The ongoing study of wolves and moose on Isle Royale in Lake Superior has hit a critical juncture. Researchers in charge of the longest continuous study of a predator-prey system anywhere in the world released their annual report today.
You can listen to today's Environment Report above.
It’s the 56th year of the study of Isle Royale’s wolves and moose. Researchers at Michigan Tech have just finished this year’s Winter Study.
Rolf Peterson is a research professor at Michigan Tech and he just spent his 44th winter on the island. I called him up to find out how the animals are doing. This year, the team counted nine wolves, up from eight last year.
“I guess I’d say they’re bumping along at the bottom, the bottom of where they’ve been for the last 56 years. So for the last three years, there have been either eight or nine animals total, and that’s as low as we’ve seen them.”
The ice bridge to Isle Royale has formed. See our post here.
Original post: January 9, 2014
Wolves first came to Isle Royale in Lake Superior by crossing an ice bridge in the late 1940s, but these ice bridges have not been forming as often in recent years and the wolf population on Isle Royale has been suffering as a result.
Times have changed. In Michigan we plan on killing wolves because some feel there are too many. It's a different story on Isle Royale where the wolf population is hanging on by a thread. But because Isle Royale National Park is a designated wilderness area, we, as humans, have pledged not to intervene. So what should we do? The National Park Service has a big decision to make. The folks who have been studying this place for a long time share their thoughts in this op-ed piece.
You can listen to today's Environment Report here or read an expanded version of the story below.
Wolves and moose fight for survival on Michigan's Isle Royale National Park. For more than 50 years, researchers have been closely watching them in the world’s longest-running study of predators and prey.
The number of predators on the island has been sinking fast.
The Park is a dedicated wilderness area, so managers do their best to keep it as untouched by humans as possible. But people might need to step in.
Phyllis Green is the park's superintendent. “At this point we’re concerned about the low levels of wolves on the island, but we’re also concerned about making sure the next steps we take are well-thought-out,” she says.
There are just eight wolves left on Isle Royale. This is the first year that Michigan Technological University researchers were unable to document any pups born to the wolves.
ISLE ROYALE, Mich. (AP) - Isle Royale National Park's gray wolves apparently don't have a gender gap after all.
Scientists reported last year that only nine wolves remained on the Lake Superior island chain - the lowest total in more than 50 years. They said just one was known to be a female, raising doubts about the predator's long-term prospects for survival in the wilderness park.
But Superintendent Phyllis Green said Thursday that genetic analysis of wolf excrement and additional observations suggest that four or five of the animals are females.
Even so, Green says the wolves' situation remains tenuous and experts are studying how climate change may affect them.
Michigan Technological University biologists are conducting their annual winter study at Isle Royale and are expected to release updated wolf and moose numbers next month.
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."
When you camp on Isle Royale, you don't necessarily have to sleep in tents.
You can sleep in a "camping shelter," which is basically an elevated, screened-in, wooden structure.
It can protect you from the elements and the bugs.
And based on our experience, it seems people have had some time on their hands waiting out storms in these shelters.
Park visitors have left messages on the walls - something we humans love to do - even long before we had Facebook walls to write on.
We were expecting profane, but we found inspiring, humorous, artistic, and messages describing their experiences while on Isle Royale. (O.k., there was a little profanity here and there. It is graffiti, after all.)
To see the messages, take a look at the slideshow above.
Some of our favorites:
"45 miles 8 days all w/diabetes! 2010"
A diagram showing you where to "BANG HEAD." It was surprisingly accurate. I hit my head on that low beam 5 or 6 times.
"Flight over for 3 - $625.00 - Gear and food - $300.00 - Spending my 50th birthday hiking with my daughter and son - priceless (50 miles) - JMR 8/2007"
"...My girlfriend says everything is my fault (it is)..."
"...Lots of rain, no bugs, probably going to have tapeworm. LIVING THE DREAM!"
"we came, we saw, we got eaten by giant, rabid, mutant squirrels! Help..."
Write on our walls! Tell us about your camping experiences around Michigan. The good. The bad. The unforgettable.
The wolf-moose research project on Michigan's Isle Royale National Park is in its 54th year.
A big chunk of their research goes into tracking down dead moose - bones and carcasses - around the island.
From these remains the researchers can pick apart the status and overall health of the moose population. And understanding moose is important to wolf research, since the wolves eat the moose.
It's like understanding the overall quality and quantity of food available at the grocery store. If there's good, abundant food available, you'd expect things to be good. If not, well - you get the picture.
When Rebecca Williams and I arrived at the Daisy Farm campground on Isle Royale, we were met by Rolf Peterson in his boat.
He said he'd just heard of a dead moose on Caribou Island and asked whether we would like to go see it with him.
A stroke of luck. We'd traveled by plane, car, and boat to get here, and here was our chance to see Peterson in action.
Here's a video of our trip with him. Is ripping the skull off a dead moose gross? I didn't think so, but you can be the judge.
So, what did you think? Vote by typing "gross" or "not gross" in the comment section below.
All this week, we’re visiting an island archipelago in Lake Superior. Isle Royale National Park is so remote you can only get here by ferry or seaplane. It's mostly wilderness. Cell phones don’t work here.
Wolves and moose have the run of the island. It’s an ideal place for people who study the big mammals.
"A nine month old calf. It looks like it might’ve just fallen down the rocky edge and never got up."
Rolf Peterson has come across a moose skeleton. Mourning cloak butterflies are lapping up sodium from the bones. With a yank and a twist, Peterson rips off the skull.
"I think it’s least disruptive if we just saw off the back leg."
Every bone tells a story. Peterson can tell how the moose lived and how it died. He can tell whether it fell and broke its ribs, whether it starved or was killed by wolves.
"We look for any abnormalities in any of the bones. And particularly, how big it was, what its early developmental history and nutritional history was, which is key to its adult health."
Over the past 54 years, researchers have collected more than 4,ooo moose skeletons on the island. The bones offer clues about the moose population – and about the wolves. Wolves got here by crossing an ice bridge from Ontario in the late 1940’s.
This study of wolves and moose is the longest running study in the world of a predator and its prey. Rolf Peterson has been involved for 42 years of the study. He’s been here through the brutal black fly summers and the harshest winters. He and his wife Candy live in an old fishing cabin on the island for much of the year.
Much of what the world knows about wolves and their behavior comes from the long term research taking place on Isle Royale.
For 54 straight years, humans have been closely watching the top predator here, wolves - and their favorite prey, moose.
Durward Allen from Purdue first started the study in 1958. It was originally designed as a ten-year project.
Rolf O. Peterson joined the project after it had been running for 12 years. And under Peterson's leadership at Michigan Tech, the project continued from there.
The film Fortunate Wildernessby George Desort takes a close look at the wolf-moose study on Isle Royale.
In it, Yellowstone wolf project leader Doug Smith said he can't imagine the science of ecology without the Isle Royale wolf-moose project.
"I think Isle Royale is the best example of how you need that long term work, because we're at a point now scientifically where everything is subtle. Everything is in the details," said Smith. "Things are changing rapidly too with threats like global warming and what not. And we need baselines."
Protected wolves of Isle Royale hanging by a thread
Rolf Peterson is now retired (Michigan Tech's John Vucitech now leads the project), but he's still an active "volunteer" as he describes it.
The research on Isle Royale has led to a better understanding of wolves, and how their presence helps put nature back in balance.
It has also helped to shift the public's attitude toward the predators.
Once hunted to near extinction, wolves are making a comeback in the West, Southwest, and the Upper Midwest.
But here on Isle Royale, the population has gone from a high of 50 animals in 1980, to just nine today.
Six wolves in the "Chippewa Harbor Pack,"
Two wolves in the "West-end Duo,"
and one lone wolf.
Here's Rolf Peterson describing the current state of the wolf population on Isle Royale. (In the video, Peterson mentions of the nine wolves left, there is only one female that is in a breeding situation. There is one other female wolf they know about, but she's not of breeding age yet.)
For some, the magic of Isle Royale doesn't necessarily reside in the boat trip to the island.
Two days before Rebecca Williams and I left on our reporting trip, a friend and I were having lunch together.
"You're not riding on the 'Barf Barge' are you?!"
"The boat from Copper Harbor?"
"Yeah, I took that trip. We were on Isle Royale for a week. The first half of the week, all we could talk about was the boat trip over. And the second half of the week, all we could talk about was the boat trip back!"
On her trip, as the ship pulled out of Copper Harbor, the captain came on the loudspeaker.
"O.k., folks," the captain started. "We have the forecast for our crossing. And I just want to say... we're all in this together. We can get through this."
The snack bar was not open on that crossing.
But the snack bar was open for our trip.
The seas got a little rough (I saw a few eight footers roll by). And a trip to the restroom wasn't a straight walk to the door. You had to ping-pong yourself from table, to wall, to other passenger (excuse me), to the door.
Emergency cups and plastic grocery bags were deployed by some, but their "green-around-the-gills" condition didn't spread throughout the cabin.
The owners of the Isle Royale Line from Copper Harbor tell me the round-bottomed "Barf Barge" was retired in 2004. Their new boat, the Isle Royale Queen IV, rolls a lot less in heavy seas, and the new boat cut an hour off the trip.
What once took around four hours, now takes around three.
To get a sense of the crossing, I mounted a time lapse camera near the bridge. So here's the 54 mile crossing in less than two minutes.
Cell phones don't work on the island. Senses that can be overwhelmed by a connected, electric lifestyle are freed to look up, and take in the wind, waves, rock, and soil.
What makes the Isle Royale so special? We asked the Isle Royale Line's retired Captain Donald Kilpela that question:
Kilpela first made the trip to Isle Royale in 1945. And he and his family have been running the ferry service in Copper Harbor since 1971. His sons Ben and Don Jr. now run the boat. The family has been crossing Lake Superior to Isle Royale every summer since they started the business.
Two other people who know the island well have spent a good part of their lives here.
Rolf Peterson has been studying the interactions of wolves and moose on Isle Royale for more than 40 years. He and his wife Candy spend around eight months of each year on the island, and they raised their two kids on Isle Royale while living in the tiny Bangsund Cabin.
Isle Royale became a National Park in 1940, and was designated as a wilderness area in 1976. Humans are not in control here. It's an ideal laboratory for Peterson and the other researchers studying wolves and moose here.
Much of what scientists around the globe know about wolves and their behavior comes from Michigan's Isle Royale. The research project here is the longest running continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world.
All this week, we'll bring you stories about this research and about the people who make it happen - online and on-air.
Isle Royale is the least visited National Park, but as Captain Kilpela pointed out, it's the most re-visited one.
Many of you have had your own personal experiences with the island. We invite you to share your experiences about Isle Royale in the comment section below. In six words or less - tell us - what's so special about Isle Royale?