Wolves and moose have lived on Isle Royale National Park since the 1940s, the wolves feeding mainly on moose, the moose trying to avoid being killed by wolves. They live in one of America's best wilderness. Isle Royale in Lake Superior, is 45 miles long and 8 miles wide. A new report from Michigan Technical University, Houghton, MI, states that the island’s wolf population is down to 8 and no pups were born last year (see this Associated Press article). The concern is that the wolf population might go extinct on the island. What to do? The scientists who have studied the wolves for many years, led by the excellent ecologist Rolf Peterson, are puzzling over this problem. On the one hand, the island is part of America's wilderness, where human actions are not supposed to take place, or at least by obvious. On the other hand, the wolf-moose populations are one of the best long-term studied predator and prey in the world. There is great scientific value in keeping wolves and moose together. And people go to Isle Royale National Park in part because there are wolves as well as moose. For recreational and aesthetic reasons, many people would like wolves to continue to live on the island.
There are three choices: do nothing and let the wolves either survive on their own or go extinct on the island and that's that; Just wait until the wolves go extinct and introduce a new population from the mainland; introduce a few more wolves right now, to increase the genetic diversity and add more reproductive-age females. We like to think that nature is simple and that there are simple, complete answers to environmental problems. But the wolves at Isle Royale show us that nature isn't simple, and that we have more than one reason that we value nature. Sometimes those different reasons led to different choice. So what would you want to see happen to the wolves of Isle Royale?
More about Isle Royale's Wilderness. People used the island very little. It isn't easy to get to. American Indians occasionally went there to collect copper, which can be found in its pure state there. But they did not settle on the island. With European settlement in North America, a little farming on a small part of the island was tried and abandoned; some fishermen had summer cottages. But on the whole, the island is undisturbed by people. It
has undergone vast changes since the end of the last ice age, 12,500 years ago. During the ice age it was covered by glaciers.
Having done research at Isle Royale in the past, I know the island as one of the best and most beautiful wildernesses in the lower 48 states of the U.S. As I write in my new book, The Moon in the Nautilus Shell, “In the island's valleys were 45 large lakes, beautiful stretches of open, shallow water that on a clear day appeared a deep blue against the dark green of the hills. Some of them graded into large marshes with patches of open water, floating mats of moss and sedge, and dense thickets of bog cranberry, Labrador tea, and graceful northern cedars. Many small streams had been dammed by beaver ponds. Near the coast, the valleys ended in long harbors whose shallow waters teemed with water lilies, rushes, and many other aquatic plants that moose fed on in midsummer.”
I write in The Moon in the Nautilus Shell that there are eight reasons people want to conserve nature. These include recreational, scientific, and the spiritual importance of wilderness, as well as the conservation of biological diversity. The question of whether we should interfere, so to speak, in nature is a long-standing problem in Western civilization. In my new book, I tell other stories about times when people have struggled with this question elsewhere, sometimes opting to stay out of the way, other times actively getting involved.
I leave you with this question: If the wolf population drops more and there are no pups in 2013, what would you do if you were in charge? For myself, I would hope to sit down with Rolf Peterson, who has led the wolf research project on the island for 30 years, and knows more about it than anybody I am aware of. I would like to know what he thinks would be best, and the put that into the context of all the reasons we want to conserve nature.