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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.

Just two wolves left on Isle Royale

Rolf Peterson

This year’s winter study on the wolves and moose of Isle Royale is out today.

It says it appears there are only two wolves left – down from three last year, and a high of 50 in the 1980s.

Rolf Peterson is a research professor at Michigan Tech University. He says these last two wolves are closely related.

“They’re father and daughter and they’re also half-siblings, because they share the same mother," he says.

The wolves on Isle Royale have been suffering from inbreeding for years. Peterson says these two wolves had a pup last year. It was visibly deformed, and it appears it has died.

For a while, people have been tossing around the idea of genetic rescue for the wolves on the island. That would mean introducing new wolves in hopes they would mate with the wolves that are already there.

But Peterson says it’s probably too late for that.

“That would be a high-risk venture, because the two alive last month might not even be there now," he says. "You would be banking on a single wolf doing exactly what you wanted it to, and that probably never works.”

He says another option would be to wait, and start a totally new population of wolves on the island.

A moose baby boom

Wolf prints in the snow.
Credit Rolf Peterson
Paw prints in the snow on Isle Royale.

The island’s moose, on the other hand, are booming.

The report estimates there are at least 1,300 moose. And with so few wolves to eat them, the moose have very little to worry about.

Visitors to Isle Royale were up by 4,000 people last year. So you might think with more people and more moose, there could be some run-ins.

But Peterson says people are actually reporting fewer moose sightings. He says when there were more wolves on the island, moose would often hang out near campgrounds or the shoreline where people were – as a way to protect themselves from getting eaten.

“It may well be because moose don’t have a reason to be around people anymore because of a lack of a threat from wolves,” he says.

The National Park Service is debating what to do about the wolves.

Phyllis Green is the park superintendent. She says they’re in the process of deciding whether to bring more wolves to the park – and if so, how to do it.  

“I think what we have to do as guardians of the national park system is take a look at the long term. So the urgency is making the best decision for a 20 year period and then a 50 year period in the face of climate change,” she says.

The park service is taking commentson the decision until May 16.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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