Fall of the Wild: The Trapped Wolves of Isle Royale

Global warming is putting wildlife at risk, leading to hard questions about wilderness ethics

Al Jazeera America
June 4, 2014

Chapter 1: Death of a Wolf

On January 21, Isabelle, a 5-year-old gray wolf, was spotted along the southwest reaches of Isle Royale National Park, which sits on an island in Lake Superior. During a survey flight over the island, John Vucetich, an ecologist with the Isle Royale Wolfe-Moose Study, confirmed the lone wolf’s identity thanks to a reading from her radio collar. “As we circled Isabelle, every few moments she stopped and turned to look back, as though concerned about being followed by other wolves,” wrote Vucetich on his research blog. During the previous year, two other wolves in her small pack had tried to kill her more than once.

“They beat [her] up several times, the female who was to breed [with Isabelle’s brother] would not want another breeding female around. There were times we weren’t sure if she would survive. We would see her laying on the ice and were not sure if she would get up,” explains Rolf Peterson, wolf expert and a retired professor at Michigan Technological University who, with Vucetich, has spent the past 44 years studying the wolves and moose of Isle Royale National Park.

Yet, she did get up and made it on her own through the summer and fall. She fled the island and traveled across 20 miles of ice. But by February 8, Isabelle was dead. Her carcass was discovered on the shore of Lake Superior in eastern Minnesota, on the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation.

According to the necropsy report, a pellet entered Isabelle’s chest and led to fatal trauma and bleeding. Whoever shot her multiple times with an air gun and left her for dead didn’t realize — or just didn’t care — that Isabelle’s arrival on the mainland had given her a second lease on life.

Isabelle’s long-term survival on the island was unlikely, and not only because other wolves ostracized her. Isle Royale’s once-robust wolf pack appears to be trotting toward extinction. From 2011 through 2012, the island’s wolf population declined 56 percent, and it has remained at its lowest total, just eight or nine individuals, since the Wolfe-Moose Study began, in 1956.

When an ice bridge, the only conduit between the island packs and the mainland wolves, formed during this past, frigid winter, Peterson and Vucetich felt buoyed with hope. During the first decade of the study, an ice bridge formed during three out of four winters. But during the past 17 years, because of rising temperatures, ice bridges have been documented only three times. One formed in 1997, followed by an 11-year gap. This winter marked the first bridge since 2008.

During cold winters, Isle Royale, an island located in Lake Superior, is connect to the mainland via ice bridges.
During cold winters, Isle Royale, an island located in Lake Superior, is connect to the mainland via ice bridges.

Rising water temperatures and declining ice cover in Lake Superior (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that by 2011 the lake’s yearly ice coverage had declined 76 percent, compared with 1973 levels) have combined with strong winds to reduce the frequency of ice bridges connecting the 45-mile-by-9-mile island to the mainland of Ontario and Minnesota. Because of this, the last time a new wolf entered the island was in 1997, and that male bolstered the island’s “gene flow.”

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Photo: John Vucetich

Within a decade, however, all wolves on the island carried that new arrival’s genes. Today, the nine wolves that live on the island are all closely related. With most organisms, including wolves, this sort of genetic inbreeding reduces the rate of reproduction, and it is the major factor behind the Isle Royale population’s decline.

Another cold winter in the next few years could create another bridge and perhaps draw wolves from the mainland to contribute to the gene pool. However, it is impossible to say how long the current wolf population can survive in these conditions. Given the specter of extinction, Peterson and Vucetich want to transport mainland wolves to the island.

Their hope is that intervention, which scientists call genetic rescue, would result in a more viable wolf population. That decision, however, is not theirs to make — it falls under the purview of the superintendent of Isle Royale National Park. And it is a decision fraught with controversy and disagreement, both on scientific and philosophical fronts.

Chapter 2: What Would Aldo Do?