Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Public comments on Isle Royale Moose-Wolf-Vegetation Management Plan/EIS due Aug. 29; wildlife experts concerned about wolf rescue

By Michele Bourdieu

Isle Royale National Park Superintendent Phyllis Green fields questions from a concerned audience at the July 27, 2015, Open House seeking public input on the proposed Moose-Wolf-Vegetation Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (plan/EIS) for Isle Royale National Park. (Photos by Keweenaw Now unless otherwise indicated.)

HOUGHTON -- National Park Service (NPS) staff are now taking public comments to assist them in putting together a Moose-Wolf-Vegetation Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (plan/EIS) for Isle Royale National Park. The plan will provide direction for managing the Isle Royale moose and wolf populations for at least the next 20 years in light of the dynamic changes occurring on the island. The deadline for public comments at this preliminary stage is Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015.*

While NPS staff have welcomed input from the public, well known wolf experts question whether the plan can be done in time to help the dwindling wolf population on Isle Royale.

NPS staff offer Public Scoping/Open House events on Isle Royale plan/EIS

An Open House/ Public Scoping Meeting held in Houghton on July 27, one of four held in different locations during the last week of July, attracted about 60 interested citizens, who had an opportunity to hear from NPS staff on the alternatives being considered for managing moose, wolves (now numbered at only three on the island as observed during the 2015 winter study by Michigan researchers) and vegetation and to ask questions -- during a Q and A session following the presentations and later in one-on-one informal conversations with attending staff.

Isle Royale Superintendent Phyllis Green said the Open House/Public Scoping events were meant to open a dialogue with the public, to learn what they want to see as the future of this island in Lake Superior, 99 percent of which is wilderness.

Isle Royale Superintendent Phyllis Green welcomes the audience to the July 27 Open House and encourages them to comment on the proposed Isle Royale Moose-Wolf-Vegetation management plan/EIS.

Isle Royale Natural Resources Chief Paul Brown first presented an overview of some significant events in the history Isle Royale National Park.

During the July 27, 2015, Open House held at the Magnuson Hotel in Houghton, Isle Royale Natural Resources Chief Paul Brown presents some background on Isle Royale National Park history. Of the 23 percent land area in the park, 99 percent was declared wilderness in 1976, under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Next Brown offered background on the historic arrival of moose and wolves on Isle Royale, on the moose and wolf population changes, on the potential effects of increased moose population on vegetation, and on potential effects of climate change.

Paul Brown, IRNP Natural Resources chief, presents background on changes in wolf and moose population, based on information from Michigan Tech's Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study. He also comments on potential effects on the island's vegetation. (Videos by Keweenaw Now)

"We expect to see the moose population increasing for the next several years, regardless of what happens with wolves," Brown said.

Brown pointed out that this could result in impacts to vegetation and forest cover because of over-browsing. In addition, warming has an effect on the boreal vegetation species that moose prefer.

This graph shows the changes in Isle Royale moose and wolf populations from 1959 to the present, based on research from Michigan Tech's Isle Royale Wolf-Moose study. Click on photo for larger version.

In this first part of planning for the management plan Isle Royale National Park has presented to the public a number of options, or concepts, they are considering as potential alternatives for the management of wolves, moose and vegetation on the island. As listed in the recent Isle Royale Newsletter, the options are listed as follows:

Alternative Concept A (no action): Current action would continue; the park would not actively manage vegetation or the moose and wolf populations.

Alternative Concept B (introduce wolves once): Reestablish wolves on the island by bringing in new wolves one time to mimic a migration event; no moose management.

Alternative Concept C (maintain both species): Maintain populations of moose and wolves on the island, which could include wolf reintroduction or augmentation.

Alternative Concept D (introduce wolves once and reduce the moose population): Reestablish wolves on the island by bringing in new wolves one time; reduce moose density if/when the wolf population is no longer impacting the moose population and moose herbivory is having a demonstrated impact on park resources.

Alternative Concept E (reduce moose population): No wolf reintroduction or augmentation; reduce moose density if/when the wolf population is no longer impacting the moose population and moose herbivory is having a demonstrated impact on park resources.

Alternative Concept F (intensively manage the moose population): No wolf reintroduction or augmentation; intensively manage moose population to a low level; potential for direct vegetation restoration through seed gathering and planting on offshore islands.*

During the Open House, Andrew Coburn, NPS environmental protection specialist and project manager for the management plan/EIS, explained the alternatives now being considered:

Andrew Coburn, NPS environmental protection specialist and project manager for the management plan/EIS, summarizes six alternatives now being considered for the Isle Royale Moose-Wolf-Vegetation Management Plan. The public is asked to consider these and/or to suggest other options.

Coburn, NPS environmental protection specialist, who works for the National Park Service Environmental Quality Division in Denver, is charged with assisting Isle Royale National Park in preparing the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement). The National Park Service is preparing this plan/EIS in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to analyze impacts to the human environment for any major federal action.

Andrew Coburn, NPS environmental protection specialist and project manager for the Isle Royale management plan/EIS, explains the purpose of the plan/EIS.

Coburn also commented on questions to consider in making comments and on the estimated schedule for preparing the plan/EIS.**

This slide from Coburn's presentation outlines the estimated schedule NPS is following to prepare the Moose-Wolf-Vegetation Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (plan/EIS). See also the Isle Royale Summer 2015 Newsletter for more information and directions on how to comment.*

Following the presentation by NPS staff, Isle Royale Superintendent Phyllis Green welcomed questions from the audience. She asked that official comments be made in writing, but that audience members should feel free to ask questions or make suggestions during the question / answer session. Green noted people's comments need not be limited to the six options presented -- they should feel free to offer their own ideas.

"What would you like to see on the island?" Green asked. "We will respond to all of your comments."

Several local residents and visitors shared with Keweenaw Now their own reactions to the proposed options for the management plan and the effort of NPS to seek public input.

Keweenaw resident Gina Nicholas said she was glad to have the opportunity to make comments on the management plan.

"I'm just glad they're doing this," Nicholas said. "I think it's an important decision for the future, and I'm glad the public has a chance to weigh in."

Scientists, wolf experts prefer genetic rescue for Isle Royale wolves

Michigan Tech professors Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich --wildlife ecologists, researchers and co-directors of Michigan Tech's Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study -- also offered their reactions.

"Responding to the six alternative concepts from the NPS material, I would amend the one that refers to maintaining both moose and wolves for a 20-year time frame to just maintaining wolves over that time frame," Peterson said. "There is no need for the NPS to fret too much over the future of moose at Isle Royale in the next 20 years unless the island is left without wolves. Restoring wolves should be their sole focus for management, as moose and vegetation will then have maximum security."

Vucetich also noted the importance of restoring the wolf population.

"The health of Isle Royale's ecosystem depends vitally on the presence of wolves," Vucetich said. "Because the purpose of a park is to maintain ecosystem health, the National Park Service should mitigate the harms against the wolf population that have been caused by climate change. The most appropriate way to mitigate those harms is by genetic rescue."

John Vucetich, Michigan Tech professor and co-director of the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study, and his wife, Leah Vucetich, attended the July 27 Open House on the management plan.

A Michigan Tech News article reporting Vucetich and Peterson's findings during their 2015 Winter Study stated, "The wolves’ numbers started plummeting in 2009, declining by 88 percent from 24 to 3 wolves, which Vucetich and Peterson think is a result of inbreeding. All geneticists who have studied the current situation agree that recovery is unlikely without new genetic material."***

Several people who attended the Open House shared the view that, with only three wolves left on the island (according to the Winter 2015 study), NPS officials should have started this process of putting together a management plan much earlier.

"I think this is a really interesting process," said Marcia Goodrich of Hancock. "I hadn't really envisioned all the alternatives they're considering. I think there's a lot of wiggle room. I do wonder if they might not have started the process earlier so that a rescue of the existing wolves might have been possible."

Nancy Warren, National Wolfwatcher Coalition executive director and Great Lakes regional director, said biologists and researchers have been sounding the alarm for at least six years and NPS has done nothing -- and their schedule for the management plan requires another two to three years for completion.

"We could potentially lose those three animals and their genetic material, and that's what I feel is a disgrace," Warren said. "Had [NPS] acted when they were first alerted of problems, they could have written the EIS and gone through this process several years ago."

During the July 27 Open House, Nancy Warren, National Wolfwatcher Coalition executive director and Great Lakes regional director, second from left, chats with friends Sandy Monville of Ontonagon, left, and Ted and Alice Soldan of Pelkie. The Soldans are members of the Michigan Nature Association and stewards of the Estivant Pines. Ted Soldan has also led Earth Watch groups on Isle Royale -- volunteers who have assisted Michigan Tech researchers on the island.

Warren recently published a Newsletter on the National Wolfwatcher Coalition Web site, which discusses the future of Isle Royale wolves and asks the public to comment on the proposed management plan Alternative Concepts.

"Concept C appears to be the best alternative, however, it does not go far enough," the Wolfwatcher article states. "There must be sufficient flexibility to allow for wolf reintroductions as necessary over the next 20 years to insure genetic diversity for wolves and sustainable populations of both wolves and moose into the foreseeable future."****

The Wolfwatcher Newsletter also notes the danger to vegetation if moose increase without wolves to control their population: "The constant browsing and girdling by the moose stresses the trees and can eventually kill them. Unless the next five winters are especially harsh, the moose population is likely to dramatically increase, and moose will begin to die by disease and starvation. Wolves are the only predators of moose on Isle Royale and there is no way to predict how long the island's wolves will hang on without intervention."**** 

Bill Deephouse, retired Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fish biologist who has made many trips to Isle Royale, said he believed NPS should add more wolves on Isle Royale but also consider additional concepts like adding some caribou and lynx.

During the question period following NPS staff presentations, Deephouse asked about the caribou and Phyllis Green gave a brief summary of their history on Isle Royale. Others in the audience asked about such issues as culling moose and past efforts to introduce wolves:

Isle Royale National Park Superintendent Phyllis Green fields questions from the audience during the July 27 Open House on the proposed Isle Royale management plan for wolves, moose and vegetation. Here she talks about caribou, culling moose and a past effort to introduce wolves.

The Wolfwatchers Newsletter also notes their opposition to culling: "The NPS has also stated that it may be necessary to use motorized or mechanized equipment to effectively manage moose. The National Wolfwatcher Coalition does not support the culling of moose or the use of motorized or mechanized equipment on Isle Royale within wilderness areas."**** 

To a question as to whether ticks have increased on Isle Royale, Green explained the problem of winter ticks on moose. She also replied to Ted Soldan's concern about the vulnerability of the three remaining wolves and the perceived need to speed up the process for management:

Phyllis Green answers questions on increases in ticks and on the need to speed up the planning process if wolves are to be reintroduced to help the dwindling wolf population.

Following the Q and A session, Isle Royale staff made themselves available for one-on-one questions.

Reece Peterson of Cedar Falls, Iowa, has been coming to Isle Royale over the years for sailing and kayaking.

During the July 27 Open House, Reece Peterson of Cedar Falls, Iowa, center, a frequent visitor to Isle Royale, chats with Paul Brown, Isle Royale Natural Resources chief, and Kristine Bradof, Isle Royale and Keweenaw Parks Association executive director.

Reece Peterson, who has been to Isle Royale about 15 times, often for kayaking, said he found the NPS staff presentations very interesting.

"It's a wonderful place," he said. "Malone Bay is one of my favorite spots."

He noted in addition to kayaking he likes watching the animals.

"I've seen lots of moose, but I've never seen a wolf," he added. "It's pretty spiritual for me."

Peterson said he would probably submit comments but he wasn't sure yet which option he preferred.

The easiest way to comment is to go to the comment page and reply to questions here: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/commentForm.cfm?documentID=66961

The public may also mail or hand deliver written comments to:
Isle Royale National Park
Attention: Moose-Wolf-Vegetation
Management Plan
800 East Lakeshore Drive
Houghton, Michigan 49931

Inset photos of Isle Royale moose, wolves © George Desort and courtesy National Wolfwatcher Coalition.

Notes:

* See the Isle Royale Moose-Wolf-Vegetation Management Plan/EIS Public Scoping Newsletter.

** See especially p. 7 of the above Newsletter for questions to consider when making comments.

*** See the Apr. 17, 2015, Michigan Tech News article "Down to Three Wolves on Isle Royale," by Allison Mills.

**** Click here for the July 29, 2015, National Wolfwatcher Coalition Newsletter.

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