As a lifelong Michigan resident and an avid backpacker, Isle Royale has always been the holy grail for me, like many of Michigan’s outdoor lovers. Isle Royale is an island in northwest Lake Superior and is the state’s only National Park (Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks are considered a National Lakeshore). Because of this isolation, the fauna on Isle Royale is significantly limited compared to the mainland (e.g. there are no bears, raccoons, or skunks). I recently spent a week on Isle Royale, exploring its more than 130,000 acres and enjoyed observing moose on the island. I took both of the moose photos that appear with this blog post.
The most closely followed and well-known fauna on Isle Royale are moose and wolves. The moose and wolves live in a delicate balance. On Isle Royale the only predator to the moose is the wolf. Hunting is prohibited on Isle Royale and the wolves and moose have existed largely outside of human interference. At one time, there were over 50 wolves on the island, but the wolf population has taken some significant hits over the years. The most significant decrease was in the early 1980s when a visitor from Chicago, against park rules, brought a dog onto the island. The dog brought and spread the parvo virus to the wolves and most of the wolves perished as a result.
The Isle Royale wolf population has experienced other challenges over the decades and today there are only two wolves remaining on the island. According to an annual wolf survey performed by Michigan Tech University, researchers could only confirm a single wolf remaining on the island. With the depleted wolf population, the moose population has exploded to over 1,500 on the island. The explosion of the moose population is leading to the island being stripped of vegetation, which hurts other species. A warmer climate makes it less likely that an ice bridge to the mainland will form in the winter, which would be the only way a new pack of wild wolves could find their way to the island.
The NPS would like to do something about this to save the wolves of Isle Royale. On August 17, the NPS announced plans to put 20 to 30 wolves on Isle Royale over the next three years. The action will reintroduce wolves back in three different packs in three different areas of the island. One pack will be reintroduced each fall after tourists leave for the next three years.
Over the years, there has been heated debate on the question of whether to reintroduce wolves onto Isle Royale. The National Park Service (NPS) plan to reintroduce wolves received thousands of comments with many arguing that the NPS should let nature take its course. Others maintain that the reintroduction of wolves to Isle Royale is necessary to keep the island in balance. Commenters opined that in the absence of wolves, actions would be necessary to manage the moose population or undertake revegetation of balsam fir, which are both much more intrusive actions.
You can review the final proposal, which is available online for at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/isrowolves. Better yet, plan a trip to Isle Royale. You don’t have to head too far west to enjoy the world-class wilderness in our own backyard.