Isle Royale is located in the northwest region of Lake Superior, and it is the nexus of the longest-running predator-prey study in the world. The predators are the wolves that populate the island; the prey are moose.
For 54 years, Michigan Technological University researchers have kept tabs on the wolves of Isle Royale, and the numbers they're reporting in early 2012 are the lowest ever. In winter 2011, university researchers counted 16 wolves on the island; a year later, there were just nine. And it's possible that just one of the nine is female, and just one pup born last year survived.
There are numerous factors that have put the wolves in dire straits, according to an AP report. Inbreeding has weakened the genetic stock, and disease and starvation have played a role.
But it is the warmer winter that may ultimately prove their downfall.
John Vucetich, a population biologist at Michigan Tech and lead researcher on the wolf-moose study, says that "the wolves of Isle Royale are at great risk of extinction. ... Their numbers have never been lower, and the warmer winters caused by climate change make it less and less likely that an ice bridge from the mainland will enable new wolves to reach the island.”
Conservationists are left with a dilemma: To intervene, or not? There is something to be said for allowing nature to run its course -- for allowing the wolves to die out. Isle Royale is a federally designated wilderness area, and, according to the AP, National Park Service officials are usually reluctant to meddle. But in the absence of wolves, the moose population could explode and harm the ecosystem.
Federal experts are currently pondering their options. It is possible they would allow the current wolf population to die out, then bring in a healthy and diverse group of wolves to start anew.