Telling an Isle Royale story

HOUGHTON – Residents learned about options for managing both wildlife and cultural resources at Isle Royale National Park at two meetings Tuesday.

Moose first arrived on the island in 1908; the first appearance of wolves was 41 years later. For more than 50 years, Michigan Technological University researchers have studied the wolf and moose populations on the area.

The population peaked at 50 wolves in 1980, making it one of the densest populations in the country, said Paul Brown, chief of natural resources at the park. Currently, there are around 10 wolves on the island, split about equally between males and females.

The park is seeking public input on the issue; no plan or timeline is in place. Three options are being proposed: Leaving the wolves alone; waiting to see if the current population dies off and then introducing a new genetic stock; or supplementing the current population with new animals.

The last option is the most appealing for John Vucetich, a Michigan Technological University associate professor who co-runs the annual wolf-moose study on the island. Vucetich said there is a consensus among conservation professionals that wolves are a necessary check in such an ecosystem.

In the past two years, wolves’ predation rate has been close to zero, Vucetich said; in that span, moose numbers have gone up 70 percent, while beavers have gone up 60 percent.

Waiting for the wolf population to naturally go extinct could cause a decade-long predation gap, which would cause damage to the forest “that could take many, many decades to recover,” Vucetich said.

There’s no “magic number” for a target population, Vucetich said. But he said the decline of the past five years is the second-largest on record for the island, and is likely due to defects introduced through inbreeding.

“There’s a constellation of things that are all pointing in the same direction,” he said.

Vucetich said probably around two to four wolves would be introduced. Geneticists he’s talked to have said any wolf population from the Lake Superior region would work from a genetic perspective.

Brown said Isle Royale is expected to get “warmer and drier.” Among the species most affected would be moose, which are sensitive to heat.

“If moose are being stressed, and they’re affected by climate change, then that’s definitely going to affect all the rest of the population,” he said.

Brown also discussed the potential impact of climate change on the island.

“If we have a really mild winter and plants come up three weeks earlier than they used to, and their insect pollinators aren’t out yet, that can cause significant consequences to those species,” he said.

Climate change could also affect plants such as butterwort that came to the island from cold-weather climates and would likely be killed off by climate change.

In recent years, peregrine falcons have become re-established on the island, and tri-colored bats have returned. Tree frogs have also come to the island for what is believed to be the first time. Several other populations, such as coyotes and the sharp-tailed grouse, have since died out.

“Islands are naturally unstable,” Brown said. “Islands are dynamic and things come and go. Things change on islands. That’s the way we expect them to be. And humans affect the landscape, and we need to decide how we are going to affect the landscape of Isle Royale, whether it’s through climate change and its associated effects on the world, or how we’re going to manage the species that live there.”

At the later meeting, park officials discussed plans to develop a long-term strategy for managing cultural resources at the park. Four concepts are being considered for further development:

Alternative A: A minimal level of resources representing human interaction at Isle Royale are maintained. Limited numbers of cultural resources outside designated wilderness areas would be stabilized. Most in designated or potential wilderness areas would be allowed to deteriorate or be removed. Of the options, this preserves the fewest number of historic resources.

Alternative B: Partnerships would be developed to help preserve properties reflecting the range of human history at Isle Royale, including archaeological sites, submerged boats and historic structures. Outside wilderness areas, preservation efforts would include rehabilitation and adaptive/compatible reuse of structures with partners.

The NPS would also seek partnerships for stabilization and small preservation efforts over short time spans for wilderness areas.

Alternative C: The biggest focus would be the preservation and interpretation of Isle Royale’s maritime resources – fish, fishing, maritime travel and technology and the knowledge associated with each. Visitor opportunities include assessment demonstration fisheries, traditional craft field schools, lightkeeper-in-residence programs and guided scuba dive tours.

Alternative D: This would emphasize the park’s archeological resources; the park’s archeological inventory would significantly increase. The park would be promoted as a venue for university field schools. The park would also pursue partnerships with regional institutions and universities for research, and foster tribal involvement and programs that would promote preservation of traditional culture and knowledge.

Most people in attendance favored option B, either in isolation or in combination with another element.

“An Isle Royale without the preservation of human history becomes just a rocky island with a bunch of trees,” said Ed Glowacki of Chassell, a B supporter. “The whole appeal of Isle Royale to the great majority of people who have ever gone to Isle Royale is the diverse cultural resources that they can experience.”

After receiving public input, the park will develop alternatives and release a draft of a cultural management plan in late 2014. The final plan is expected to go into effect sometime in 2016.