She slowly turned her head from side to side, sniffed the island air, and 20 seconds later, the 75-pound, four-year-old gray wolf darted out of a small crate to explore her new home, Isle Royale National Park.
The female wolf, along with a five-year old male, are the first part of a broader effort to relocate 20 to 30 wolves to the remote island on Lake Superior — an attempt to rebuild the island's decimated wolf population and restore the predator-prey balance in the park between wolves and moose.
The wolves were captured Wednesday from different packs on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation in far northeastern Minnesota. They have thick coats of light tan, gray, and white fur with black markings. They were flown to Isle Royale, vaccinated, fitted with GPS collars, and released at two different sites on the island.
"We have been planning this relocation operation with our partners and are very pleased with the progress so far," said park superintendent Phyllis Green. "Releasing these two wolves on the island is the first step to restoring the ecological dynamic in the park."
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Moose and wolves came to the island in the early 1900s, and their populations have seesawed back and forth ever since.
The wolves reached a peak of about 50 animals, before inbreeding and disease caused the population to crash to only two animals.
Without hunting pressure from wolves, the moose population on the island tripled over the past decade to around 1,500 animals, which in turn has threatened the island's vegetation with their unchecked appetites.
The Park Service first floated the idea of a genetic rescue by relocating wolves to the island in 2015, and then conducted a lengthy environmental study in which it weighed letting nature take its course in a federal wilderness area, versus stepping in to try to rescue the wolf population.
Officials approved the plan in June; it calls for relocating up to six wolves this fall. The entire project is expected to last three to five years, and cost $2 million to monitor over the next 20 years.