The hungry moose of Isle Royale National Park have been busy in recent years ravaging trees, noshing on aquatic plants and reproducing quickly.
While predator wolves are being shipped to the Lake Superior island to better balance the ecosystem, some Michigan lawmakers are now pushing for a faster way: hunting.
A bipartisan resolution introduced in that state’s House of Representatives is encouraging the National Park Service to establish a moose tag hunting lottery to help control what it calls an “exploding population” of the animals, estimated to have multiplied on Isle Royale from about 515 to 2,060 over the past eight years.
The proposal comes about a year after the Park Service began the controversial move of introducing more wolves to the island, bringing the wild canines in from Minnesota, Canada and the park’s home state of Michigan. At its low point, the island had only two wolves. Now there are 17.
But Michigan legislators contend that program may not work well enough or fast enough before there is irreversible damage to the park. Isle Royale, about 20 miles off Minnesota’s north shore, faces an “ongoing ecological dilemma,” the resolution says, as the moose continue to decimate balsam fir, watershield plants and other park vegetation.
Lawmakers contend a hunt will restore balance quickly and bring more money to both the Park Service and the state’s Upper Peninsula.
“You’re talking about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go on a moose hunt,” said Republican Rep. Steven Johnson, one of the resolution’s sponsors. “It’s really a win, win, win.”
Controlled hunts of elk and other animals have been allowed at some national parks, but not on Isle Royale, officials there explained.
Park managers considered and decided against a hunt a few years ago as part of an environmental impact study on the moose and wolf dilemma.
One of the big hurdles: Hunting wasn’t specifically allowed in Isle Royale National Park authorizing legislation, as it was in other parks, said park spokeswoman Liz Valencia.
It’s also logistically difficult, she said, and would require more staff to manage. The 134,000-acre wilderness island has no roads, making it tough for hunters to find moose in the thick brush, much less haul moose carcasses out.
“You’re out on an island in the middle of Lake Superior with no refrigeration. A whole moose would weigh half a ton,” said Rolf Peterson, a Michigan Tech professor and longtime researcher of wolves and moose on the island.
‘A true wilderness experience’
Johnson said Congress could enable hunting on the island, and the lack of roads and resources is what would make it attractive to some hunters.
“I’ve gone hunting in Alaska and there are no roads either,” Johnson said. “That’s what makes for a fantastic hunting experience. It’s a true wilderness experience.”
Several skilled hunters could be assigned a single permit and would be responsible for gutting and skinning the animals and packing the meat out, he said.
He maintains it wouldn’t be much different from wildlife managers shooting a handful of moose last year and leaving the carcasses for wolves.
Valencia said that was done with just a few moose to provide new wolves a first meal and encourage them to stay in a certain area.
Michigan Democrat Rep. John Chirkun, a hunter who endorses the resolution, argued hunting is less traumatic for moose than death by wolf.
“How would you like six wolves chasing you down in the forest and eating you alive?” Chirkun said. “The hunters are more humane. They’d be more humane than a pack of animals taking down a moose.”
Johnson argues that a hunt wouldn’t cancel out wildlife managers’ efforts to introduce more wolves — it would just help restore a fully functioning ecosystem on the island a little quicker.
“The wolf population just hasn’t taken off like many people thought it would and instead we’re seeing the moose population just explode,” Johnson said. “This resolution doesn’t negate their plans to increase the wolf population. They could do it in conjunction.”
Wolves are being carefully introduced to the island in increments from various places to ensure a healthy genetic variability, Valencia explained.
Wildlife managers expect it will take time for wolves to organize, establish territories and reproduce. Officials hope to have 20 to 30 wolves living on the island over the course of three to five years.
“We’re a couple years out from seeing what this new wolf population will be capable of doing,” Peterson said. “Once they get up and running, I think there’s good reason to think they’re up to the task.”