ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK-Officials at Isle Royale National Park on Friday, Sept. 21, announced details of their plan to bolster the park's wolf population by capturing wolves in nearby regions and releasing them on the big Lake Superior island.
The Park Service will trap and transport up to six wolves in coming weeks with a goal of at least 20 and up to 30 wolves moved to the island during the next three years.
The first wolves won't have a very long trip: Efforts will begin in coming weeks to capture 2-4 wolves on the Grand Portage Ojibwe Reservation in Minnesota-about 15 miles across Lake Superior from the island-and two wolves from Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Experienced wolf trappers, Park Service biologists and other wildlife scientists already are scouting for sites, and trapping could begin within days.
"We have a weather window of the next six weeks,'' said Phyllis Green, Isle Royale superintendent. She noted the effort is starting slow to make sure it's done right. "We hope to be done by the end of October."
Half the wolves will be male and half female. They will be spaced out on their new island home to avoid inter-pack fighting.
It's possible that up to four additional wolves could come from Ontario - possibly other Lake Superior islands - later this winter, but details haven't yet been worked out, Green said. "The dialogue is there,'' she said.
A second round of transplants is expected for fall 2019, Green said. Fall is considered the best time to move wolves because there are few if any people on the island over the winter, with the park closed to the public after Oct. 31 each year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service will provide amphibious aircraft for the operation, said Mark Romanski, Isle Royale's chief of natural resources. In addition, the Grand Portage band, Fish and Wildlife and Park Services, the Minnesota and Michigan departments of natural resources and the U.S. Geological Survey are helping in the relocation effort.
Wildlife officials will test for external and internal parasites and to make sure the wolves are disease free before they are moved. The wolves will be drugged so they will be asleep through the move. Each will be fitted with a GPS tracking collar to enable researchers to monitor and study them for years to come.
"Our main goal is to get healthy wolves to the island as quickly and safely as possible,'' said Michelle Verant, wildlife veterinarian for the Park Service.
Wildlife experts are looking for wolves that are accustomed to killing and eating moose, not an easy meal, so they are more likely to thrive on the island, which has some 1,600 moose but no deer or other large prey.
"We know we need wolves that are familiar with moose," Romanski said.
Green said that, after the 20-30 wolves are released on the island, their numbers will be allowed to "ebb and flow," and that the wolves are expected to keep the island's burgeoning moose herd in check to preserve island vegetation.
Wolf numbers on the island crashed from 24 as recently as 2009 to just a pair earlier this year, a 7-year-old female and 9-year-old male. Inbreeding spurred genetic defects that crippled the wolves' ability to survive and reproduce.
Scientists with Michigan Technological University, who have been studying the island's wolf and moose populations for 59 years, have said for years that the wolves need new blood or they face extinction. The last two wolves, a father-daughter pair that have failed to produce any viable offspring, are almost certainly the end of the line for the island's natural wolfpack. No new wolves have crossed ice to the island from Ontario or Minnesota, and stayed, in decades. And the chances of that natural movement fades as ice bridges form less often due to climate change.
The 45-mile-long, 143,000-acre island is mostly dedicated as federal wilderness.
Not everyone is happy about the Park Service plan to intervene to keep wolves on the island. The group Wilderness Watch backs a hands-off policy for official federal wilderness areas, favoring a wait-and-see approach as the island's last wolves struggle to hang on.
Wilderness Watch also says trapping individual wolves out of packs in other areas and throwing them together on Isle Royale is a cruel fate for the big predators. Members of different wolf packs often battle each other, killing rivals.
"The individual wolves will be removed from their packs and exiled to Isle Royale - an isolated island in the Great Lakes - where, in addition to being collared and under constant surveillance, they will most likely suffer the same inbreeding fate that has decimated wolves throughout their short-lived history on Isle Royale,'' Wilderness Watch said in a statement issued Friday. "The best course of action for Isle Royale is to allow wolves to decide whether they will come or go from the island via natural migration. This would allow the island and its wolves to remain wild, in stark contrast to the Park Service's artificial predator stocking plan."
Wolves are relatively new to the island, having crossed the ice in the 1940s. Their numbers reached a high of 50 in 1980.
Moose came to the island much earlier in the 1900s, peaking at 2,445 in 1995 and hitting bottom at just 385 in 2007. In their annual survey last winter, scientists estimated the moose herd had grown to about 1,600 on the island.