By Adrian Wydeven, TWA Coordinator

Isle Royale National Park wolves are doing poorly. This year only two highly inbred wolves inhabit the wilderness island in Lake Superior. To determine what should be done, the National Park Service (NPS) has developed a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) and recently collected comments on the options presented in the EIS.

The “preferred alternative” in the EIS is to trap from Canada and release twenty to thirty wolves onto the island over a three-year period. Many scientists and natural resource managers support reintroduction of wolves to Isle Royale.

But Tim Cochrane a retired Park Service superintendent has a different opinion. Tim spoke at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute in January as part of SOEI’s Stewardship Speaker Series, this year focused on the National Park Service. His talk was titled “Island Rules: Impact of the Big Lake and Time on Isle Royale Mammals.”

Cochrane argued that from an historical perspective, mammal occurrence on the big island has changed many times. Moose and wolves are relative new-comers to the island. Up until the mid-1800s the dominant ungulate was the caribou, and the largest predator was the lynx. They are both gone now, eliminated by human activity. Moose arrived in the early 1900s, possibly intentionally introduced.

Wolves did not arrive until about 1948-1949, and some zoo-raised wolves were released onto the island in the mid-1950s. It is not clear if they interbred with the wild wolves. Cochrane pointed out that it is not unusual for mammals to colonize islands and later disappear. If wolves are reintroduced would it create an artificial situation that degrades the wilderness value of Isle Royale as a natural outdoor laboratory? Should we then also consider lynx and caribou reintroduction?

Ultimately how we want Isle Royale managed for wolves or wilderness qualities will be a value judgement, Cochrane explained. How should we preserve the natural and wild quality of Isle Royale? The NPS’s answer to that question is anyone’s guess, but the decision is unlikely to end the debate.

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