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Isle Royale wolf, moose study lost to federal shutdown

Moose and wolves on Isle Royale, like these shown here in a 2011 photo, won't be studied this winter for the first time since 1958 if the federal government shutdown doesn't end soon. Michigan Tech photo.

The lingering, partial shutdown of the U.S. federal government has reached out to touch another facet of Northland life — this time halting the Isle Royale wildlife study underway for 60 years on the big Lake Superior island.

Researchers at Michigan Technological University have been told they can’t go to the island until the government shutdown is over. It marks the first time since 1958 that the scientists won’t be on the island to conduct detailed population counts and do other studies of the wolves and moose that call Isle Royale home.

“It is a Park Service decision,” said Rolf Peterson, Michigan Tech researcher who has studied wolves and moose on the island for decades. The Park Service regional office told Peterson and his cohorts “that access to the island would not be permitted while the government was shut down.”

Peterson said the government would have to be up and running by mid-February at the latest to salvage any study this winter. Snow cover on the ground, and ice on island lakes, is critical to track, locate and count the animals.

The federal government partial shutdown and lack of scientific review this winter comes at a crucial time for the island's wildlife. This past autumn the Park Service trapped several new wolves in far Northeastern Minnesota and released them on Isle Royale to bolster the beleaguered population that had dropped to just two wolves that are unable to reproduce. Now, there's no way to monitor those new wolves and their success or failure.

The shutdown also means it will likely be impossible to capture several Ontario wolves and bring them to Isle Royale, which the Park Service had planned to do later this winter. The Park Service plan is to bring several more wolves to the island in coming years.

Before the shutdown began, tracking data of the new wolves on the island — three remain alive — appeared to be doing well. They have explored much of the island except where the final two native wolves are roaming. It’s common for wolf packs or families to avoid each other’s territories.

The 45-mile-long, 143,000-acre island archipelago is about 14 miles off Minnesota's North Shore. It's mostly dedicated as federal wilderness.

Wolves are relatively new to the island, having crossed the ice in the 1940s. Their numbers reached a high of 50 in 1980. Wolf numbers on the island crashed from 24 as recently as 2009 to just the current pair, a 7-year-old female and 9-year-old male. Moose came to the island much earlier in the 1900s, peaking at 2,445 in 1995 and hitting bottom at just 385 in 2007. In their annual survey last winter, scientists estimated the moose herd had grown to about 1,600 on the island.

The offices of Voyageurs National Park, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the regions’ three national forests — Superior, Chippewa and Chequamegon-Nicolet — also remain closed,  although general access to those federal lands remains open for the most part. However access to the popular Apostle Islands mainland sea caves is closed during the shutdown.

At Voyageurs, a $5,000 grant from the Voyageurs National Park Association will allow visitors to get inside the park’s Rainy Lake Visitors Center this weekend, Jan. 12-13, and Jan. 19-20. The money also will help pay to groom ski and snowmobile trails in the park.

The partial shutdown began on midnight Dec. 22 as President Donald Trump and Congress failed to come up with an agreement on funding. The shutdown affects the livelihoods of an estimated 800,000 federal workers nationwide, including about 36 active duty Coast Guard members in the Twin Ports who are not getting paid to work, but one government watchdog group says Minnesota is the state least impacted by the shutdown. WalletHub said Minnesota has the fewest federal employees per capita and a low number of people on food assistance and other federal programs.

So far state officials have said the shutdown is impacting about 17,000 federal workers in Minnesota but that the 3,000 state workers whose positions are currently funded by federal grants probably won’t have to be sent home.

Residents may see impacts with mortgage processing and federal agriculture programs, state officials have said, and more impacts are likely as the shutdown continues.

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