bring over a female wolf or two to help bring the numbers back up; some want to let the population continue on as it has (essentially dying a "natural death") and then establish a new population; some want to let the population continue on ("natural death") and then see what happens. Who knows, perhaps the lake will freeze over this winter and a pack of wolves from the Arrowhead of Minnesota or Canada will come on over. I didn't include any articles on these speculations because, for now, it's just "what if" and chatter. All of what I read seems to indicate that, for now, they're going to wait and see what happens. 5-7 years might be enough time for new wolves to migrate over (a "natural" revitalization), and it's plenty of time for the NPS to gather information and make a decision about what steps they will take (if any).
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:10 AM on June 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sys Rq: Aw, man, I was hoping this meant wolves with antlers.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:14 AM on June 15, 2012

This makes me so sad. I love Isle Royale and it's unique ecosystem.

posted by warble at 9:17 AM on June 15, 2012

Yeah, if the moose population explodes then a couple of wolves who wander across the ice will be more likely to decide to stay, no? Especially if large numbers of crows are attracted to dead moose carcasses.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:20 AM on June 15, 2012

One day I'm going to be able to tell people that wolves were real animals and not just a fantasy creature for t-shirts.
posted by fuq at 9:21 AM on June 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

what about the squirrel population ? Surely that's also relevant...
posted by k5.user at 9:22 AM on June 15, 2012

Wolves Over Troubled Waters
posted by phirleh at 9:24 AM on June 15, 2012

I watched my Mom get charged by a moose up there.

Those things are big!
posted by dragonsi55 at 9:26 AM on June 15, 2012

Part of me wants to see another pack brought over. Part of me is not sure.

Humans should stay out if it, let nature take its course. Maybe the wolves will die out entirely. Maybe come a particularly cold winter, a few wolves will come back. And so on. I've spent a fair amount of time on an isolated island that has no bears or cougars (the two potential predators of the region), yet every now and then one or the other makes it over (we're talking a serious swim across a rather dangerous channel). As is, they never last because the farmers kill them. But remove humans from the situation and it could play out quite differently. Which is what nature is -- something we humans don't have a hand in (positive or negative).

Unless you define nature as including humans, in which case, I'd use the word wilderness.
posted by philip-random at 9:34 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Given that those wolves probably didn't fall down the shafts of pristine wild mines (and that the whole ugly mess is due to the introduction of parvo virus (by a human) and global warming (also human related unless you're a Fox News type)) I'd say it's about 50 years too late to let nature take its course.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:56 AM on June 15, 2012 [10 favorites]

Humans should stay out if it. . .

The problem is that humans have not stayed out of it. Humans built the mine shafts, humans brought the parvo and (despite legislation to prevent people from saying so) humans are the reason the lake isn't freezing as often. So if this is a problem that humans can fix (and I don't know enough about this particular ecosystem to know if a re-introduction is possible or desirable), we should do so.

Attitudes about wolves here in the US are so grim (despite the efforts of places like the magnificent Wolf Conservation Center and its co-founder Helene Grimaud [self link]). We owe it to them to give them a chance.
posted by The Bellman at 10:02 AM on June 15, 2012 [11 favorites]

Maybe come a particularly cold winter, a few wolves will come back. And so on.

Except the lake isn't freezing as much anymore, which is entirely due to human actions.
posted by spaltavian at 10:07 AM on June 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Very sad to hear this. I'm planning a visit this summer, though I had already given up hope of seeing a wolf there. Time to start saving for another trip to Yellowstone . . . .

The debate about if and how to intervene is quite interesting. It does frustrate me to hear the "let nature take its course" argument. I can get behind that instinct, but we have to face the fact that we're part of nature: we are, in many places, a dominant force in nature. Cack-handed meddling is obviously bad; so, too, is the selective abdication of responsibility for outcomes that humans have had a large hand in creating. To have a real conversation about this, we have to make our guiding principles and values about nature explicit.

I think it's really positive to discuss these issues on a small scale, like Isle Royale. With global warming, the problem is so large that the tendencies toward denial and fatalism are too great. In these microcosms of conservation and ecology, maybe the stakes are such that we can really think and talk about how we want to conduct ourselves with regard to nature.
posted by inkfish at 10:32 AM on June 15, 2012

fuq, I wouldn't worry that much -- wolves have rebounded in, for instance, Wisconsin [historical map] to the point that a hunt is being considered (largely for political reasons).
posted by dhartung at 10:43 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there a danger of hikers falling into these mine shafts? I took a look at the official park map and I see three mines indicated, but it doesn't really give any idea of whether those are danger areas of if there are other mine shafts out there.
posted by crapmatic at 11:01 AM on June 15, 2012

Dang, that stinks about parvo being brought over. Ditto for the mineshaft booby traps.

. for the wolves, doesn't sound like they've got much of a shot there. At least YNP can serve as an example that wolves can be reintroduced to an ecosystem and thrive, though it does have it's detractors and opponents of course.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:13 AM on June 15, 2012

One day I'm going to be able to tell people that wolves were real animals and not just a fantasy creature for t-shirts.

According to the IUCN Red List, the gray wolf has a conservation status of Least Concern. Regional populations are endangered, but at the species level:
Although the Grey Wolf still faces some threats, its relatively widespread range and stable population trend mean that the species, at global level, does not meet, or nearly meet, any of the criteria for the threatened categories. Therefore, it is assessed as Least Concern (LC).
And of course, in the form of its domesticated subspecies, Canis lupus familiaris, the gray wolf actually has feral populations all over the world well outside its pre-Holocene range.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 11:15 AM on June 15, 2012

I ended up buying a book about the wolves and moose thanks to this post. Thanks though, really interesting.
posted by Mikon6 at 12:00 PM on June 15, 2012

I would think a lot of it has to do withe the lake not freezing. Winters up there are nothing like they used to be forty years ago.
posted by zzazazz at 12:53 PM on June 15, 2012

Wolves have actually rebounded quite a bit in other parts of the country. Minnesota has the largest wolf population in the lower 48 (and probably Hawaii...:-)), an estimated 3,000. Wolves were removed from the endangered species list in 2012. I've never seen one where I live (on the North Shore), but we have coyotes around here. Coyote and wolf ranges don't often overlap, so I get to see the wily coyote instead of the majestic wolf.

Of course, as soon as wolves were removed from the endangered species list people got all excited to bring home a wolf trophy. This fall will bring Minnesota's first wolf hunting and trapping season in many, many years.

The International Wolf Center is also up the road from me. Great source of information, especially for kids. Man, I'm just nuts about wolves right now!
posted by Elly Vortex at 1:29 PM on June 15, 2012

The NYT Scientist at Work blog had a series early this year about the annual study that was pretty interesting.

And, for a fun fictional take on the same topic, I really enjoyed Nevada Barr's Winter Study.
posted by msbubbaclees at 1:30 PM on June 15, 2012

The wolf-moose population studies are fascinating. The extreme variability of the populations would seem to demonstrate that the notion of a natural balance of nature is simply a myth.
posted by humanfont at 4:27 PM on June 15, 2012

First of all there were only 11 wolves left on the Island in 1982. That's a fairly stable population for 30 years. There are about 2000 wolves in MN right now ... FAR less dire than 30-40 years ago (with many of the old hardcore wolf-haters now gone). The Island could easily be repopulated.

Second, go North from Superior and it's big empty all the way up. There are 50-60,000 wolves in Canada; population trend stable/increasing.
posted by Twang at 7:25 PM on June 15, 2012

This brings back fond memories of hunting rare lichens on Isle Royale for the Nature Conservancy. The problem is the integrity of the data on wolf-moose populations: it's important to see what happens at this crisis without intervening. If the wolves die out, perhaps wait ten years, observe the moose alone, then decide what to do. It's too bad if the wolf disappears from Isle Royale, but we could take the long view: North America used to have cheetahs. They migrated from Alaska to Asia and from Asia to Africa. All cheetahs today have fertility issues from inbreeding because the original African population was so small. These things happen.
posted by acrasis at 8:54 AM on June 17, 2012

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