The Park Service Mulls a Decision About Michigan’s Isle Royale

Wolves in one national park may go extinct without government intervention.

In the middle of Lake Superior, an ever-smaller pack of wolves hunts a swelling moose population on Isle Royale National Park. The island’s predator-prey relationship, one of the most studied in the country, is dangerously close to flickering out. For the first time in four decades researchers failed to find a single wolf pup last summer, and, thanks in part to warmer winters and less lake ice, it’s extremely unlikely that any new wolves will find their own way to the island from the mainland. This fall the National Park Service will decide whether to introduce new wolves to Isle Royale, now or after the last individual dies, or let the population go extinct—perhaps marking the first time the agency will make a decision directly related to climate change. Some, like wildlife ecologist Rolf Peterson, who has been studying Isle Royale for 43 years, favor preserving the population. He explains that other species, including foxes, beavers, ravens, and snowshoe hares, would benefit, and believes that letting the wolves die out would be “ill-advised.” As climate change rolls on relentlessly, every national park will be affected, and managers will face no shortage of tough decisions. Few of the parks, however, will offer the relatively straightforward choice available on Isle Royale.

This story originally ran in the September-October 2013 issue as "A Shot in the Park."