International Wolf Center draws global wolf experts to Duluth
As Minnesota and Wisconsin get ready to hold their second annual wolf hunting and trapping seasons — and Michigan enters the fray with its first — wolf experts from around the world will gather in Duluth this weekend to talk about the future of wolves and their relationships with people.
The symposium, “Wolves and Humans at the Crossroads,” is sponsored by the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center.
It’s the fifth global wolf symposium sponsored by the Wolf Center over the past 25 years, but the first one since 2005 and, with more than 450 people registered, by far the largest.
“Global interest in wolves, both wolf research and just a general public interest, just seems to be growing,” said Nancy Gibson, wolf center co-founder and board member. “A lot has happened over the past eight years.”
Presenters and keynote speakers represent top wolf experts from 19 nations, including Jamie Rappaport Clark, former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Rolf Peterson and Jon Vucetich, lead researchers in the ongoing Isle Royale moose-wolf survey; L. David Mech, a Minnesota-based wolf expert with 55 years of field experience across the U.S. and Canada; Luigi Boitani of the University of Rome, a leading expert on European wolves; and many more.
Problems facing wolves
Wolves face many issues across their global range.
In Russia, a depressed rural economy has forced more residents to hunt for subsistence, reducing game populations and the prey that wolves depend on. That could be causing a decline in the wolf population, although little research is available. In France, where wolves have recently moved back in from nearby nations after years of absence, there’s an
increasing call by farmers for more wolf killing. In Sweden, which has a population of about 200 wolves that are isolated from other nations, there’s a problem with inbreeding and now calls for a “genetic rescue” by introducing wolves from other regions.
That’s the same issue facing wolves on Isle Royale, the big Lake Superior island off Minnesota’s North Shore, where only eight wolves were counted in a survey last winter. That’s a historic low for the animal over more than 50 years of intensive study of the relationship between moose and wolves in the wilderness national park.
“Wolves are no longer performing their function as predator on the island, there just aren’t enough to have any real impact on moose,” Peterson told the News Tribune.
So few moose are being killed by wolves that scavenger populations, such as foxes and ravens, also have crashed to all-time lows on the island, Peterson said. Those animals used to clean up the scraps left behind by wolves.
Researchers say they heard a couple of new pups howling this summer, leading to some hope the wolves may hang on. But Peterson, a Michigan Technological University researcher who has been involved in the study for decades, said wolves may survive on the island only for a few more years unless new wolves are introduced to help improve the gene pool. The island’s population faces serious health issues from inbreeding.
It will be up to the National Park Service to decide whether to allow new wolves to be introduced; wait for a wild wolf to wander out to the island on its own from the North Shore; or oversee the eventual demise of wolves on the island, Peterson said.
With wolf numbers so low, moose numbers on the island have exploded, more than doubling in recent years to more than 1,000 animals. That’s the exact opposite trend from moose in Minnesota, where numbers have plummeted in recent years to the lowest levels in decades. While moose in Minnesota also face bears, humans and deer-related diseases as predators, moose on Isle Royale have only wolves to cope with.
“On the island at least, wolves are the driving factor of the moose population,” Peterson said, at least until moose numbers get so high that they run out of food, which will cause that population to crash as well.
Gibson said the symposium attracts wolf advocates, researchers and wildlife managers who sometimes represent vastly opposing viewpoints on how humans should treat wolves. That divergence of opinion will be represented during a moderated debate on trying to reach consensus on hunting, trapping and wolf protection that is set for Saturday.
But Gibson said the International Wolf Center has managed to attract top-notch talent and continued interest in the symposium and other work precisely because it hasn’t taken a stand on how wolves are specifically managed. The center takes no position on issues such as whether wolves should be trapped or hunted — only that healthy populations are maintained.
“As much as Minnesota has hotly debated this issue in the past couple of years, we are still in much better shape than some other countries, even than other states. The most important thing is that we have a thriving population of wolves,” Gibson said. “Some of our members were upset we didn’t oppose hunting and trapping. But that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to push for good wolf science.”
Minnesota has about 2,200 wolves, down from nearly 3,000 a decade ago, before any wolf hunting and trapping was allowed. Wisconsin has about 800 wolves and Michigan about 500. Wolf hunting season begins in all three states in the coming weeks.
While the Wolf Center doesn’t advocate for wolf protection, it does take a strong stand on protection of wolf habitat. Without wild places where people don’t build houses and raise livestock and pets, wolves are doomed to a constant state of conflict with people, Gibson noted.
“We are strong advocates for protection of the wild places wolves need to live,” she said. “With the human population ever increasing, and more people living where wolves live, wolves will usually come out on the short among these two species that historically haven’t gotten along very well.”