Isle Royale’s wolves will have to be managed artificially

isle royale wolf

This year, several wolves were relocated from Minnesota and Ontario’s Michipicoten Island to Isle Royale.  These wolves were brought to the island to restore a moribund wolf population that had dwindled down to two individuals in the autumn 2018. These wolves had been suffering from a severe inbreeding depression, and because ice bridges almost never form in Lake Superior to connect the island to mainland Minnesota, it has become virtually impossible for wolves to walk to the island and add new genes to the population.

Climate change is, of course, to blame for this problem, but it also means that the island’s wolf and moose population dynamics that have been studied for decades are now going to be managed through occasional introductions of wolves that are not related to those living on the island.

Over the next few years, as many as 30 wolves will be released upon the island. This will create diverse founding population from which several packs can form.

But it now means that the biology of Isle Royale’s wolves will be managed by people.  People will be bringing new wolves to the island, not the ice bridges.

And we will be doing it for the rest of time.

This situation leads to certain questions about Isle Royale as a truly natural system. It is not. It is sort of a wildlife reservation in which two relatively rare species in the Upper Midwest are given a sort of illusory freedom to live in a way in which humans will mostly leave them alone.

But it’s not at all a Pre-Columbian ecosystem. Indeed, the main species that inhabited Isle Royale were Canada lynx and woodland caribou, both of which aren’t found there at all.  A population of coyotes also lived there, but the wolves made short work of them when they came over in the middle part of the twentieth century.

I do support the restoration of wolves to Isle Royale, but it is like everything else to do with wolves in this era. Some wolves in Alaska, far northern Canada, and Russia might still have lives that are true wilderness areas. Many of those wolves may never see a person in their entire lives.

But the wolves that live Western and Eastern Europe and Southern Canada and the Lower 48 live is worlds that are still dominated in by humans. Even if humans do leave behind some wild areas, the human footprint upon their lives is not inconsequential.

Humans have changed the climate, which has made ice bridges far less common in the Great Lakes.

Humans have also destroyed woodland caribou populations. Only a single herd of woodland caribou can be found in the Lower 48, and it dwindled down to a single individual, which was captured this winter.

Humans have pushed the Canada lynx into a range that essentially is just Canada and the Northern Rocky Mountain states.

Humans have made it so that wolves do very well in three Great Lakes states, but they don’t really exist anywhere else in the Midwest. They are absent from New England and Appalachians.

But they have Isle Royale and lots of moose to hunt.

We will give them that. It is the least we can do. And we will continue to learn from them in the deepest hopes that we can save some of them and the habitat they need to thrive. And if we can save a bit for them, maybe we can save ourselves, as the planet warms and politicians either do little to nothing or deny the looming threat as a hoax from some malevolent body.

So we will manage the wolf population now. This management will come from addition, while in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, the management will come from subtraction. In a few years, the rest of the wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin will be managed with the minus sign.

And it will have to do. Because that’s what our civilization will tolerate.

 

Natural History

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