Only Three Wolves Remain on Michigan's Isle Royale

Since 2009 the wolves have been rapidly declining in numbers, dropping from 24 to just 3 in six years.

There are only three wolves left in Michigan's Isle Royale National Park, which could spell disaster for the group's survival, according to new research.

"There is now a good chance that it is too late to conduct genetic rescue," John Vucetich, associate professor of wildlife ecology at Michigan Technological University, said in a statement. Vucetich conducted the annual study of the park's animals along with Rolf Peterson, a research professor at Michigan Tech.

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It's believed that this last remaining pack is made up of two adults and one 9-month old pup, though the pup does not appear to be healthy. It looks to have a deformed tail and hunched posture among other abnormalities, meaning it could easily be dead within a year.

Regardless of the pup's health, recovering the wolf population on the island is not likely to happen naturally. Since 2009, the wolves have been rapidly declining in numbers, dropping from 24 to just three in six years. This is partly due to inbreeding among the pack. Inbred pups have a very low survival rate, and researchers believe it would be nearly impossible to recover the population without introducing new genetic material into the group.

However, the two resident adults are likely a mating pair, meaning they wouldn't be interested in mating with outside wolves if given the chance.

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In fact, researchers recently observed two other wolves that made their way onto the island via an ice bridge from the U.S.-Canadian mainland, but the pair left after less than a week. It's possible the two pairs of wolves didn't even notice each other.

This doesn't mean the population could never recover naturally, especially because we now know it is possible for other wolves to enter the park. But the only scenario that would result in re-population would require the resident adults to be interested in mating with outside partners.

The declining wolf population also correlates to a rapidly increasing moose population on the island. Without as many predators, moose are thriving, and if the unbalance of predator-prey worsens, it could cause severe and permanent damage to the vegetation on Isle Royale.

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Sadly, humans are largely to blame for the severe decline in the wolf population across the United States. Hunting has nearly depleted them from the western part of the country. According to Defenders of Wildlife, there are only 7,000-11,200 gray wolves left in Alaska, 3,700 in the Great Lakes region, and 1,675 in the Northern Rockies.

It remains to be seen whether humans can prevent the Michigan Isle Royale wolves from disappearing entirely.

Photo: The last remaining wolves on Michigan's Isle Royale. Credit: Rolf Peterson - via Nature World News

Seabirds, such as this albatross, along with some amphibians, mammals and other birds are among the 15 species that are at greatest risk of becoming extinct very soon, a new study finds. The study, published in the journal Current Biology, found that these animals have a low chance of survival now in both the wild and in captivity, despite conservation measures. "Conservation opportunity evaluations like ours show the urgency of implementing management actions before it is too late," lead author Dalia Conde of the University of Southern Denmark said.

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Six amphibians, including the Perereca, shown here, made the list of 15. The researchers determined that the animals' low chances for survival are due to several factors: * High probability of its habitat becoming urbanized * Political instability at the site * High cost of habitat protection and management * A low opportunity of establishing an insurance population in zoos due to high costs or lack of breeding expertise.

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Because many of the animals on the list of 15 have such low populations, in many cases, not much is known about the species. Some are only documented in written accounts. Birgitte Svennevig of the University of Southern Denmark told Discovery News, "The 15 species are extremely rare, so we do not have photos of all of them. I am not even sure if photos of all of them exist." So some animals on the list, such as the Mount Lefo brush-furred mouse, are represented here by photos of closely related species. This photo shows the endangered mouse's close kin,

Lophuromys ansorgei.

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For the study, Conde and her team computed the cost of conserving 841 species of mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians listed by the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) as restricted to single sites and categorized as "endangered" or "critically endangered" on the IUCN Red List. "AZE sites are arguably the more irreplaceable category of important biodiversity conservation sites," Conde said. Ash's lark is one of the 15 most endangered animals on the planet. This photo shows the closely related species,

Mirafra africana.

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The estimated total cost to conserve the 841 animals included in the study was calculated to be over $1 billion total per year. That is if the animals are to be saved in their natural habitats. The estimated annual cost for management in zoos was $160 million. Costs, however, seem less daunting when each species is looked at individually. Hopefully efforts can still be boosted to support the conservation of animals like the Bay Lycian salamander, which is from Turkey and could go extinct during our lifetimes. Shown is the closely related Eastern newt.

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The tropical pocket gopher is one of three mammals among the total list of 15 at-risk species. The researchers created a "conservation opportunity index," based on their study, with this small gopher winding up at the bottom of the list. It would take substantial funds and work to try and save it. "Although the cost seems high, safeguarding these species is essential if we want to reduce the extinction rate by 2020," co-author Hugh Possingham from the University of Queensland said.

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Zino's petrel, a small bird native to the island of Madeira, is among the most endangered European seabirds.

Amphibians, such as the Zorro bubble-nest frog, are widely believed to be the most endangered class of animals on the planet. Nearly one-third of all the world's amphibians are close to extinction. The declines are among the most critical threats to global biodiversity. While researchers continue to study why so many amphibians have been dying out since the 1980s, possible causes include disease, habitat destruction and modification, exploitation, pollution, pesticide use, introduced non-native species, and ultraviolet-B radiation.

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The Mascarene petrel from Reunion Island is threatened by pollution and predation by non-native animals.

While the report provides a realistic view on certain species' chances for survival and the probable cost to try and save them, the researchers hope that conservation efforts will improve. "Our exercise gives us hope for saving many highly endangered species from extinction, but actions need to be taken immediately and, for species restricted to one location (such as the frog

Allobates juanii

from Colombia), an integrative conservation approach is needed," said co-author John Fa.

The name Tahiti monarch might sound like a butterfly, but it's actually the common name for a very uncommon bird from French Polynesia. It's believed that there are fewer than 50 individuals remaining of this small bird, whose call has been likened to a beautiful melody played on a flute.

Native to Brazil, the Campo Grande tree frog's primary threat to survival is habitat loss.

Native to Mexico, the Chiapan climbing rat is now known only from one location in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas. Its habitat is being converted to agricultural and urban use. While rodents aren't viewed with much affection, the Chiapan climbing rat and all of the other animals on the list of 15 play critical roles in their ecosystems. When their numbers decrease or when a species dies out, the loss will ripple throughout the food chain, causing eventual adverse impacts to all of the other ecosystem members as well as to the habitat itself. Shown is a related species (right)

Nyctomys sumichrasti

with an Alston's brown mouse.

The Santa Cruz dwarf frog is native to Brazil. More funding is needed to attempt to save it, but Possingham points out that costs are all relative. "When compared to global government spending on other sectors -- for example, U.S. defense spending, which is more than 500 times greater (than the estimated coast to conserve the 841 animals in the study) -- an investment in protecting high biodiversity value sites is minor," he said.

Wilkin's finch is now restricted to Inaccessible Island and Nightingale Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. The small bird was named after Australian polar explorer and ornithologist Captain Sir George Hubert Wilkins. Chances for future survival are very low. As co-author Markus Gusset of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums concludes, "Actions that range from habitat protection to the establishment of insurance populations in zoos will be needed if we want to increase the chances of species' survival."