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Last Michipicoten Island wolves going to Isle Royale

A new grant will allow the relocation of up to six Ontario wolves to Isle Royale in coming days even if the federal government shuts down again. Another grant will cover ongoing research on the Lake Superior island. Michigan Tech photo1 / 2
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A half-dozen more Lake Superior island wolves will get a free ride across the big lake in coming days as the effort continues to restock Isle Royale with new wolves.

The estimated four to six wolves remaining on Ontatrio’s Michipicoten Island in northeastern Lake Superior will be trapped and flown to Isle Royale. They'll join two wolves brought from the same island last month and two more brought from Northeastern Minnesota last autumn.

The Michipicoten Island wolves are on the verge of collapse because they have eaten all the remaining caribou on the island, have no other prey and no way to get off.

The emergency $100,000 wolf transfer was funded by the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation with support from the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center. They are still asking supporters to help through a GoFundMe campaign to raise the final $25,000 needed.

The trap and transfer was expected to start Friday, March 22, or Saturday, March 23.

The inter-island, cross-border transfer underscores the unusual plight of wildlife in the Lake Superior region. Michipicoten Island had a burgeoning population of caribou for decades until a wolf pack crossed over ice during the extreme winter of 2014. Since then, the wolves had killed nearly all the island caribou. Several of the last remaining caribou were airlifted to another Lake Superior island in 2018 — one with no wolves — to preserve the region’s last native caribou herd.

But that left the remaining wolves starving.

The new wolves will be welcome at Isle Royale, where wolf numbers had dropped to just two in recent years, a male and female, father and daughter, unable to successfully mate and genetically deformed. The National Park Service decided in recent years to supplement the wolves on Isle Royale to restore a predator-prey balance with the island’s hundreds of moose.

“We are close to realizing the goal of providing another capture opportunity to move these iconic wolves to an island that needs them in its ecosystem,” said Sona Mehring, chairwoman of the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation, in a statement Thursday.

The 45-mile-long, 143,000-acre Isle Royale archipelago is about 14 miles off Minnesota's North Shore. It's mostly dedicated as federal wilderness and a national park.

Wolves are relatively new to the island, having crossed the ice in the 1940s. Their numbers reached a high of 50 in 1980. Wolf numbers on the island crashed from 24 as recently as 2009 to just a 7-year-old female and 9-year-old male now. Moose came to the island much earlier in the 1900s, peaking at 2,445 in 1995 and hitting bottom at just 385 in 2007. In their annual survey last winter, scientists estimated the moose herd had grown to about 1,600 on the island.

Experts say the rapid change in climate in the region, with far fewer years of solid ice between island and mainland, have exacerbated the problem. Wolves on the mainland rarely have a chance to get onto the islands and, when they do, become isolated from new bloodlines for years without ice bridges.

Ironically, this year a solid ice bridge did form between the North Shore and Isle Royale and one wolf used it — to leave Isle Royale and go home to the Grand Portage reservation where it was trapped last fall.

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