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Friday, April 22, 2016

Michigan Tech News: Two Wolves Remain on Isle Royale

Wolf prints. (Photo © Rolf Peterson and courtesy Michigan Tech University. Reprinted with permission.)

By Allison Mills, Michigan Tech science and technology writer
Posted on Michigan Tech News Apr. 19, 2016
Reprinted here with permission

HOUGHTON -- Having survived another year, it is likely that only two wolves remain on Isle Royale. A researcher from Michigan Technological University surveyed the island this winter, part of the longest running predator-prey study in the world. The sudden population drop has led the Isle Royale National Park to look into intervention strategies for one of its most iconic species.

The study’s report marks the project’s 58th year of monitoring wolves and moose in Isle Royale. In recent years, wolves had been on the decline and moose on the rise. Those patterns persisted through this past winter’s observations. In particular, the island probably has two wolves left and the moose herd is estimated to be 1,300 and likely increasing.

With these ecosystem dynamics at play, the island's wilderness could be significantly impacted, says Rolf Peterson, a research professor at Michigan Tech and report co-author. More moose means more vegetation is eaten, as documented in population increases like those seen in the early 1990s. Predation is the natural check on moose, keeping them from damaging forest vegetation, explains John Vucetich, a professor of ecology at Michigan Tech and report co-author. But with the packs greatly diminished that balance no longer holds sway.

Wolf Genetics

The population crash on Isle Royale is the result of inbreeding. At one point, genetic rescue might have made a difference -- as it did when the wolf known as "Old Gray Guy" crossed an ice bridge to the island. That opportunity has now passed. It is a common thought that genetic rescue might not be a good idea because the wolves possess too many deleterious genes.

"But that represents a misunderstanding of the underlying genetic processes," Peterson says. "The surviving wolves may or may not have any more deleterious genes than you or I, but when combined with a family member's genes, recessive genes can be expressed."

The two remaining wolves are definitely family. They are half-siblings -- and also a father-daughter pair.

Geneticists measure the severity of incestuous relationships with inbreeding coefficients, falling on a scale between 0 and 1. Cousins mating results in offspring with a 0.125 inbreeding coefficient; mating with a parent, brother or sister results in offspring with a 0.25 figure. Any offspring produced by the last two Isle Royale wolves would have an expected inbreeding coefficient between 0.311 and 0.565.

Phil Hedrick from Arizona State University is the geneticist who calculated those figures. He says it is rare for a population to reach such high inbreeding coefficients, though high inbreeding has been measured in other groups, like cheetahs and Mexican wolves. Those populations are also widely recognized to be in dire straits.

"In those instances, inbreeding has accumulated over a longer period of time, not very quickly as in the Isle Royale wolves, just over three generations," Hedrick explains, adding that mating between close relatives accelerates the rate of inbreeding. The effects are visible with the pup observed on the island in 2015, which had an inbreeding coefficient of 0.438.

Wolves, pup and adult, 2015. (Photo © Rolf Peterson and courtesy Michigan Tech University. Reprinted with permission.)

In 2015, there were three wolves -- one of them likely died in the past year. The other two wolves are unlikely to have successfully reproduced in the past year. Moreover, Peterson observed the tracks of what appear to have been two wolves in February. It is plausible that the population is now comprised of just those two wolves who will be six and eight years old this spring. For context, the life expectancy of wolves on Isle Royale has been about four years of age.

Due to the state of the wolves on Isle Royale, the National Park Service wrote in a release in March, "At this time, natural recovery of the [wolf] population is unlikely."

More Moose

This year, Peterson was only able to count moose on three-quarters of the plots that are usually counted. The limited effort was attributable to administrative constraints. That effort also resulted in an estimated 1,300 moose, up four percent from last year, and two observations suggest that 1,300 is likely an underestimate. First, of the moose observed 22 percent were calves. That's the second highest ever recorded. Second, predation rate was extremely low. The abundance of calves and predation rate have each been useful predictors of increase in moose abundance.

"Last year, there was every reason to believe wolves were destined for extinction and moose are destined to grow rapidly in the near future, likely to the point of damaging the forest," Vucetich says. "This year, we did not observe anything to make us think that circumstance has changed."

While it is too late to genetically rescue the current wolf population, some argue that wolf reintroduction could limit possible ecological damage. But Peterson warns that waiting too long could lead to damage than cannot be undone -- a kind of Humpty-Dumpty problem. However, an alternative perspective is that it would be best to simply not intervene.

Public Comments: Sociological Data

Research by Michael Nelson of Oregon State University shows overwhelming support for having wolves on Isle Royale, even if that involves intervention.

According to Nelson’s analysis, the public comments solicited by the National Park Service reveal that 86 percent agree that wolves should be present on Isle Royale -- even if that means intervening on their behalf. Half of those commenters cited maintaining ecosystem health as a key reason.

"We were interested in what policy was preferred by the interested public, but we were even more interested in how they reasoned their way to their preferred policy," Nelson says, "We're trying to understand the moral reasoning behind those preferences."

During his Nov. 12, 2015, presentation at Michigan Tech, "Should We Save the Wolves of Isle Royale? What the interested public thinks and why they think it," Oregon State University Professor Michael Nelson speaks about ethical questions. Nelson is also resident philosopher of the Isle Royale Wolf/Moose project and spends part of each summer working with the animal ecologists on the island. He is the co-creator and co-director, with Michigan Tech Professor and Wildlife Biologist John Vucetich, of the Conservation Ethics Group, an environmental ethics and problem solving consultancy group. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

Of the 12 percent who opposed intervention, many appealed to the ideology of wilderness. The underpinning views are that a healthy ecosystem should not need human intervention and maintaining naturalness -- with no human meddling -- means standing aside, even if that means another National Park without top carnivores.

Read more about Vucetich and Peterson's perspective on wolf reintroduction at

(Inset photos of Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich courtesy Michigan Tech University)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District to hold 64th Annual Meeting Apr. 21; HKCD Tree Sale to be May 7

The Keweenaw Fault will be the subject of the feature presentation by Bill Rose and Erika Vye at the Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District Meeting Thursday, Apr. 21, at the Ramada Inn in Hancock. In this photo, Rose presents the importance of the Keweenaw Fault during the May 26, 2015, Torchlake Watershed meeting. (Keweenaw Now file photo)

HOUGHTON -- The Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District (HKCD) will hold its 64th Annual Meeting and Election at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21, at the Ramada Inn, First Floor Conference Room, in Hancock.

Everyone is invited to share a light buffet supper; participate in the Election of two HKCD Board Members; learn about HKCD's Year in Review and the coming May 7, 2016, Tree Sale (see below); and enjoy the featured presentation: VISITING the KEWEENAW FAULT: GeoEducation and GeoTourism, by Bill Rose and Erika Vye.

Rose, Michigan Tech emeritus professor in geology, has recently led several geotours in the Keweenaw as part of an ongoing GeoEducation project. Erika Vye, who organizes the tours, recently completed her Ph.D. in geology at Michigan Tech. Last summer, one of the tours was devoted to the Keweenaw Fault, a massive thrust fault which split the Keweenaw peninsula lengthwise and uplifted rocks, including native copper, to a place where people could find it. Rose, who is also a researcher in Geological Engineering and Sciences and a volcanologist, has set up an educational Web site about Keweenaw Geoheritage.*

In Lake Linden, Bill Rose (center) talks about Torch Lake geology during the July 30, 2015, geotour of Copper Mining Waste of Lake Superior. Seated at right is Michigan Tech Professor Carol MacLennan, who participated in the tour and offered her expertise on the mining history of the area. Not pictured is Michigan Tech Professor of Biology Charles Kerfoot, who also participated in the tour. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

An RSVP for the HKCD meeting is appreciated, but not required. If you would like to RSVP or vote via Absentee Ballot or receive more information please call Sue at (906) 369-5023.

HKCD announces 2016 Tree Sale

The Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District (HKCD) will be holding its 2016 TREE SALE from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday, May 7, 2016. The 2016 TREE SALE will again be at 711 W. Lakeshore Drive, Houghton, on a first come, first served basis. Advance orders will not be accepted. The doors will open at 8 a.m. sharp. Everyone is welcome!

  • Wild flower plugs and more milkweed!
  •  All Prices will include 6 percent Michigan Sales Tax to expedite check out.
  • Plant Merchandise Catalogs full of fruit trees, berries, native trees and shrubs and more are available here.
  • Printed catalogs will  be available at HKCD's 64th Annual Meeting Thursday, April 21, at the Ramada Inn in Hancock (see above).
  • Printed catalogs will be mailed on a request only basis. Please call Sue at (906) 369-5023 to request a catalog.

* Click here to visit the Keweenaw Geoheritage Web site.

** Click here to read about last year's Geotours.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Residents wishing curbside recycling asked to attend Joint Hancock-Houghton City Council Meeting Apr. 19

Poster announcing Joint Houghton-Hancock City Council Meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, at Lakeview Manor, Hancock. Houghton County residents who are interested in having curbside recycling are asked to attend the meeting. (Poster courtesy David Hall and Dana Van Kooy)

HANCOCK -- A Joint City Council Meeting for the cities of Hancock and Houghton will be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Apr. 19, in the Lakeview Manor Community Room, 1401 W. Quincy St., Hancock.

Local recycling concerns are expected to be part of the discussion under solid waste topics. While Hancock presently enjoys curbside recycling, other Houghton County residents would like to see Hancock and Houghton work together to consider curbside recycling for both cities. A five-year contract is being considered so a decision now is crucial. All interested residents are asked to attend, even those who live outside the cities. If curbside recycling becomes established, it can spread to the surrounding areas.

The following is the Agenda for the meeting as posted April 8, 2016:

A. Call to order by Lisa McKenzie and Mayor Robert Backon, Roll Call and Verification of a Quorum.
B. Hancock Council -- Mary Tuisku, Joe Bauman, Gregory Markkanen, Lisa McKenzie, Ted Belej, John Slivon and Ron Blau.
C. Houghton Council -- Robert Backon, Robert Megowen, Craig Kurtz, Mike Needham, Rachel Lankton, Dan Salo and John Sullivan.
D. Address The Flag

1. Review Solid Waste RFP’s.
2. January 1, 2017, Gas Tax increase.
3. State Revenue Sharing trends.
4. Review MDOT Downtown Hancock Streetscape Project.
5. Update on Houghton Skate Park Project.

Motion to adjourn.

Note: Posted this 8th day of April, 2016
All Councilors were properly notified on 4-8-16 at 3:00 p.m. and by e-mail. 18 hour minimum notice.