Jan. 21, 1999 HOUGHTON, MI--The National Park Service is providing $100,000 to fund a 3-year study of timber wolves in northern Minnesota and Upper Michigan. Researchers will focus their efforts in and around Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota and Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to gather data to establish enhanced management plans for wolves in the Lake Superior region.
The federal government currently lists wolves as an endangered species in Michigan and Wisconsin and as threatened in Minnesota. The Minnesota wolf population has expanded rapidly to occupy areas previously believed to be unsuitable, while wolves in Michigan and Wisconsin have been making a rapid comeback since the late 1980s after being nearly absent from those states for many years.
Wolf numbers in Michigan and Wisconsin are now high enough (federal guidelines call for 100 outside Minnesota) that current plans call for the species to be downlisted to threatened in the Great Lakes region. Management of the species would then become the responsibility of the states.
Despite existing legal protection, not all has been rosy for wolves in the Lake Superior region, according to Dr. Rolf Peterson, a wildlife biologist with Michigan Tech's School of Forestry and Wood Products, who is heading up the Park Service study.
"Despite their protected legal status, wolf losses attributable to human activities near Voyageurs National Park remain high," says Peterson. "And Park policies for wolf protection, formulated in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, were initially struck down in court for lack of supportive information."
He refers specifically to a lawsuit brought by a Minnesota snowmobilers' association that ultimately resulted in a federal appeals court ruling that the National Park Service did have sufficient information to close park areas to snowmobile traffic to protect wolves.
"That court action points out the need for more information in both Minnesota and Michigan upon which to base management decisions," says Peterson.
He says the wolf's status in the Lake Superior region is different than in other parts of its historic range, where expensive and controversial restoration actions have been taken or are being planned.
"Here in the Lake Superior region, wolves have returned on their own to much of their former range, and have increased to the point where they will soon meet delisting criteria," he says. "But this fact cannot be cited as an example of the success of the Endangered Species Act unless steps are taken to ensure sustained recovery. Conflicts with landowners and recreationists must be avoided or dealt with appropriately. And this will require significant research, monitoring, education, and management efforts."
Threats to wolf recovery also include diseases such as sarcoptic mange and canine parvovirus, according to Peterson. He believes that trapping and testing wolves provides the only approach for determining the extent of such diseases. The availability of prey species such as deer and moose also play an important role in wolf survival. In addition, planners need information about wolf movements across private properties and highways to identify areas of potential conflict and to develop strategies for minimizing them.
This past September Peterson and his colleagues put radio collars on four wolves trapped in Voyageurs and have begun monitoring their movements. The information collected there will provide needed tactical data that will allow the Park to use a Cumulative Effects Model being developed by the University of Minnesota to guide cooperative, legally defensible management planning.
The situation at Pictured Rocks in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is dramatically different. While wolves have been thriving in Minnesota, where their population is the largest in the United States outside Alaska, they have only in recent years made a substantial comeback in Michigan.
"The speed of the wolf recovery in Michigan has taken land managers by surprise," says Peterson, "and has led to a situation where the species was eligible for federal downlisting even before the state wolf management plan was approved in late 1997. But little information is available for this recovering population and the downlisting decision will be based almost exclusively on population numbers unless more comprehensive studies are initiated to provide critical information on population characteristics, causes of mortality, human conflicts, habitat use, and movements."
Pictured Rocks was chosen as one of the study sites because it is part of a larger complex of national, state, and corporate forests and a national wildlife refuge (Seney) which are essential to a sustainable wolf population in Upper Michigan, according to Peterson.
"While Pictured Rocks extends for more than 40 miles along the Lake Superior shore, it is not very wide and wolves don't use much of the park on a regular basis," explains Peterson. "But the park is surrounded by thousands of acres of state and national forest land and commercial forests that comprise parts of the territories of several developing wolf packs frequenting the central part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This situation calls for the cooperation of various landowners and management agencies to gather the information necessary to provide a sound basis for wolf management decisions in this area. The Park Service can serve as an important catalyst in this effort."
Peterson said there are about 25 packs of wolves in Upper Michigan, numbering about 140 animals. Researchers plan to track at least a dozen different packs in an attempt to determine pack territories and population densities. Peterson said the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will also be involved in the Pictured Rocks project and DNR personnel will trap the Michigan wolves and fit them with radio collars. He said the DNR has already placed radio collars on 25 wolves throughout the Upper Peninsula. Wolf activities will be monitored by airplane by Peterson and his co-investigator, Dr. Thomas Drummer, a biometrician in Michigan Tech's Department of Mathematical Sciences.
Peterson expects the data gathered in the study to enable park managers to perpetuate a wolf population on or near the Pictured Rocks park land, and to provide information from the park's Inland Buffer Zone on wolf status as the population recovers.
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