Making Decisions about Wolves on Isle Royale

 

3 Isle Royale wolves 2015

Three Wolves, photo by Vucetich & Peterson

With only a handful of wolves left in Isle Royale National Park, the National Park Service is currently taking public comment on the management of wolves at Isle Royale. They write:

The NPS began this planning process by considering a broad range of potential management actions as part of determining how to manage the moose and wolf populations for at least the next 20 years. However, based on the public comments we received and additional internal deliberations, the NPS has determined that it will revise and narrow the scope of this EIS to focus on the question of whether to bring wolves to Isle Royale National Park in the near term, and if so, how to do so.

Although wolves have not always been part of the Isle Royale ecosystem, they have been present for more than 65 years, and have played a key role in the ecosystem, affecting the moose population and other species during that time. The average wolf population on the island over the past 65 years has been about 22, but there have been as many as 50 wolves on the island and as few as three. Over the past five years the population has declined steeply, which has given rise to the need to determine whether the NPS should bring additional wolves to the island. There were three wolves documented on the island as of March 2015 and only two wolves have been confirmed as of February 2016. At this time, natural recovery of the population is unlikely.

The potential absence of wolves raises concerns about possible effects to Isle Royale’s current ecosystem, including effects to both the moose population and Isle Royale’s forest/vegetation communities. The revised purpose of the plan, therefore, is to determine whether and how to bring wolves to Isle Royale National Park to function as the apex predator in the near term within a changing and dynamic island ecosystem.

The photo above from the 2014-2015 Annual Report from the Vucetich & Peterson Ecological Studies of Wolves on Isle Royale shows three wolves observed at winter study 2015. More on their website at isleroyalewolf.org and definitely follow Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale on Facebook for updates!

More wolves on Michigan in Pictures.

The Future of Wolves on Isle Royale

Wolf on Isle Royale

Alpha Male, photo by Rolf Peterson/Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale

The National Park Service has opened a formal public comment period that will close on August 29, 2015 regarding future management options for wolves in Isle Royale National Park. The wolf population has plummeted because of a lack of gene flow from the mainland and park management is considering an array of options. If you have commented before, do it again as anything preceding the current comment period is now considered informal input and won’t be considered further.

Moose have important effects on island vegetation, including forest cover, and wolves are the only moose predator on the island. The wolf population on Isle Royale is very low. With their long-term survival on the island in question, the moose population is likely to increase in the short term (5-10 years), which could result in impacts to vegetation and forest cover because of over-browsing.The six plan options they lay out in this PDF are:

  1. No-action alternative: Current management would continue; the park would not actively manage vegetation or the moose and wolf populations
  2. Introduce wolves once: Reestablish wolves on the island by bringing in new wolves one time to mimic a migration event; no moose management
  3. Maintain both species: Maintain populations of moose and wolves on the island, which could include wolf reintroduction or augmentation
  4. Introduce wolves once and reduce the moose population: Reestablish wolves on the island by bringing in new wolves one time; reduce moose density if/when the wolf population is no longer impacting the moose population and moose herbivory is having a demonstrated impact on park resources
  5. Reduce moose population: No wolf reintroduction or augmentation; reduce moose density if/when the wolf population is no longer impacting the moose population and moose herbivory is having a demonstrated impact on park resources
  6. Intensively manage the moose population: No wolf reintroduction or augmentation; intensively manage moose population to a low level; potential for direct vegetation restoration through seed gathering and planting on offshore islands

Click over for more and to comment.

The Wolf Moose Project on Isle Royale is the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world. Rolf Peterson began leading the wolf moose project in the early 1970s, and remains a world authority on wolves and moose. About this photo he says:

It was a remote camera photo that I set up. It shows the alpha male in the Chippewa Harbor Pack in 2009, revisiting the remains of a moose the pack killed in the adjacent pond the previous autumn.  The wolves managed to yank the remains out of the pond the next summer and consume the rotting carcass.

You can view this photo background bigtacular and follow the Wolves & Moose of Isle Royale on Facebook for updates.

More wolves on Michigan in Pictures.

Wolves almost gone from Isle Royale

Isle Royale Wolf

The Urge, photo by isleroyalewolf.org

Last weekend the Freep reported that the delicate biosphere that characterized Isle Royale National Park is about to fall apart. The wolf count is down from nine last year to only three, and Michigan Tech ecologist John Vucetich says he wouldn’t be surprised if none remain next winter.

“What’s really important here is not the presence of wolves, per se,” Vucetich said. “But the wolves need to be able to perform their ecological function — predation. Predation has been essentially nil for the past four years now.”

That’s led to a 22% increase in the moose population for each of the past four years, he said, taking the island population from 500 to 1,200 moose. An individual moose consumes up to 40 pounds of vegetation a day.

“One of the most basic lessons we know in ecology, wherever creatures like moose live, you have to have a top predator,” he said. “If you don’t, the herbivore can cause a great deal of harm to the vegetation.”

… Vucetich and his colleague at Michigan Tech, Rolf Peterson, both support a “genetic rescue” of the island’s wolf population — bringing in wolves from elsewhere to bolster island wolves and help facilitate breeding. The U.S. Forest Service is studying the concept, but that process may take years. If the remaining wolf population doesn’t survive, and the Forest Service ultimately approves of the plan, it may mean creating a whole new pack on the island.

I think that this poses very interesting questions about our role in the ecosystems we seek to preserve. Are we to watch what happens and not interfere like a kid watching an ant farm or a Star Fleet team, or do we accept the responsibility of our decision to preserve and seek to maintain the natural balances and populations? As our climate changes, we will no doubt be called to make these decisions more and more frequently as flora and fauna lose the ability to survive in the places we have set aside for them.

This photo was the first in a series of 40 shared last fall in “Thinking Like an Island” from the Wolves & Moose of Isle Royale. They wrote:

THE URGE. Walk 40 miles in two days searching for a lover that may not even exist. Return home to parents and siblings the next day. The life of a dispersing wolf, unsatisfied.

It’s a great series featuring images by George Desort, Rolf Peterson, John Vucetich, and Brian Rajdl along with text by John Vucetich and Michael Paul Nelson. Click to see this photo bigger on Facebook and then use your left arrow to page through them.

Definitely visit isleroyalewolf.org for lots more about the predator/prey balance of one of Michigan’s most fascinating places.

Coywolves: Coyote & Wolf hybrids in Michigan

Coyote on Ice by Jakphoto

Hunting on Ice, photo by OnceJakPhoto

The Freep has an article about a new animal that is being seen in Michigan titled Michigan’s mysterious, misunderstood coywolves:

…a unique, still relatively unknown and misunderstood hybrid of coyotes known as eastern coyotes or coywolves. They’re mostly coyote, but contain a small percentage of wolf from an unlikely mating of the two species about a century ago. It may sound like an urban legend, but coywolves exist throughout the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada, and have been confirmed in northeast Lower Michigan through blood-testing and DNA analysis.

Coywolves tend to be a little larger and heavier than their western coyote counterparts, but still well below the size of even the smallest North American wolves. They look like coyotes, though observers often note wolflike characteristics in their faces and fur.

…Coyote expert Stan Gehrt, a professor of wildlife ecology at Ohio State University, rejects the term “coywolf.” He doesn’t even like referring to them as hybrids. It leaves the impression that they are a near 50-50 mix of wolf and coyote, and that just isn’t the case, he said.

“They are eastern coyotes,” Gehrt said. “They aren’t really different from other coyotes, other than they have a little bit of genetic difference. I’ve trapped and tracked hundreds of Midwestern coyotes and a pretty good sample of eastern coyotes in Nova Scotia, and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two.”

But those, including biologists, who encountered coywolves up close in the Lower Peninsula say they had some wolflike features.

Read on for more including a photo of an actual Michigan coywolf. If you think you’ve seen a coywolf, you can report it online through the DNR or by calling the DNR’s Gaylord office at 989-732-3541, ext. 5901.

If you’re interested in learning more, Meet the Coywolf from PBS’s Nature is a cool profile of this animal that you can watch online for free.

Jim caught this photo of a coyote on the ice of Grand Traverse Bay last week. View it bigger on Flickr and jump into his slideshow for more icy goodness.

More Michigan wildlife on Michigan in Pictures.

Winter Study: Observing Wolves & Moose on Isle Royale

Isabelle being chased by her assailant

Isabelle being chased by her assailant, photo by isleroyalewolf.org

A couple of weeks ago a reader sent me a link isleroyalewolf.org. The website documents the interactions of the island’s wolf & moose population as their decades long dance unfolds on this remote, wilderness island. Their overview explains:

Isle Royale has offered many discoveries… how wolves affect populations of their prey, how population health is affected by inbreeding and genetics, what moose teeth can tell us about long-term trends in air pollution, how ravens give wolves a reason to live in packs, why wolves don’t always eat all the food that they kill, and more. The wolves and moose of Isle Royale also frequently reveal intimate details of their daily life experiences and they have inspired numerous artistic expressions. If we pay attention, they all tell us something important about our relationship with nature. These insights and discoveries are all presented here for you.

Building on the graph above and to develop a deeper understanding, here is more on the history of wolves and moose on Isle Royale. Moose first came to Isle Royale in the early 20th century, and for fifty years, their numbers fluctuated with weather conditions and food abundance. Wolves first arrived in the late 1940s by crossing an ice bridge from Canada. The lives of Isle Royale moose would never be the same.

Every winter since 1958, a team of researchers has spent numerous weeks at Isle Royale observing the lives of these wolves and moose and reporting back. Now they offer a website with photos and detailed reports, a fascinating tale that I encourage you to follow. Today’s photo is from the edition I began with – It’s Complicated. A snapshot:

Isabelle’s signal was surprisingly close. By the time we saw her, she was running for her life, north along the beach of Rainbow Cove. She was being chased by Pip’s two companions. Pip was nowhere in sight. While those two wolves have been eating regularly, Isabelle may not have had a decent meal in weeks, perhaps longer. Isabelle’s half-mile lead was reduced to nothing in just a few minutes.

Definitely read on for photos and a gripping account of these wolves battling and follow the whole 2013 Winter Study as it unfolds (sign up for their email).

More wolves on Michigan in Pictures.

Hiking Isle Royale: Trails, Wolves and Minong Mine

Minong Mine

Minong Mine, photo by nasunto.

Nina went to Isle Royale in September and has been posting accounts on her awesome blog Black Coffee at Sunrise. This photo of Minong Mine appears in Day Five, which features a detailed description of their encounter with a pack of wolves:

Since the vegetation along the narrow trail was dripping with dew and leaning inward, it wasn’t long before we were both soaking wet from hip to ankle. Ten minutes after leaving our campsite, the ground became marshy and we found ourselves walking a long stretch of protective plank bridge. Just before reaching the stream crossing, the trail curved to the right and Craig suddenly stopped in front of me, turned around and said very calmly, “Uh…a whole pack of wolves…”

His voice trailed off as he turned back around to face forward again. I thought he was trying to be funny since I couldn’t yet see what was around the corner. After inching forward another foot or so, he turned to me again and the look on his face was priceless. “I’m not kidding,” he said. “There are at least five wolves on the trail ahead of us.” The next few moments were the most surreal and exciting I’ve ever experienced.

Read on at her blog for the rest of the account or see them all in her Isle Royale section.

Be sure to check this out bigger or in her Isle Royale set (slideshow).

You can learn a little bit about Minong Mine and see a picture of a 6000 pound copper nugget right here.

Check out many more Isle Royale photos on Michigan in Pictures.