Volunteers hunt for moose bones on Isle Royale

Jun 7, 2012

Wolves and moose are at the heart of the world’s longest running study of a predator and its prey.  The drama unfolds on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.

But it’s a big island, almost entirely wilderness.

The researchers from Michigan Tech say they can’t cover all that ground alone. 

So they have a program called Moosewatch.  It’s a backcountry expedition where you pay to help out with the wolf-moose study.  But be warned: it’s no easy little walk in the woods.

"We’re going to trash through the understory here for a third to half of a mile and see if we can find some dead moose."

That’s Jeff Holden. He’s a Moosewatch group leader, in charge of a group of six (himself plus five volunteers).  We’re going to push our way into the thick forest.

I put an arm up to keep the branches from whacking me in the face.

Jeff Holden’s got GPS to guide us... but it’s easy to lose sight of each other as the forest swallows us up.

Holden: "Sue... Jeff... Pete!  (laughs) This is typical, all the yelling around."

Everyone’s eyes are down... looking for a flash of white in the moss.

"Bone! You’ve got a bone? Yeah."

"So, Dave Beck just found a bone. We all converge on it and then we drop packs. (Sue Morrison: 'I've got the flags!') Sue’s got the flags, she puts orange flags out in trees so we know where the center of the search is."

The team fans out and spends a few minutes looking for more bones... but no luck.  Jeff Holden says when wolves kill an adult moose, they’ll rip it apart and drag the parts in different directions.

"The farthest I’ve found a confirmed moose pulled apart was a quarter mile."

These bones hold all kinds of secrets.  Clues to how a moose lived and died.  The volunteers collect skulls and leg bones from the moose skeletons and carry them all week in their backpacks.

We push on... finding a few shed antlers but no moose skeletons.  It’s muggy.  And right around the time I’m regretting wearing non-breathable rain pants... thunder crashes right above us, with a simultaneous flash of lightning.

Holden: “That’s pretty much directly overhead..."

Everybody puts on rain jackets and we hurry back to the camp, getting totally soaked.

"We are making hot chocolate. Sugar and heat; it’s a good thing in the rain after hiking!"

This is Pete Prawdzick’s second Moosewatch trip.  

"The thought of walking where someone hasn’t walked in a long time or maybe never seems to be magical and special.  And also there’s a little bit of the aspect of can I hike off trail with a 45 pound pack? The challenge of it is part of the attraction too."

That complete break from everyday life is a big draw for these volunteers.  But they also say they like helping with the wolf-moose study.

Ann Schumacher and her daughter Kelsey came out here from upstate New York.

"You never know, a bone we pick up might make a huge difference ten years from now that may really change things and help.  It’s a small way to be part of something really big."

The three crews on this trip found 18 dead moose.

Biologist Rolf Peterson says people from all over the world have joined Moosewatch.  Military veterans, engineers, railroad workers, even professional models.

"We rely completely on those volunteers to come every year.  They cover hundreds of miles and weeks and weeks of effort we could never do any other way."

After a week in the woods... the Moosewatch volunteers gather at Rolf and Candy Peterson’s cabin. They eat a hot meal and show off their scars.  Then... the Petersons and the group leaders stand up and serenade us:

"Bone, bone, ain't it great to do Moosewatch... bone, bone, ain't it great to do Moosewatch..."

You can watch the volunteers slog through the forest in our online video.