Man played role in demise of Isle Royale wolves

With the wolf population of Isle Royale effectively extinct — just two, severely in-bred, aging wolves remain — and the moose population exploding to more than 1,300, should humans intervene and “man-ually,” if you will, reintroduce the species?

There is certainly no lack of information, research, history and data to answer the question. Biological research on this issue began in the late 1950s, a few years after wolves first arrived and were naturally introduced by crossing an ice bridge from Canada.

This is one of the longest-running nature studies and the only one of its kind in biological history. Nowhere else on Earth is there a place like Isle Royale, where a top predator and prey live relatively isolated from human impacts of habitat loss and hunting.

The only hunting is the wolf on the moose, which the half-century of research seems to indicate is a primary factor in keeping the Isle Royale flora and fauna in balance.

Yet as we’ve learned in many other cases, all this scientific information can be interpreted in differing and opposing ways, and for the Isle Royale wolf question there are two sides.

One side includes MTU researcher Rolf Peterson, perhaps the leading expert on the issue, who says reintroduction is the obvious solution. Isle Royale’s habitat and isolation from human impacts offers wolves a unique and prime location to thrive and maintain it ecological balance, which is threatened by the overpopulation of moose that leads to eating plant and tree species out of existence.

The other side opposes artificial reintroduction. Wolves came to the island naturally once, they can do it again. Let Nature take its course. Humans have no authority to impose their will in the natural world, because — even though a lot of knowledge has been acquired on this question — humans lack the ability to know what would happen with artificial reintroduction.

But humans have already adversely impacted the island’s wolf population.

From its highest population of 50 in 1980, the wolf population crashed in 1981-82 when humans inadvertently introduced a canine parvovirus. Years later, three wolves were killed when they fell into an abandoned mine shaft, decimating the last remaining pack which has dwindled to the two left today.

There might be few if any ice bridges forming due to the impact another manmade phenomena known as climate change, so Candadian wolves will not be able to make the crossing naturally.

While the “leave it alone” case has merit, we side with the interventionists on this question and urge the National Park Service to approve reintroduction when it decides next year.

A Daily Mining Gazette editorial

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