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Isle Royale wolf reintroduction to begin

Two Wolves travel in a single-file line across ice and snow in winter near Isle Royale. (Rolf Peterson / National Park Service)

DULUTH—The National Park Service announced on Thursday, June 7, that it will begin to implement its plan this year to increase Isle Royale's decimated wolf population.

Park staff received the official OK from Cam Sholly, the Park Service's Midwest regional director, to move ahead with its plan to boost the island's wolf population. The park plans to move 20 to 30 wolves onto the island over the next three years beginning later this fall, Isle Royale Superintendent Phyllis Green said.

The wolf population on Isle Royale, an island located about 15 miles off Minnesota's North Shore, has dwindled to two wolves, a father and daughter, due to inbreeding and genetic deformities. In recent years, new wolves have been unable to cross the ice to the island during the winters. Without more wolves on the island, the moose population is expected to increase, causing environmental damage, and the moose will begin to starve to death.

Among several options, officials considered doing nothing about the wolf population, and Green noted that some groups, including two Native American bands along Lake Superior, believe the park shouldn't interfere by bringing new wolves to Isle Royale. However, the bands understand that Isle Royale's ecosystem is changing due to the lack of wolves and want to work with the park during the implementation process to learn information that will help them with their own resource management on the mainland, Green said.

The park's plan states that after the new wolves are brought to Isle Royale in the next three years, "we don't go back, we let wolves be wolves," Green said. The park didn't choose the option of continuing to add wolves to Isle Royale's system on a regular basis.

"That was not chosen as an alternative simply as part of a balance between the needs of maintaining as much wilderness character as we could while providing an apex predator to help the system as we know it now stay intact and resilient," Green said.

Mark Romanski, chief of natural resources at Isle Royale, said the new wolves brought to the island over the next three years are expected to be "a good start" to building a self-sustaining wolf population on Isle Royale over the next 20 years. Wolves have lived on Isle Royale since they crossed the ice to the island in the 1940s. Green noted that they've consulted genetic experts during the planning process and they'll better understand the wolves' genetics on the island than was known about the previous generations of Isle Royale's wolves.

Romanski explained that they plan to capture wild wolves, either individuals or packs, from around the Great Lakes region and move them via boat or plane to Isle Royale. Before they're brought to the park, the wolves will go through a health screening process and will be fitted with radio collars, he said. The wolves will be captured slowly over time rather than all at once. The Park Service already has offers from agencies from Minnesota to Michigan to capture wolves in areas where the population needs to be reduced.

"We hope to capture from as many wide-ranging geographic areas as possible to maximize the genetic variability of the population that we end up putting into the park," Romanski said.

How Isle Royale's two existing wolves will react to the new wolves "is a chapter yet to be written," Green said. Romanski said park staff plans to introduce the new wolves in an area away from the two wolves' known territory and then leave the wolves to interact on their own.

Romanski said the introduction of new wolves to the island will have an immediate effect on the moose population, which was estimated at about 1,500 moose earlier this year. They're aiming at a long-term average of about 1,100 to 1,200 moose on Isle Royale, he said.

"The reason for us moving forward is to put wolves out there to act as predators in that system to help preserve some of our forest resources out on the island. We fully expect wolves to do what wolves do and hunt moose," he said.

It currently costs about $75,000 annually to monitor wolves on Isle Royale and the plan estimates that will increase to $90,000, Green said. The cost of capturing and bringing the wolves to the island over the course of three years is expected to total $660,000.

Overall, park staff expects the additional wolves to enhance the experience of Isle Royale visitors.

"People are keenly interested in coming to Isle Royale, not only to hear and/or see wolves, but also moose. Adding wolves is going to be a positive impact. We've had a population out there for almost 70 years and we haven't had any sort of negative interactions in terms of human-wolf interactions. We don't expect that we'd have more," Romanski said.

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