Thunder Bay

Ontario wolves moved to Isle Royale: joint program between province and U.S. park doubles the population

The population of wolves on Lake Superior's Isle Royale, in Michigan, doubled recently thanks to a joint reintroduction program between the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and the US National Park Service.

Park Superintendent says the wolves will add genetic diversity to island

A wolf from Ontario is released on to Michigan's Isle Royale. (National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation )

And then there were eight.

The population of wolves on Lake Superior's Isle Royale, in Michigan, doubled recently thanks to a joint reintroduction program between the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) and the U.S. National Park Service.

Phyllis Green is the Park Superintendent at Isle Royale National Park. She said the wolves were made available thanks to the co-operation of the OMNRF.

The talks and plans to get Ontario wolves to Isle Royale began in the fall of 2018, she explained, and came to fruition last month.

"Actually, we had at least one false start here, where weather shut us down. And then last week we were actually able to co-ordinate with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry personnel and they just did an awesome job co-ordinating between weather windows and storms, and ice conditions to obtain these four wolves that were moved successfully to the island."

Isle Royale at sunset. (A McLaren ONNRF)

In a written statement, OMNRF spokesperson Jolanta Kowalski said the wolf capture crew was made up of two people, one to operate a net gun from the helicopter and one to restrain and immobilize the wolf on the ground before moving it into a crate for transport.

"The wolves were handled with care, and aerial capture using a net gun during the winter months is safest for the animals and the most effective method for being able to selectively capture wolves," said Kowalski.

Green said the winter weather in northern Ontario meant that there had to be some flexibility about where the wolves might come from.

"On our first round, We knew that we wanted four to six wolves from Canada, so the ministry actually had a plan that if we could not get out to Michipicoten Island [on Lake Superior], then we would operate on the mainland," she said. "So two of the animals were obtained from the same pack outside of Wawa. And they actually have a rare colouration of black. Which is unusual and pretty significant in the wolf world based on some research."

This wolf was live captured via net on Michipicoten island and transferred to Isle Royale. (photo OMNRF)

Ministry scientists, an Ontario veterinarian, a ground crew and a wildlife capture specialist were part of the core operations team during the wolf relocation.

A veterinarian, a biologist and a photographer/videographer from the U.S. National Park Service provided on-the-ground support and fitted the wolves with collars for tracking following release on Isle Royale.

The capture work was also attended by a representative from Michipicoten First Nation.

Green said despite the trapping of the four wolves from two distinctly different parts of northern Ontario — and two different packs — there is no worry that this might prove to be a problem.

On the contrary, Green says diversity in the wolf population that is re-introduced to the island is a priority. "Actually what we need on Isle Royale is diverse genetics from wolves. We know that as a result of the last 60 years, where they can track most of the wolves that were on the island back to a single female, that too narrow of a line of genetics could ultimately lead to the demise of the population."

A wolf has its teeth checked by a veterinarian after capture. (OMNRF)

Green said the various wolves will be "sorting themselves out" over the next few days and weeks, and figuring out which animals will pack together. The four new wolves released on the island vary from two to four years of age.

Age is a best guess based on the veterinarian's examination of each animal, she said.

She said each captured wolf got an initial test to see if the animal has any heartworm, as it is not present on the island. The animals also get teeth examinations and are checked for parasites.

Four Minnesota wolves — three females and a male — were also introduced to the island last fall. The lone male died of pneumonia a month after introduction. One of the females took an ice bridge back across the lake into Ontario, then headed north into Minnesota towards Voyageur National Park.

The four Canadian wolves and the Minnesota wolves that remain join the only two wolves that remained on the island before the transfer began — a father and daughter which Green said are the remnant of the island's previous population.

Green said the wolves have been reintroduced to help control the moose population on the island, that is estimated to be near 1,500 animals.

The hope is that a genetically revitalized wolf pack will help keep the moose herd from over-browsing the island and starving.

There is already evidence the Minnesota wolves have found the moose. "We have found the two females that were out there were hunting independent of each other," said Green. "And they were both able to bring down calf moose successfully in the past couple of weeks."

Green said because translocation is a stressful event, they do what is called carcass provisioning. Moose meat was put out for the new Canadian arrivals. She said three of the four wolves have used the provisioning sites and have moved on. Greens said they we will be tracking the animals over the next few weeks.

An introduction of wolves from Michigan is planned for Isle Royale some time in the future.