Daytime temperatures at Isle Royale National Park were forecast to warm up to no more than 6 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday, a biting cold that, if it got no warmer at the national park for a month or so, just might solve the National Park Service's quandary over what to do about an apex predator, the wolf, that is about to blink out on the island.
Without formation of an "ice bridge" between the Canadian mainland and the island 15 miles away in Lake Superior and wolves with wanderlust, the Park Service might resort to importing wolves to prevent moose from overwhelming the leafy island.
It's a possibility outlined in a draft Environmental Impact Statement concerning the future of wolves at Isle Royale, one that raises questions about the Park Service's role in managing official wilderness, intervening in natural processes, and, perhaps, cultivating what some might view as the romance of the wild. Indeed, waking in the predawn blackness in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park to the melodious howl of a lone wolf connected my core with "wilderness" and "wildness" like no other thing, not even the grizzly bear that shared our sprawling meadow the day before.
That Isle Royale National Park, of which 132,018 acres is officially designated wilderness, encompasses an island in Lake Superior is the crux of the problem facing the Park Service. Mainland wolves don't easily come upon the island, historically requiring an ice bridge to cross the lake from Canada. In recent years, it has become rather obvious that the lack of additions to the island's canid gene pool have crippled the resident wolves, which have suffered from chronic inbreeding and now are believed to number no more than two. At the same time, Isle Royale's moose population has flourished, currently numbering about 1,300, according to the Park Service.
Through the next three months, the Park Service, wildlife biologists inside and outside the Service, the public, and other stakeholders will contemplate how to intervene in this natural disaster. If the Park Service decided to take a hands-off approach, the moose would be expected to essentially eat themselves out of forage, crash in population, and send ripples through the park's ecosystem. If the agency steps in and actively imports wolves, it would insert itself into managing the natural process. Would that conflict with the Wilderness Act's definition of wilderness as a landscape that "generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable."
It's a question not lost on park staff at Isle Royale.
“That was a central discussion in all of this. What is appropriate in a wilderness environment?" Mark Romanski, a biologist at the park, told me Friday. "You get conflicting responses to that question, even within our management team. It took us a while to deliberate through that.
“Again, there’s no right answer to any of this. We have to make sure we’re good on policy, good on the law, and can still move forward," he went on. "More specifically, the wolves on Isle Royale are key components, or predators in general, even, are key components to an ecosystem. And conservation is one of the values of wilderness itself, so that alone can be used as a justification of a management action. But again, as the wilderness law dictates, we’re supposed to be hands-free, so it’s a balance of all of those things.”
Watching whether prey and predator on Isle Royale can maintain a balance without human intervention have been biologists involved in the world's longest-running prey-predator study, which dates to 1959. The moose-wolf interaction on Isle Royale has only been around for about a century. In 1905, no moose were recorded on the island in a report from the Michigan Biological Survey, though woodland caribou were. The caribou were killed off by hunters, with the last one taken in 1925. Lynx, another native, were wiped out by trappers by the 1930s.
Moose, some have speculated, were intentionally brought to the island "for the purposes of recreational hunting." Wolves showed up on their own, via an ice bridge, around 1949 or 1950.
While wolves enjoyed a heyday of sorts on Isle Royale in the 1960s, with as many as 28 individuals estimated in 1965, in recent years the downward spiral has been extreme. While an ice bridge did form in 2014, it actually cost the island's wolves, as a female left and was later killed near Grand Portage National Monument.
To reverse the decline and stem the booming moose population - biologists at Michigan Tech University in Houghton, Michigan, "liken it to a runaway train," said Mr. Romanski - the Park Service is proposing to import 20-30 genetically diverse wolves over a three-year period. If the predators don't take hold through that effort, the stocking could continue for another two years.
Rolf Peterson, who led the Wolf Project in 1970 and continues to be involved with the studies, thought the Park Service's preferred approach to wolf restoration was good. But he also questioned the short duration the agency would give for wolves to rebound on Isle Royale.
"You have a three-year period in which they’re going to put a lot of wolves on the island. And that’s where maximizing the genetic diversity comes from," he said during a phone call. "And then if things still aren’t off the ground and running by year three, they can keep going for two more years. And that’s smart, because lots of things can happen. What I’m wondering about and haven’t seen much discussion on it in this document yet, is from years five to 20, their hands are tied. They’re essentially saying we’re not going to do anything."
Beyond the mechanics of implementing a recovery program for wolves, Dr. Peterson agreed there's a philosophical question of how much the Park Service should be involved with actively managing a wilderness ecosystem.
"There is this nice philosophical feeling that all that’s needed is to get things going and then things will be fine. And that’s fine," he said. "The point you raise is important, because it suggests that that wilderness hands-off approach is still a dominant feature, the dominant feature, rather than health of the ecosystem. If health of the ecosystem was your dominant goal, then you wouldn’t tie your hands for 15 years.”
Adding a complicating factor to the decision, said Mr. Romanski, is the simple fact that Isle Royale is an island.
"Islands are a different species all together when it comes to a large population of herbivores. So that was in our decision space, and we understand that that system is changing. And so is that change good or bad?" he said. "I don’t want to comment on that because that’s obviously a matter of opinion in terms of how you view that, and we do recognize that some people view bottom-up and top-down as being good or bad or more healthy or less healthy, depending on your viewpoint.
"... If you read (the draft EIS) closer and step away from your own feelings, you’ll see that we also recognize that this is a changing environment and that the island, given climate change, may not be a favorable environment for moose in the not-to-distant future, in the 50- to 100-year timeframe," the biologist added a bit later. "If it’s not going to be good for moose, it’s not going to be good for wolves, either.
“We also understand that in the immediate future, there are impacts to the burgeoning moose population.”
That was the key point Dr. Peterson said in supporting a wolf recovery plan.
"The wilderness values are a human view. The health of the ecosystem involves lots of species, doing lots of things that are pretty tangible. Health of the ecosystem is a tangible entity, although there is, as you point out, there is our interpretation of what health is," he said. "But it’s more tangible than 'untrammeled.' The park has this dual, self-contradictory role. And I understand that. They have to walk the fine line between all those things, and that’s apparently what they’re doing here.”
Alternative A, the hands-off approach contained among the four alternatives in the draft proposal, would devastate the island ecosystem, said Dr. Peterson.
"It would be unquestionable a deteriorating ecosystem. It would result in an unquestionably deteriorating ecosystem from the standpoint of species diversity, species sustainability. It would fail to recognize the significance of a complete food web," he said. "It would deny the historical significance placed on wolf predation by the founders of the wilderness movement in this country: Aldo Leopold, Siguard Olson, Olaus Murie, Adolph Murie, (Howard) Zahniser himself was part of that. That founding group of the Wilderness Society in the 1930s. Essentially, the framers of the Wilderness Act. I would say what those people sought to do, and what the Wildneress Act sought to do, was limit development and not see intact food webs diminished."
Perhaps, at day's end, what needs to be realized in the debate over both wilderness values and wilderness management is the increasing role and impact human populations are having on these dwindling spaces.
"The debate about how to manage wilderness is often focused on the notion that humans should have a more hands-off approach. But the fact is, humans have had a hand in many of the causes behind the wolves’ decline at the park," said Christine R. Goepfert, the National Parks and Conservation Association's senior program manager in its Midwest Region. "So it seems contrary to be OK with the fact our activities have had negative impacts on wildlife at the park but that we can’t be a part of the solution."
That's a view Dr. Peterson shares.
“By taking a hands-off approach, you’re kidding yourself," he said. "There are human effects that operate indirectly on a global scale. And that’s been obvious to me, because I used to teach it. The global footprint of human impacts has been quite apparent.”