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A Moose hunt on Isle Royale? Bad Idea

Posted on November 20th, 2019

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The moose population on Isle Royale has exceeded 2,000 and some Michigan lawmakers are pushing a resolution urging the National Park Service to stage a lottery hunt as a way to control the herd. In this latest Trail Talk blog from MichiganTrailMaps.com, Jim DuFresne argues that while such hunts work well elsewhere in Michigan, it would be a “logistics nightmare” on Isle Royale.

One of those places is North Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. If you’re contemplating a trip there next summer keep an eye out for our new, large waterproof Manitou Islands map. It should be in our eshop within a month. Of course, right now our eshop is full of other fine maps and books that make wonderful Christmas gifts.

By Jim DuFresne

My son lives in Denver and has hunted elk a number of times in the Rocky Mountains. But he doesn’t own a hunting rifle. Or a compound bow.

Jim DuFresne

He joins friends who do have a rifle or a bow and have pulled the necessary permits to shoot an elk if they have an opportunity. What Michael shows up with is an empty backpack. And they will need him – his strong shoulders and that empty backpack – if they drop a 700-pound elk.

High in the alpine, they will have to field dress the animal, carve it up and then carry the pieces down on foot to a trailhead before dark. It’s a wilderness hunt, and that’s what you have to do to preserve as much meat as possible.

A unique wilderness hunt just took place here in Michigan. The annual, week-long North Manitou Island deer hunt was staged earlier this month when Manitou Island Transit – best known for ferrying backpackers to the island throughout the summer – dropped off 109 hunters.

Each hunter arrived at North Manitou with up to 125 pounds of food, water, camping supplies, clothing, and hunting gear because the boat wasn’t coming back for a week, and that would be its last run for the year.

Hunters also packed along a small two-wheeled cart because hauling a deer out of the middle of this 15,000-acre, roadless island is a monumental task. And most hunters used that cart; 89 deer were harvested, the most since 2002.

The National Park Service manages and promotes the hunt because it has to. The deer have no predators on North Manitou, not even cars.

Hunters head out on the North Manitou wharf for the ferry at the conclusion of this year’s special deer hunt.

The island was deer-less until 1925 when four bucks and five does were introduced by the private club that owned most of North Manitou. The animals roamed at will and rapidly multiplied. By the time the NPS took control of North Manitou in 1984, the herd was out-of-control.

Those of us who arrived at this special place in the 1980s can still vividly remember the island’s interior. It had the groomed appearance of a city park, the result of hungry deer feeding on everything, from the ground cover and understory to every branch their long necks could reach. You saw so many deer while hiking it was eerie and in the winter and spring the herd suffered mass starvation.

This is not an easy hunt; it’s not sitting in your blind on opening day and then driving back to the cabin at night. The weather can be miserable and there have been years when the success rate was in the single digits. But it’s worked. The herd is under control, and the vegetation has a natural appearance. When you go to North Manitou you might see a few deer during your three-day trek but not 12 in one morning.

But what works so well on North Manitou doesn’t mean it will on Isle Royale.

In September, a group of Michigan lawmakers introduced a House resolution urging the National Park Service to consider a lottery hunt as the best way to control an “exploding population” of moose at Isle Royale National Park.

“Unfortunately, the wolf population is decline and the moose population is just getting out of hand,” said state Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland. “There needs to be proper management of that moose population … and hunting is really a good way to do that.”

A Michigan Tech study published in March found the moose population quadrupled since 2011, surging to 2,060 in 2018. But the National Park Service has not considered hunting or managed culling of the species on Isle Royale and for good reason.

It would be a logistics nightmare.

An Isle Royale moose. Is a hunt needed to control their numbers? (photo by Scott Joseph).

Once while living in Alaska I was in Fairbanks during the moose season. Mostly what I saw were hunters sitting in lawn chairs along the road in the Chena River State Recreation Area. Why? If they shoot a moose they wanted to be sure they could drive their pick-up next to it and load it in the back.

The reality is the average white-tailed buck weighs 150 pounds. A mature bull moose can exceed 1,500 pounds. Just the hindquarter alone of such an animal weighs more than most deer in Michigan.

Imagine packing that through the backcountry of Isle Royale.

Alaskan hunters, who have hunted moose on foot, say the most important question to ask yourself: “Am I capable of tying a hindquarter onto a pack frame, lifting it to my shoulders and carrying it out” through soggy muskeg? And can you do this six or seven times to haul out the rest of the animal?

Isle Royale is a designated Federal wilderness, so wheeled carts are banned. Even if the NPS made an exception for hunters, like they do on North Manitou, how much assistance would a small cart be? And what’s the alternative?  Allow ORVs to be brought in for the hunt? In a 2018 environmental impact statement on the wolves, the NPS feared such measures would impact “the wilderness character of the island.”

A newly released wolf on Isle Royale National Park  (photo by the National Park Service).

Instead of a hunt, the NPS selected another solution; reintroducing wolves to the park. The “genetic rescue” began in 2018, and there are now 17 wolves on the island. Another 10 or 15 should arrive in the next year or so. Meanwhile, everybody, from park officials to biologists overseeing the relocation, have crossed their fingers in hopes that the new wolves will form packs and begin stalking the moose.

On North Manitou, a managed hunt has been the best possible solution while offering hunters a rare wilderness experience in Michigan. At Isle Royale, I think it’s better if we leave it to the wolves.

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