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MI: Officials studying wolf decline at Isle Royale

By The Associated Press

A federal team has begun studying whether to do anything about a sharp decline of Isle Royale National Park’s gray wolves, which are in danger of extinction, the park superintendent said Tuesday.

National Park Service experts will develop options for dealing with the wolves’ drop-off as part of a broader analysis of how the Lake Superior island chain may evolve in coming years, particularly as climate change sets in, Superintendent Phyllis Green said.

“We are very concerned about current wolf population demographics and trends,” she said.

Michigan Tech University biologists reported last week that nine wolves roam Isle Royale, the lowest number since scientists began observing the predator-prey relationship between the park’s wolves and moose more than 50 years ago. They said the group apparently includes just one female, making long-term survival prospects grim.

Biologists Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, who lead the study, outlined several options in an essay scheduled for publication next month. Among them: bring more wolves to the island to bolster the existing population or let nature take its course and, if the wolves can’t survive on their own, establish a new population after the existing one dies out.

Peterson and Vucetich said moose would overbrowse the island’s vegetation without wolves helping control the herd.

Moose are believed to have first reached the island — probably by swimming — in the early 1900s. Their population rose rapidly but crashed twice before wolves migrated across an ice bridge from the mainland around 1950 and established packs.

Green said the Michigan Tech scientists’ ideas “will be evaluated along with others that take into account the broader context of wildlife management and wilderness.” Some studies have suggested that climate, habitat and food availability may affect moose numbers more than wolf predation, she said.

The park service research group met last month. It includes experts in a number of areas including wildlife, wilderness and natural resource management.

Isle Royale is a federally designated wilderness area. Historically, federal policy has discouraged human tinkering in such places.

“Some would argue that putting more wolves out there is not natural by most definitions,” said Rick Kahn, a park service biologist in Fort Collins, Colo., and member of the research team. But having a predator to keep moose numbers in check “is probably good for the overall ecology of the island,” he said.

Peterson and Vucetich said people already have altered the environment and the primary goal should be protecting the ecosystem’s health.