It’s a bird; it’s a plane – wait, it’s a helicopyer designed to accommodate air dropped wolves?!
In the vast wilderness of Isle Royale National Park, located on an island in the US Great Lakes, an unusual air-drop operation unfolded. Four Canadian wolves, transported via helicopter from their native Ontario, found themselves in new, unfamiliar territory, their mission as unique as their journey: to tackle the park’s burgeoning moose population and aid the dwindling local wolf count.
A Unique Environmental Challenge
Covering 894 square miles, Isle Royale has been grappling with an ecological imbalance. Historically, the park’s wolf population naturally kept the moose numbers in check. But the wolf count has been dwindling, leading to a surge in the moose population. This growth has put increased pressure on the island’s vegetation, threatening to destabilize the park’s ecosystem.
Adding to the challenge, in the past two decades, the formation of ice bridges – which once connected Isle Royale to the mainland – has become less frequent and less stable due to climate change. These bridges provided a pathway for new wolves to migrate to the island. Their absence left Isle Royale’s two remaining wolves effectively marooned, and prevented fresh wolf blood from bolstering the population.
The Air Dropped Wolves Solution
To rectify the situation, park authorities took an unprecedented step. Four Canadian wolves, adept at hunting moose in cold climates, were trapped in Ontario and transported via helicopter to Isle Royale. It is hoped these new additions, along with two wolves introduced in 2018, will reduce the moose population and replenish the local wolf count. Over the next five years, the National Park Service plans to bring a total of 20 to 30 wolves to the park.
The task was not without its complexities. The chosen wolves had to be neither too young nor too old, with good dental health to ensure their hunting prowess. “You don’t get to choose the wolf you trap. It could be old, young, or injured when captured,” explains John Vucetich, an ecologist leading the Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale project. This project is the longest-running study of any predator-prey system globally.
The Aftermath of Air Dropping Wolves
Once on Isle Royale, the newly-arrived wolves faced a disorienting situation. Accustomed to family packs, they found themselves in unfamiliar territory, with strangers instead of pack-mates. The initial period was likely filled with tension and uncertainty as the wolves adapted to their new surroundings and learned to find food.
But the efforts are not without risks. Relocation can be perilous for these creatures, as seen when a female wolf died last fall due to sedation complications during transport.
The Road Ahead
Despite these challenges, the ongoing project underscores a significant shift in human attitudes towards wolves. Once widely distributed, wolf populations declined significantly due to human activity. Today, attitudes have changed. “Our attitudes have changed enough to decide definitively that we want to live with wolves. But we haven’t decided how to live with wolves,” says Vucetich.
Through initiatives like the Isle Royale wolf reintroduction, we’re taking steps towards that co-existence. It’s a journey that mirrors the wolves’ own: fraught with challenges but driven by a clear, necessary goal.