Hoping for the Best

The gray wolf got its name from the gray color of its fur. Scientists are attempting to reestablish the population on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. // Photography courtesy Wikimedia Commons, US Fish & Wildlife Service

It has now been two years since the National Park Service (NPS) began restoring the wolf population at Isle Royale National Park, with four arriving from Minnesota in the fall of 2018, followed by 15 more from Canada and the Michigan mainland in 2019. The wolves have since made themselves at home on the remote and rugged

island park in Lake Superior and are preparing for the upcoming winter.

“What we have seen is wolves trying to pair up and establish territories, and those are the types of things we expected and hoped to happen,” said Mark C. Romanski, project coordinator for the wolf-reintroduction project at Isle Royale National Park and also the park’s natural resources program manager. Speaking in June, he said, “What we’re hoping now is that we’ll have reproduction and have wolf pups this summer, (but due to the coronavirus pandemic) we haven’t even been to the island yet.”

The reintroduction is designed to boost the island’s dwindling and inbred wolf population, which since 2016 was down to the last two.
— John Vucetich, Ph.D.

The reintroduction is designed to boost the island’s dwindling and inbred wolf population, which since 2016 was down to the last two, according to John Vucetich, Ph.D., the Michigan Technological University (MTU) ecologist who leads the continuing study of wolf and moose populations — predators and prey — on Isle Royale. The study has been tracking fluctuations in numbers of wolves and moose on the island since 1958, and documenting the considerable impact that a small population of predators has on a much larger population of prey, and how that affects the overall island ecosystem, especially Isle Royale’s balsam fir forest. Moose rely on balsam fir for up to half of their wintertime diet, he said, so without wolves to keep their numbers down,  the moose could do so much damage that the trees could soon disappear from much of the island.

Photography courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Eric Kilby

So far, the wolf reintroduction is proceeding well and as expected, said Rolf Peterson, Ph.D., who led the MTU wolf-moose study for many years and is now continuing the work in his retirement. Responding via email from a research cabin on Isle Royale, Peterson described a typical fall for the wolves: “Pups should be traveling with the adults by October, and by then wolves will have more to eat as the moose — particularly bulls — become more vulnerable during and after the rut (late September).”

Going forward, the NPS will continue monitoring the wolves as part of its overall five-year reintroduction plan, which includes the option of translocating up to 30 wolves. Of the wolves introduced so far, Romanski remarked, “You hope the best for them and keep your fingers crossed.”

— Leslie Mertz

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