VIDEO: Moosewatch volunteers slog through forest searching for bones

Jun 7, 2012

The longest running predator-prey study anywhere in the world takes place right here in Michigan.

For more than five decades, researchers have been closely watching the ebb and flow of wolves and moose on Isle Royale.

To do their work, wolf biologists Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich of Michigan Tech lean on those willing to pitch in and help.

Moosewatch volunteers hike off-trail for miles with their backpacks getting heavier as they pick up moose bones along the way.

They get bitten by bugs, scratched by branches, and soaked by the rain as they make their way through Isle Royale's boreal forest.

And they pay for the experience. It costs $450 per person, which covers the expenses for the wolf-moose project.

The researchers have been relying on these summer volunteers since 1988. John Vucetich says overall, about a third of all bones they collect are collected by Moosewatch volunteers.

"In a typical year they find the skeletal remains of 50 to 75 moose.  They perform necropsies on these moose and collect several specimens (skull, jaw bone, metatarsus, and any arthritic bones)," says Vucetich.

Rebecca Williams and I recently went out with a Moosewatch group on Isle Royale.

Each group is made up of six people. Five volunteers and one group leader.

The leader is in charge of making sure people don't get separated and lost in the dense forest.

Our group leader, Jeff Holden, described himself as a bit of a mother hen, which is a good quality to have for someone looking after five people for an entire week in the backcountry.

Holden's job was made especially hard when we arrived. He now had two reporters to keep track of as well.

I tended to wander off a little with my camera as I tried to anticipate where the volunteers would come out of the woods:

I never wandered too far, and I captured some video of these volunteers at work in the woods.

Here's what the Moosewatch experience is like:

Moosewatch volunteer David Conrad says his friends don't know what to think of his trip to Isle Royale.

"They can't find this place on a map," says Conrad. "They think the U.P. is part of Canada. [I tell them] 'yeah, I'm going to an island in Lake Superior to count dead moose, and maybe see a live one.' People think I'm crazy. It's just a cool little adventure."