Thunder Bay

Wolf population on Isle Royale dwindles to 8

Researchers on Isle Royale near Thunder Bay say new wolves must be introduced in order to save the animal from extinction.

Isle Royale near Thunder Bay renowned as place to study predators and prey in a single ecosystem.

Isle Royale hosts a delicate natural relationship between wolves and moose. (istock)

Researchers on Isle Royale in Lake Superior say new wolves must be introduced to save the island’s famous population of the predator.

Isle Royale, which is just south of Thunder Bay on the American side of the international boundary, has had its wolf population decimated by what a researcher calls "genetic inbreeding." Only eight wolves remain, the lowest level in recent history.

The fact it is hovering near extinction has scientists proposing possible solutions to save the animal population.

One of those proposals comes from Rolf Peterson, a wildlife biologist at Michigan Tech University, who recommends introducing new wolves to the gene pool.

"I think we stand to learn the most by attempting genetic rescue," Peterson said. "The notion that there might be genetic value in the current population is a compelling one, I think."

The predator-prey relationship

Isle Royale is well known in the scientific community, and the ecosystem has been used by researchers for more than 50 years to study the complex predator-prey relationship between wolves and moose.

Due to the close interlink between the species, the moose population could boom if its natural predator is no longer present.

"[The wolves] keep a lid on that moose population," Peterson said. "Otherwise [the moose] are capable of really doing some damage, some of it irreversible, on the forest."

The moose herd on Isle Royale has already almost doubled over the past three years, Peterson said.

Rescuing a population

The decision to save the wolf population will have to be made by the US National Park Service over the coming months.

There are a handful of options the organization can choose, including Peterson’s recommendation to introduce new wolf genes into the pool, or allowing the animal to go extinct, then restoring the population from zero.

The third option is to do nothing — something Peterson and the other researchers say is simply not good enough.

"If these trends aren't reversed one way or the other, they'll go extinct in a matter of a few years," he said.

The US Park Service will decide in the fall whether to intervene.