By Ruth Fletcher
MONTREAL RIVER HARBOUR – Wolves, caribou and beaver, on Lake Superior’s remote Michipicoten Island are locked in a predator/prey game, and Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry plans to take a closer look at the situation.
“The role of science in cases like this is to collect and assimilate the data required to inform management decisions,” says Brent Patterson, a research scientist and adjunct professor at Trent University in the Environmental and Life Sciences graduate program, who has monitored the movement of the wolves since 2014.
Scientists continue to monitor numbers of both wolves and caribou and study their interactions.
“More specifically, because beavers are largely unavailable to wolves when under the ice in winter, it is unknown whether wolves can survive on beaver alone if caribou become very rare,” Patterson told The Sault Star.
Caribou were a natural presence on Michipicoten Island, but human activity on the island in the early 1900s depleted their numbers. After a lone male was spotted there in 1981, MNR moved seven more onto the island. That herd expanded.
In his 2012 graduate thesis for Lakehead University, Benjamin Kuchta wrote that in 1982 there were seven caribou, in 2001 there were 200 and in 2011 there were 680. Beavers also thrive on Michipicoten Island. In the fall of 1961 there were 730 active lodges, with an estimated 5,800 beaver. By October of 2015, 1,300 active lodges peppered the island.
The wolves, however, are a newer issue. For many years there was no wolf pack on the island. But during the frigid winter of 2013/2014, when Lake Superior froze and created an ice bridge to the wilderness mainland, wolves crossed over to the island.
“Our research suggests that four wolves colonized the island in winter 2014, including three males and one female,” Patterson said.
When asked if there would be eventual inbreeding amongst the wolf population, Patterson said, “We are unclear what the outcome will be of all future wolves on Michipicoten (Island) having descended from a single founding female … But this is one of the areas we are researching.”
Patterson’s 2018 research project on Michipicoten Island will be in conjunction with a University of Nebraska graduate student.
He will co-supervise the student with the university’s John Benson and Art Rodgers, from the MNRF’s Centre of Northern Forest Ecosystem Research in Thunder Bay, will also oversee this project.
The student’s research will be an important component of the MNRF’s ongoing research on wolves and caribou,” Patterson said.
The internet’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences job board lists the Michipicoten Island opportunity for a PhD student and describes how the 2018 study will involve GPS tracking, camera trapping, DNA analysis and extensive fieldwork.
“Woodland (Boreal) caribou are a threatened species in Canada and, thus, there are applied implications as well,” the posting reads in part. “We believe the potential for novel, high-impact research in this system is immense.”
But a growing number of people want MNRF to hear their concerns and not wait until more research is complete before acting on the situation. These advocates for the island want to be part of the decision making.
“The key to healthy crown lands is an engaged citizenship,” Leo LaPiano, Michipicoten First Nation Lands and Resources conservation officer, told The Sault Star.
Many concerned area residents contend that the caribou herd on Michipicoten Island will not survive the wolf predations. Some of them follow the theories of Tom Bergerud, who wrote his PhD thesis on predation in 1983 and is one of the world’s leading caribou experts. Believing that predation, not so much habitat, is the main enemy of caribou survival, Bergerud has set a ratio of 6.5 wolves per 1,000 square kilometres as the maximum number for an effective balance of the species. Michipicoten Island is 184 square kilometres and Patterson said he expects to find about 20 wolves there this winter during the annual population count.
Bergerud also argues there is no caribou conservation conundrum. It is more a case of predator management.
LaPiano would agree. “Getting the caribou protected is the first step in a longer term goal,” he said.
As a result, some have asked Kathryn McGarry, Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, as well as Environment and Climate Change Minister Katherine McKenna, for a non-lethal solution. Citizens have asked the government to relocate the wolves to Isle Royale, the largest Island in Lake Superior. LaPiano has contacted scientists from there who have expressed interest in receiving the wolves.
Patterson and the MNRF say they are well aware of the complexity and unpredictable nature of the Michipicoten Island wolf/caribou situation. When asked if there are a crucial number of wolves and caribou before the MNRF would intervene, Patterson said ministry is developing a management approach that will address the “unique needs” of the Lake Superior coast range and the caribou that reside there, expanding on the direction contained in Ontario’s Caribou Conservation Plan.
“Although wolf numbers continue to increase and those of caribou to decline, we are uncertain what will happen when caribou become scarce,” he said.