Should humans intervene to keep a pack of wolves on Isle Royale?

In this Feb. 10, 2006, file photo provided by Michigan Technological University, a pack of gray wolves is shown on Isle Royale National Park in northern Michigan. The wolf population on Isle Royale now down to eight individuals. (AP Photo/Michigan Technological University, John Vucetich)

The wolf population on Isle royale is down to eight individuals. For the first time in 50 years of intense study, there is no evidence of reproduction. In considering what to do next, the National Park Service is investigating three options: the first is to do nothing, let nature take its course. The wolves may or may not die out. The second option is to introduce one or more new wolves to provide fresh genetic material. The third option is to wait until the current population dies out and then introduce a new group of wolves.

MPR News reporter Stephanie Hemphill examines the main arguments:

The lead researchers in the 55-year-long study, Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, have published an article in the op-ed page of The New York Times arguing for a swift genetic rescue. They say it is true the island is designated a wilderness, but the human footprint is now evident on Isle Royale and practically everywhere else. They say it is time to place the highest value on ecosystem’s health, even if humans need to intervene to maintain it. And they say a healthy ecosystem depends on having a top predator, such as wolves, to keep everything else in balance.

But other researchers disagree. Dave Mech, a wolf expert with the U.S. Geological Survey, said science will gain the most if we wait and see.

“If we don’t do anything now, we can do something later if it’s necessary. But if we do something now, we can never undo that,” Mech said. “We have a pure population just doing its thing. And we have 55 years of data on it; why not see what else can happen here?”

A hundred years ago, Isle Royale had a different wildlife population. It had no moose and no wolves. It was home to caribou, coyotes and lynx.

Nancy Gibson, co-founder of the International Wolf Center in Ely, said if interfering with the current wildlife population is up for discussion, broader options should be considered.

“Maybe should we reintroduce caribou? It’s also an ecosystem that doesn’t have bears,” Gibson said. “I also think it’s a little bit interesting that we’re not talking about introducing lynx back to Isle Royale. It’s a very interesting dilemma, and I think we really need to have a vigorous debate on it.”

A panel of experts will take up the question tonight at the Humphrey School in Minneapolis.

Today’s Question: Should humans intervene to keep a pack of wolves on Isle Royale?