Ontario wolves to be trapped, transferred in effort to restore population on Michigan island

Wolves from Ontario will soon be moved across the border to try to help restore the dwindling population in Michigan's Isle Royale National Park.

Weather permitting, wolves will be moved by helicopter in January

The first female wolf to be transported to the island this fall is captured by a remote camera, before emerging from her crate. The first four wolves to be cleared for transfer were from Minnesota. (U.S. National Park Service)

Wolves from Ontario will soon be moved across the border to try to help restore the dwindling population in Michigan's Isle Royale National Park.

This fall, officials at the park began a multi-year effort to move wolves from the mainland to the island, to try to restore the balance between wolves and moose on the isolated island, which is located on Lake Superior, not far from Thunder Bay, Ont. 

The multi-year wolf transfer will involve capturing and moving mainland wolves from Michigan and Minnesota, but Isle Royale National Park superintendent Phyllis Green says they now also plan to move a pack from nearby Ontario.

The first wolves to be moved were trapped in Minnesota, but officials were hopeful that Canadian wolves would also be added to the mix. That plan has now been given the green light, said park superintendent Phyllis Green.

"Actually we were fortunate that Michigan's Governor [Rick] Snyder had a conversation with [Ontario's] Premier [Doug] Ford and talked about the importance of the project," she said.

"And so after that conversation we were able to have further conversations and we're definitely going to be — weather providing — receiving wolves from Ontario this winter." 

The wolves will come from Michipicoten Island in northeastern Lake Superior, where a very different wildlife management problem has made headlines. While Isle Royale's wolf population has faced near extinction, wolves on Michipicoten were weakening the caribou population.

If weather permits, suitable wolves will be trapped during a normal collaring exercise done by Ontario researchers in January and transferred to Isle Royale by helicopter, Green said. 

Phyllis Green, superintendent of Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, stands in front of an empty crate that held one of the first wolves to be transported to the island. (National Park Service/John Pepin)

'Robust' Canadian wolves desirable for genetic strength

The Ontario wolves are desirable for several reasons, said Green, including the fact that the animals on Michipicoten are well-studied by Ontario researchers who will be able to identify alpha males and females that might be well suited to the trip.

"And also we actually know that they're actually pretty prolific on pups, and that's certainly what you would hope to see when you start a new population."

"And the other positive is that they're very robust genetically," Green added.

"On the U.S. side, we've had situations where the wolf population has dropped and then there's some incursion of coyote or dog genetics into the population."

A trail camera photo shows one of the female wolves transferred to Michigan's Isle Royale National Park this fall, as part of a multi-year effort to restore the population and balance the ecosystem. (U.S. National Park Service)

Two wolf fatalities so far

The wolf transfer is not without risks. During the first phase of the project this fall, a wolf that had been cleared for transfer died before it could be moved to Isle Royale, prompting changes to protocols in an effort to reduce stress on the animals. 

One male and three females were successfully moved to the island, but in November, the National Park Service confirmed that the male wolf had been found dead. The cause of death is not known, Green said, but necropsy results expected in December should yield more information. 

Some natural mortality is to be expected, Green said.

"It's unfortunate but in the wild population about 25 to 30 per cent of the wolves die annually," she said.

"It's a tough life out there for them."

The transferred wolves are being monitored using GPS technology and the other three are doing well, Green said. 

The Isle Royale wolf relocation effort is expected to take three to five years, with the eventual goal of moving up to 30 animals.