Isle Royale Study

Isle Royale National Park

The Wolf, Moose and Ecosystem Dilemma

EDITORIAL: Veterans need Wilderness

Editorial Comment

I am very pleased to see a positive plan for the health of our Isle Royale ecosystem. As things stand, the National Park Service plans to bring 20-30 new wolves to Isle Royale over the next three to five years. This line of thinking shares a kinship with early American heroes of wilderness. When we faced a similar situation in the 1930s and 1940s, several of the people that helped us define what wilderness is were willing to take wolves to Isle Royale to preserve what we had. When you look at those wilderness advocates, I believe you will see them making a sharp distinction between development and preservation. A lot of the fight for wilderness was to prevent development (roads, dams, resorts, logging, etc), but these same people were willing to take steps to preserve what was there. They were willing to touch wilderness to save it.

We are entering a 90 day comment period. It is important for each of us to put together a well-reasoned response and submit that response into the Park Service project. You can do this on the Park Service page (at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=59316) and follow the “Open For Comment” button. The stated direction can change. Your comments are important.

As always, my wish is that you will study, be open minded and form your own opinion.

If you wish, you may contact me directly at IsleRoyaleStatus@gmail.com

Thank you,
Ron Porritt

Today, the future for the wolves of Isle Royale appears grim. Grim or not, our understanding is not complete without going back to the winter of 1948-1949 when wolves followed an ice bridge and took up residence on the island.

Isle Royale Wolves

Those first wolves were seeds of intrigue for what has become the the world's longest running predator/prey study. The study started in 1958 and continues through today. Wolves and moose together on an island in the middle of Lake Superior have become a story that continually challenges expectations and our notion of balance in nature. The moose of Isle Royale had not seen a large predator since their arrival in the early 1900's. Without the culling effect of a predator, moose multiplied until they devastated the vegetation they needed to survive. Boom and bust was an all too obvious result with hundreds of moose succumbing to starvation as they ate themselves out of food. But, just when concerned wilderness advocates were making plans to bring wolves to the island as a hedge against such extremes, wolves came on their own in the winter of 1948-1949.

Isle Royale Moose

Wolves and moose have become icons of the island. When President Nixon sent his letter to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House (April 28, 1971) to propose establishing Isle Royale as a wilderness, wolves were the first thing he mentioned in his single sentence of justification: “Isle Royale is one of the few remaining areas where the North American timber wolf can be found along with other relatively rare species including the moose, beaver, mink and lynx.” When the park service states what is the “essence of the park’s importance to the nation’s natural and cultural heritage”, one of the three things mentioned is “Isle Royale is world renowned for its long-term predator/prey study...” The story of wolves and moose has become a significant part of what draws people to Isle Royale. Most visitors want to see moose by day and hear wolves howl in the night.

A wolf relaxing in Isle Royale

Today the moose population is strong, and growing, but the wolf population is small and of little impact as a predator. Are we headed again to the boom and bust era of the 30's and 40's, ...and is that OK? You can read details in links below, but it is clear that the health of the wolves is very poor and their numbers are in decline.

One of the primary tenets of “wilderness” has been that we let nature take care of herself unless man caused a problem. Was man a cause in this situation? Does it matter if man was a cause? Under what circumstances is it OK to touch wilderness? With these questions we face an irony: the wolves that helped define Isle Royale as wilderness may die off because we have defined Isle Royale as wilderness. These are important questions as the park service considers intervention on behalf of the wolves.

More of the Story

If you would like to know more, the following will serve as a good introduction to the story of Isle Royale. You will see contradictions, so think about “facts” vs “what was the best information the writer had”. It is very interesting to read with an eye towards when each was written.

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