Botkin Chapter 3: The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale

Sharon is busy with schoolwork this week and has asked me to pinch-hit on the virtual pub book discussion blog.  If this is your first visit to this blog, the best place to start — and to introduce yourself — is: https://virtualbookclubforestpolicy.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/virtual-book-club-moon-and-the-nautilus-shell-i-introductions/

Rather than provide a summary of Chapter 3, as I did with Chapter 2, I am reprinting a recent post by Dr. Ralph Maughan, an expert on wolves and a strong proponent of their reintroduction in former habitats: http://idahoptv.org/outdoors/shows/wolvesinidaho/maughan.cfm. The reason for doing this is that Maughan is commenting on the very focus of Botkin’s 3rd chapter, which starts with the story of his (Botkin’s) experiences researching the predator/prey relationships between moose and wolves on Isle Royale, an island in Lake Superior near the Canadian border that is over 200 square miles in size and contains 45 lakes of its own. What has made the island particularly interesting for this type of study is that it has never been heavily influenced by people; moose first arrived there from the mainland only about 100 years ago; and wolves didn’t arrive (except for a failed National Park Service attempt to establish them with zoo animals in the late 1940s) until the lake froze over more than 50 years later — after the moose had a half-century to build their population without a major predator to inhibit their reproduction.

As with Chapter 2, Botkin uses this story and others — sandhill cranes, Canadian lynx and microbes — to examine the “balance of nature” as it has been defined mathematically and as actually observed, to examine the differences between the two. Both writers cite the work of long-time Isle Royale researcher and wildlife ecologist, Rolf Peterson, but they seem to come to different conclusions as to why that work is important: http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2013/09/26/should-the-declining-inbred-wolves-of-isle-royale-n-p-be-augmented/

I would like to thank Dr. Maughan for permitting me to repost his work here. Of the 72 comments on this topic on his blog, a significant number were my own in sometimes heated response to many of his regular commenters. Tree and Matthew will understand. It was my second visit there, and both times I seemed to stir up the natives with my thoughts and opinions — mostly because of the old “anonymous commenter” discussion. I think JZ first sent me there and after I went and got a similar reaction, he said he was just joking. Maybe it was Derek, but you will see the result if you read the comments, too.

I will leave it up to actual readers to determine their own thoughts on these two perspectives, but I’ll repeat Botkin’s analogy of “resilient stability” in regards to the “balance on nature” argument by his comparison of a person with a drink building a house of cards on a train: the house of cards will collapse with a bump or large vibration, but the drink will only slosh around before it returns to its former level. One is a fragile balancing act, and one is resilient. For me at least, that provides a clear metaphor for this discussion. Now for Maughan’s post:

Should the declining inbred wolves of Isle Royale N.P. be augmented?

Should there be genetic rescue (outside wolves brought in)-

For many years the wolves and moose of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior have shown that wolves do not wipe out their prey. When wolves become abundant enough that the disappearance of prey seems probable, the wolves die back.

On the other hand, when wolves have declined to few in number, the moose population expands and begins to decimate its prey — the moose-edible vegetation of the island.

This rough balance has existed ever since wolves colonized the island one hard winter. In 1949 a pair of wolves walked over to the island on the frozen lake. The pair found an island overrun with moose. The moose themselves had migrated to the island 40 years earlier.

The wolf population expanded, of course, and brought the moose number in check (and more). Then the wolves began to starve off and the cycle began.

The moose prefer aspen, and they do well eating it. However, they mostly wiped that out before the wolves came.  Ever since, they have relied primarily on the less nutritious balsam fir and lichens.

Both the moose and the wolves are also subject to inbreeding. It is especially a problem for the wolves, all of which descended from the original pair. So, in addition to the cyclic malnutrition when the moose population drops too low, the wolves have been seen to suffer from increasing genetic defects. One of these is poor reproduction even when there is enough food.

Down to just 8 wolves, they seem doomed without outside genes from new wolves. There have been up to 50 wolves at a time on the island, although many scientists think a stable number is about 25. It should be noted that there have always been wide fluctuations around this “mean.” The eight wolves seem to have gained a brief reprieve with the birth of 2 or 3 pups in 2013 after several years with none. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how the unaugmented population can survive much longer. It is less and less likely that the lake will freeze and wolves from Minnesota, Michigan or Wisconsin find their way to the island.

The wolves and their relationship to the moose and the vegetation have been studied since 1958. Dr. Rolf Peterson, in particular, is the person most closely associated with the studies. He would like to see some genetic rescue. Dr. Dave Mech, however, who is another avid student of the island’s wolves is reported to want to first let natural events play out.

With the wolf population so low, we would now expect the moose population to be expanding. It is. However, it is increasingly suffering from tick infestation. This is a problem for moose in general during winters, but Isle Royale has seen warmer winters as the climate changes. This makes the effects of the bloodsucking  arachnids more severe.

Rolf Peterson recently sent out the following letter.

The National Park Service is interested to receive your input on the pending decision regarding the future management of wolves on Isle Royale.  Please send your input to the following email address:

ISRO_Wildlife@nps.gov (note the “underscore” between ISRO and Wildlife)

The Park Service is considering three options:  (1) do nothing, even if wolves go extinct; (2) allow wolves to go extinct (if that is what they do), and then introduce a new wolf population; or (3) conserve Isle Royale wolves with an action known as genetic rescue by bringing some wolves to the island to mitigate inbreeding.

While expressing your view, consider providing as much detail on the reasons for your preference, as the Park Service believes the reasons for your view are as important as your view.  If you have any questions on the process or anything relating to providing input, please do not hesitate to ask me.

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About Bob Zybach

PhD in Environmental Sciences. 5th-generation Oregonian. Likes music.
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13 Responses to Botkin Chapter 3: The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale

  1. gildehuff says:

    From: http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2013/09/26/should-the-declining-inbred-wolves-of-isle-royale-n-p-be-augmented/
    We read: “In 1949 a pair of wolves walked over to the island on the frozen lake. The pair found an island overrun with moose. The moose themselves had migrated to the island 40 years earlier.”

    We have a situation where two different species have been part of two different random colonization actions. We have no idea whether or not there have been numerous failed colonizations prior to the two being discussed. We know that there is no record of a sustainable population of either of these two species prior to 1900. We also know from the links above that the isolation of the island prohibits both species from migrating to elsewhere in times of overpopulation and low resources. That same isolation combined with large die backs of both species has already lead to a significant in-breeding problem with the wolf and suggests the potential for future in-breeding problems for the Moose.

    Based on the above, my preferred management option is to let colonization run its course and either fail or succeed on its own. No case for restoration can be made based on history. No case can be made for gene pool augmentation since isolation combined with insufficient carrying capacity would quickly collapse the gene pool again after any population augmentation efforts were made in the name of diversifying the gene pool.

    • Bob Zybach says:

      From: Bob Zybach
      Subject: Isle Royale wolves
      Date: September 30, 2013 10:32:49 PM PDT
      To: Rolf Peterson
      Cc: Ralph Maughan, Gil DeHuff

      Rolf Peterson:

      I am a firm believer in option 1. Isle Royale isn’t a wolf park or a zoo and the fact that wolves are an in-bred population there has scientific merit in its own right. I’m pretty sure you may be following the arguments of the pro-wolf blogs and perhaps the Botkin “chapter 3” discussions. Here are the current positions I agree with:

      1) “ma’iingan” @ http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2013/09/26/should-the-declining-inbred-wolves-of-isle-royale-n-p-be-augmented/

      Even when dampened by wolf predation, moose have pretty much ruined their own forage base on the island, and permanently altered some of the plant communities. There are significant portions of the island that offer only subsistence fare for moose.

      Moose and wolves are just part of the succession of the island’s landscape – they were preceded by a lynx/hare/caribou system, and there will be another phase in the succession after they’re gone.

      And then there’s the part that bothers me ethically – we know that any “genetic rescue” will need to be repeated at intervals. It seems somewhat cruel to me, to artificially support a known genetically- bottlenecked population as a large-scale lab experiment.

      2) Gil DeHuff @ https://virtualbookclubforestpolicy.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/botkin-chapter-3-the-wolves-and-moose-of-isle-royale/

      We have a situation where two different species have been part of two different random colonization actions. We have no idea whether or not there have been numerous failed colonizations prior to the two being discussed. We know that there is no record of a sustainable population of either of these two species prior to 1900. We also know from the links above that the isolation of the island prohibits both species from migrating to elsewhere in times of overpopulation and low resources. That same isolation combined with large die backs of both species has already lead to a significant in-breeding problem with the wolf and suggests the potential for future in-breeding problems for the Moose.

      Based on the above, my preferred management option is to let colonization run its course and either fail or succeed on its own. No case for restoration can be made based on history. No case can be made for gene pool augmentation since isolation combined with insufficient carrying capacity would quickly collapse the gene pool again after any population augmentation efforts were made in the name of diversifying the gene pool.

      I don’t think I can improve on the statements of either of these individuals, and they most closely represent my own as well.

      Sincerely,

      Bob Zybach, PhD.
      http://www.nwmapsco.com/ZybachB/Curriculum_Vitae.htm

      • Ann Oakly says:

        Dr Bob, why wolves? For 50 years we have studied the one prey one predator unreal unpractical eco-system. Why not add another prey and/or another predator? If we are interested in real life worthwhile research add some bobcats add some whitetails anything but more wolves!

        • Bob Zybach says:

          Thanks, Ann: Good question! Before moose and wolves were introduced to Isle Royale, the island was populated with caribou, snowshoe hares, and lynx (which are basically bobcats that live in the woods or Canada). The story is they were extirpated by early historical hunters. I’m not sure how people can rid an area that large of snowshoe hares, but that is what I’ve read. I’m guessing full grown moose and caribou are too large for lynx, so they must have gone after calves, if at all.

          The most efficient predator ever known is people. The cheapest and most predictable — and possibly even profitable — method would be to have a moose hunting option, as they do to preserve large game in Africa. If the park is viewed as strictly experimental, it might be good to simply observe the results of several generations of in-breeding among the moose and wolves. It depends on what people want, but I for one would be against genetically enhancing either the moose or wolves from time to time — unless that is what people really want: a wolf and moose preserve.

          • Ann Oakly says:

            MAN should be an option for MAN has been part of North American eco-systems for thousands of years. I myself would be more interested in additional prey and/or predators. Bears do eat moose calves and so would coyotes. If Man were allowed It should only mirror he 50 wolf study…..wouldn’t the fluctuation off moose during those years be interesting to compare along with the effect on the ecosystem?

            • Bob Zybach says:

              Ann: That was the focus of Botkin’s study and, more recently, Rolf Peterson’s research. It’s pretty fascinating stuff if you’re interested in that type of thing. And I agree totally with you on the MAN thing — we’re the principal predator in North America, and have been for more than 10,000 years. Plus, we’re the only animal that plays with matches (that term seems to be dying out, too) and that always changes everything.

  2. Bob Zybach says:

    Gil: I’m in complete agreement with you on this. I also might warn you about sharing your views with the wildlifenewsgroup on this point unless you have a thick skin or enjoy a good food fight from time to time (and thanks for the “food fight” analogy!).

  3. Sharon says:

    It seems odd to me that one pair in 1949 produced offspring and we are just seeing inbreeding now..maybe there’s more to this…
    This is a good illustration of the different philosophies, though. If your goal is “not intervening” that’s pretty clear.
    If your goal is “I like wolves” then you want to intervene.
    If your goal is “too many moose, I like vegetation” then you want to intervene.
    All of these are legitimate goals. If it was your property you would do whatever you want..
    However, when I looked it up it was wilderness (??) if so why would it be OK to put in new wolves, but it wouldn’t be OK to put in resistant whitebark seedlings? (as in a previous NCFP discussion).

    If the wildlifenewsgroup is that rowdy, then I won’t be there :).

    • Bob Zybach says:

      It’s pretty rowdy, Sharon. Very similar to some of the old Global Warming blogs with a dedicated insider group of white corpuscles fighting off any outside contact that doesn’t buy into their own perspective. My second trip there — mostly because of the topic and to promote Botkins book on the matter — and I was told after my first venture that I had been referred there as a joke. Now I know why. A perfect example of why I don’t like dealing with (most) anonymous bloggers. And apparently why someone thought it would be fun to send me there. Probably my last trip.

  4. Stump says:

    Kind of late to the discussion here, but I am trying to keep up and read the book. Some the things I find fascinating. Think of the logistics of driving all those pilings for Venice in the 1500’s. (pretty good trade off too, I think, all the trees for a city like Venice, and think, those trees have lasted longer as pilings holding up the city than if we have just “let nature happen”. Of course I not sure what it did for the landscape where they got the trees, but if there have been a couple of good foresters around…)
    Makes me think of the book 1491 about the “new world” before Columbus. It wasn’t so new and that people have always been busy trying to change the environment for their benefit.
    I like his ideas about how the environment changes in unpredictable ways.
    Don’t know what to think about the Moose and the wolfs, Saw a young cougar the other day and that night the youngest of our calves disappeared, maybe just a coincident. Yes natural has balance but I see that Botkins has pointed out that in might not always be our idea of natures perfect balance.

    • Sharon says:

      It’s never too late, Stump. It’s not like there are so many comments yours won’t get read!;)

    • Stump says:

      The cougar didn’t have anything to do with the calf dying. Must of got stuck in fence or something, sometimes they just die, found it the other day and since the buzzards are gone it was getting pretty ripe, thought maybe the ravens would of move in, or even the coyotes, not just the flies.

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