A crack team of Canadian wolves were airdropped in Michigan last week to carry out two important missions—hunting moose and making babies.
The four wolves were captured by specialists at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) and transferred to Isle Royale National Park, a wildlife preserve on an archipelago in Lake Superior.
The relocation is part of an ongoing joint project with the US National Park Service to restore a healthy population of the iconic predators to the island chain after years of decline. If all goes to plan, the wolves will also cull the booming moose population, which is damaging the island’s ecology due to the herd’s overconsumption of plantlife.
The Canadian quartet joins an existing group of four wolves in the park. Two of those wolves are the last surviving descendents of the island’s original pack, while the other pair were captured in Minnesota and introduced to the park in 2018. The new total population of eight wolves is equally split between males and females.
The Isle Royale wolf population has experienced dramatic booms and busts since scientists first started studying it in 1958.
Just a decade ago, there were 24 wolves in the pack. But the predators have become more isolated over time in part because of climate change. Ice bridges that historically connected the archipelago to the mainland have been receding in recent winters. As a result, mainland wolves aren’t mixing with the Isle Royale population as much, resulting in population loss and inbreeding.
The newcomers were captured by OMNRF teams that fired net guns from aircraft. The animals were sedated and examined by veterinarians before and after their helicopter trip to ensure they were healthy enough for release. They were also deliberately selected to be over two or three years old, when wolves become sexually mature enough to breed, but not too old, so that they have a shot of surviving multiple breeding seasons. All of them are collared so that researchers can track their movements.
The elite Canadian crew includes a female and male from a pack based on the mainland near Wawa, Ontario, and two males from Michipicoten Island Provincial Park. The female was released on Isle Royale last Tuesday, while her pack mate was set loose a day later. The Michipicoten males were introduced separately to the island on Thursday and Friday.
The wolves are probably a bit weirded out by the week’s turn of events, according to John Vucetich, an ecologist at Michigan Technological University and leader of the Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale project.
“They live in families, so imagine what happens to a dog when they’re plunked into a foreign place,” Vucetich told The Guardian. “They are being introduced to each other. It’s tense and nervous, and it’s tough to find food in a new place. It’s stressful.”
That said, the wolves are apparently adjusting to their new homes and pack mates without major issues. Mark Romanski, who is the project manager for the park’s wolf reintroduction as well as Division Chief of Natural Resources for Isle Royale National Park said he was “blown away by the resilience of these wolves,” in a statement.
“Within hours after undergoing capture and handling and arriving on Isle Royale, [the wolves] immediately got on the trail of their pack mates,” Romanski said. “These large males, all around 90 pounds, will almost certainly know what to do when they encounter a moose.”
Moose are the main food source for the Isle Royale wolves, and their unique predator-prey relationship has fascinated scientists for decades. As the wolf population dwindled, the moose population exploded from 975 individuals in 2013 to about 1,500 in 2018. This ecological disruption may sound like a good deal for moose at first, but a similar population boom during the 1990s led to thousands of moose dying of starvation in the winter.
Isle Royale National Park officials and their collaborators hope to avoid similar calamities by introducing 20 to 30 wolves to the park over the coming years.