Inbreeding taking toll on the wolves of Isle Royale

Crippling effects of inbreeding show the problem with natural wolf recovery based on a few wolves-

A fair number of people think that wolf restoration should be “natural,” — based solely in the in-migration of 2 to a dozen or so wolves, but there is not enough genetic variety in a small number for such a population to survive over time. The situation in Isle Royale shows this.

Story in Newsweek. Inbreeding taking toll on Michigan wolves. Scientists find bone deformities in wolves on island in Lake Superior, caused by inbreeding. By John Flesher. Associated Press Writer | AP





  1. Dave Avatar

    Welcome to the future of the Mexican wolves in the southwestern U.S. This pathetically small population is barely hanging on with just a few breeding adults. Unless it is allowed to grow soon, genetic erosion will start to show up in congenital defects such as can be seen in the Isle Royale wolves. The solution is simple: larger population with immigration of more genetically-diverse captive-bred individuals.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    The Mexican wolves so narrowly escaped extinction, that I doubt a larger number on the ground will solve the genetic problem.

    It may be that in the future genetic manipulation of the sub-species in way that will delete now-too-common harmful genes and yet keep them Mexican wolves could solve the problem.

    I don’t think this is technically possible at the present.

  3. Steve c Avatar
    Steve c

    What can be done about the toll that inbreeding is taking on the Idaho anti-wolf population?

  4. Jeff N. Avatar
    Jeff N.

    Steve c,

    Nothing can be done. That family tree has no branches.

  5. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson

    Whether the genetic plate is the world or an island, nature has very efficient ways of dealing with Adam and Eve situations. It is called competing infrastructures. Everyone thinks of multiples of numbers, and by extension the greater chance of genetic mutation to solve those “problems” but nature is not about the luck of the draw. Functional family infrastructure is the only system I know of where non breeding members can pass on their own genetics. What is inside each of them instinctual, psychological or physically, all contributes to that packs chance of competing successfully with others. Pack or herd success is built on millenia not single generations or individual animal infusions.

    With 4 packs on this island it means there is a system at work where one pack will come up with the direct or indirect answer to such things as bad vertebra. They then will out populate the other packs…not by totally getting rid of those animals physical and emotional character genetics but by incorporating the good traits to come up with a million years of Adam and Eve’s type of extended family tribal background of effeciency.

    Of course the chance of success inversely depends on how much man feels he has to “genetically improve” this wolf population. The more dysfunctional he makes those wolf packs, the more the chance the packs will not be able to adjust to the austere conditions on this Island. Individuals may have genetic “vitality” but that means nothing for population longevity if infrastructure is not allowed to maintain itself. As long as those packs are able to maintain identity order I think genetics will come out fine in the long run. …Of course there is always zoo reasoning for valid justification in this Island case. If we had just kept a couple of Mammoths around we could have allowed them to form up in their families and this earth would have been more diverse….if the environment would have supported them today.

    I think the intent of everyone writing on the Michigan wolf situation (or Aryan pure bison) has good points but I guess I just want to add that genetic life on this earth was successful because of related family infrastructure, not individual freak shows. The freaks add to but does not allow the travelling circus to survive.

  6. Ken Cole Avatar

    With this situation I am slightly conflicted because I think that human intervention should be avoided but at the same time human intervention (through high rates of mainland killing) is likely keeping other wolves from venturing to this island across the winter ice bridges if and when they occur. It is doubtful that these wolves will persist over the next 100 years due to genetic deformities just because that is what happens in these cases.

    This is a good demonstration, along with the Florida panther, Washington pygmy rabbit, and Washington sage grouse, of what happens when you have no genetic diversity in a population and it is also strong argument for maintaining diversity in the Northern Rockies wolves.

    Bob, would please quit with the Nazi/Aryan analogy? It is not appropriate in these discussions and is rather offensive. I also think the KKK, hillbilly, redneck comments are getting a little out of hand on this blog. I may have used the redneck term long ago here but I declare here that I will stop. Name calling and Nazi analogy makes an argument weak.

    I will say though that Ron Gillett is crazy. That I can live with.

  7. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Because wolves are secure in Michigan and Minnesota and the migration of wolves onto Isle Royale was due to an unusual event, it should probably be a hands off situation.

    However, moose may well ruin the Island’s vegetation with no population control, after which they might starve and disappear too.

    As an aside, I wonder what is the genetic condition of the moose on Isle Royale?

  8. Moose Avatar

    I agree that ‘nature should take its course’ here.

    Not sure what Ken is referring to re: “high rates of mainland killing”….Wisc. and Mich wolf pop.s are due to dispersing wolves from the Minn pop….the ‘window of opportunity’ for wolves to make the 14-15 mile journey over the ice from Ont/Minn to Isle Royale is actually quite small.

    Will be interesting to see what happens, not only genetically with the wolves, but will global warming play a role with future moose pop.s?

  9. JB Avatar

    Moose, you’ve identified the problem with no Isle Royale intervention. Wolves came across an ice bridge that–because of global warming–no longer forms. Thus, because of humans, wolves no longer have the ability to migrate onto or off from the island.

    Still, I’m conflicted. Given the special nature of wolves on Isle Royale I would like to see this drama unfold without human intervention. I believe we could learn a lot about speciation, genetic mutation, inbreeding effects and a host of other topics. If wolves fail they could easily be reintroduced to the island from adjacent populations.

  10. Jeff N. Avatar
    Jeff N.

    The wolves may disappear because of the collapse of the moose population before the convergence of genetics eventually(?) does them in. This island needs a nice fire so the moose have a little salad to eat. The forest is maturing and the moose are suffering because of it (not to mention the global warming aspect). But then again an unexpected left hand turn might be looming. This island truly is a unique laboratory, let’s play the hand out, IMO.

  11. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson

    Ken, concerning your issue with my use of “Aryan” I ask you to put yourself in an animals shoes (mostly focused on bison in this case since so many, including you, think non “polluted” gene bison makes for superior and original bison) .

    Think of what it would be like if you and your family were to be sorted and some killed and others allowed to live. Think of then putting you as part of this unrelated mix into refuge camp situations.

    Then and only then I ask you to consider what you are doing when you and others promote “pure” bison. Aryan and Nazi actions are the best words I can use to describe what is happening to those social order herds of buffalo or packs of wolves.
    If what I say offends you then I suggest you look a bit deeper into the words “paternalism” and “superiority over the rest of the earth”. Does it apply or does “brothers keeper” better fit your attitudes about wildlife?

    If it is the former may I suggest you will never come up with the answers. It will always be symptom management.

    Every species has ways of taking care of genetic purity a lot better than we as “managers” of animals can ever hope to. Do you even know why a “species” even know why an animal takes on outside blood?

    It is the ATTITUDE of the people, those that think purity is better than family, that I feel I need to address with words such as Aryan. Humans recent history past endeavors to make SUPERIOR any given group of people or animals I feel is what is truly offensive. Sorry it offends you but squirming usually means there are internal problems. Now if it had to do with “red necks”, enviro’s, greenies, or whatever is used as prejudiced by one group to define another then I feel this is wrong. I use Aryan to describe a condition not label a person.

  12. mikarooni Avatar

    Bob, you’re obsessed with this line of thinking and it sure isn’t good conservation biology.

  13. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson

    Yes, I “talk” a lot about something that is not very popular in my education, peer and professional circles.

    I never tried being one of any flock, however. In my work in Yellowstone the downfall of most back country rangers, game wardens, F&W agents, and even biologists was their romance of horse culture. If any “flock” I would be closest aligned to it would probably be indigenous hunter-gathers.

    Would you say only modern conservation biologists have the answers to nature? That of course is their major downfall. Superiority attitudes do not provide answers when it comes to living, breathing populations. Hard science yes, applied science, no.

    I feel honored to be on Utah States Range Science behavioral initiative advisory committee. They believe what I say as to solutions to grazing problems, but to the man these professors and extension people say the public they serve does not want to hear this “stuff”.

    Your ‘conservation biology” community I feel is no different. Genetic purity is the in thing nowadays and the frenzy to be a part of this is shown by ‘scientists” lapping at the grant doors…. as seen at the past WCS and Hornaday’s Bison Society conference. They rush through the door no different than what I saw at a small foods conference where farmers ran each other over to get at a book newly out on what true nutrition is.

    In yellowstone I saw lots of career permanents flock to the priorities of each new supt. I witnesses the annual “death marchs” first hand where the new supt. would go into the backcountry for a ten day “experience’ with administrative and division heads. It was quite the sight. The outgoing supt. would be totally ignored and biologists that hated horses would rush to have corral operations saddle up a horse so they could be next to the new supt. for that days travels.. Then it was pal mall across the meadows all trying to get as close as posible to this guy. Yes I wonder about conservation biology.

  14. Ken Cole Avatar

    We’re talking about hybrids between two totally different species not about mixing of races.

    The Nazi BS is inappropriate and offensive.

    Put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s entire family was killed by the Nazi’s. If you were that person I would bet that someone using Nazi analogy would be rather offensive when used in conversation about conservation issues. It trivializes what the Nazi’s did.

    There are better ways to describe the issues at hand and they don’t need to include labeling someone by inference as a Nazi or Aryan.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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