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To find the northernmost point in Michigan, you have to take a boat or seaplane to Isle Royale.The island is the largest in Lake Superior and it's also home to Michigan's only National Park.The remoteness of the island, and the fact that the island is largely untouched by humans has made for a perfect place to watch nature take its course.Michigan Radio's Rebecca Williams and Mark Brush traveled to Isle Royale to meet the researchers who have been watching how wolves and moose interact for 54 years. The research project is the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world.What researchers have learned on this natural island laboratory has informed ecological science around the world.

National Park Service considers bringing more wolves to Isle Royale

Isle Royale National Park
There are only two wolves left on Isle Royale. Should humans add wolves to the population?

The National Park Service is taking a closer lookat whether or not to bring more grey wolves to Isle Royale National Park. Only two wolves remain on the island now.

To help make its decision, the park service wants to hear from you. It’s accepting public comments on the question right now.

At one point, there were as many as 50 wolves on Isle Royale. But Phyllis Green, Superintendent of the Isle Royale National Park, says that number was abnormal.

“Fifty was a very unusually high number — probably one of the highest concentrations of wolves ever found per acre,” Green says.

The island kept the animals from dispersing, and that causes problems for wolves.

“Islands are pretty hard on any species,” she says. “You kind of have to adapt and survive or leave.”

She says oftentimes a species will disappear from an island completely. That’s a risk for wolves on Isle Royale.

The proposed courses of action

The National Park Service plans to assess four different courses of action to help the wolf population. 

The first option is no action — to let nature take its course. Green says that’s typically what the park service opts for.

But that could be risky.

Green says “very low, intermittent introduction of wolves naturally” caused wolves to inbreed. That’s likely what made it hard for the animals to sustain their population.

"I think it's a real positive in our society that we're taking a look at how we help the natural world stay intact. But the natural world also has its own boundaries and processes and I think we need to be respectful of that as we think about whether we should tinker in those processes." — Phyllis Green, Superintendent of the Isle Royale National Park

For that reason, the park service is considering bringing animals in to reestablish the population.

Alternative B does just that. It brings a new group of wolves to the island during a one-time period, which could take a couple years.

“And the question is, could you improve upon the start-up point?” Green says. “Is there a way to introduce a certain number of wolves over a short time period that have enough genetic diversity that they could carry themselves through the next cycle on Isle Royale?”

The third option, Alternative C, would bring wolves onto the island as often as needed throughout the next 20 years at least.

“So under that scenario you’ll do some type of a start-up population, or intermixing with the current population — provided they’re still there — and you would add wolves at a certain interval,” Green says. “But that’s still very problematic, because wolves don’t exactly greet each other with open arms as often as with bared fangs.”

With that in mind, Green says this plan would require “a pretty good backup strategy.”

The final alternative is a bit of a hybrid — the park service would take no action right now. But it could decide to introduce wolves later.

“It’s going to be a little more complicated than the other two alternatives, because it’s going to try to be more adaptive and really evaluating what’s going on in the park and then adjusting the course forward from there,” Green says.

Now the plan is to evaluate the options. 

“I think it’s a real positive in our society that we’re taking a look at how we help the natural world stay intact,” Green says. “But the natural world also has its own boundaries and processes and I think we need to be respectful of that as we think about whether we should tinker in those processes.”

The public is invited to read the park service'srevised scope of the environmental impact statementand to comment.

These comments will be added to ones the service has already received from people in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and 19 other countries.

You can comment on the park service's proposals here.

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