Nearly a hundred years ago a small animal that most people have never heard of was wiped out of the northern forest. In the mid-1980’s, wildlife biologists reintroduced the pine marten in two locations in the Lower Peninsula. They thought the population would take off and spread but it hasn’t. And now researchers are trying to find out why.
The pine marten is the smallest predator in the northern forest. It’s a member of the weasel family… related to otters and ferrets. It weighs roughly two to two-and-a half pounds, has big furry ears, a pointed nose, a bright orange patch on its chest and a bit of a temper.
“I don’t know how big of an animal they would take on but they do have a reputation for being quite fierce.”
Jill Witt is a wildlife biologist with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. She has a marten caught in a wire cage tucked next to a fallen log, half buried in twigs and leaf litter.
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.
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?
There's been a spate of black bear sightings in West Michigan over the past few days with at least one birdfeeder as a casualty.
Residents in Greenville, about 25 miles northeast of Grand Rapids, saw a bear wandering around a residential neighborhood and sightings have also been reported in nearby Lowell and Vergennes Township this week.
Wildlife authorities with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources don't know if it's the same bear being spotted, or more than one.
Bear sightings in general in many parts of the Lower Peninsula have become more common over the past few years.
[Bump] said a lot of the time, the bears are young males that get pushed out during the breeding season. They’ll head down looking for new territory.
“It’s not that we’re completely full up in the north – it can’t take one more bear – it’s just that we’re getting more taking the chance and moving south.”
He said bears like to travel along rivers and forested corridors and they appear to be finding good routes to travel...
Bump said some female bears appear to be moving south too. And some might be setting up camp... and having babies.
“We think we have an established population now as far down as Grand Rapids, possibly into Ionia County. We're getting more and more reports of bears in southern Michigan, even bears that are too young to have moved, so they had to have been produced in southern Michigan.”
This past February, Williams and producer Mark Brush got the chance to tag along with MDNR biologists in Oceana County as they tranquilized a black bear to replace a radio tracking collar.
Now that the warm weather is here, the collared bear is likely loping around in search of food.
You can see the bear in a deep sleep in the video below.
In terms of hotspots for giant, bipedal ape-men, Michigan might not come to mind, especially compared to states in the Pacific Northwest. But the mitten state is not without its share of alleged Bigfoot sightings.
According to the Detroit News, some high-profile Bigfoot hunters are paying visit to Michigan with camera crew in tow, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive cryptid.
From the News:
Producers from the Animal Planet TV program "Finding Bigfoot" have been filming in the Houghton Lake area this week, looking for signs of Sasquatch.
Phil Shaw, a member of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, said there have been more than 130 Bigfoot sightings in almost every county in Michigan.
The episode including the Michigan investigation is set to air sometime this summer, the Detroit News reports.
So far, the research is showing a somewhat surprising result: that coyotes are a top predator of fawns in parts of the western UP.
From the Grand Rapids Press:
...what researchers found this past winter, the third year of a western U.P. deer mortality study, is that coyotes were the No. 1 predator followed by bobcats. Wolves came in fourth after a three-way tie among hunters, unknown predators and undetermined causes.
“I was somewhat surprised to see coyotes play as large a role in fawn predation as they did...,” said Jerry Belant, an associate professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at Mississippi State University.
It may feel like it's already summer outside but that didn't stop a little piece of the arctic from visiting central Michigan.
After several days of sightings in and around the town of Portland, just northwest of Lansing, local authorities captured a loose arctic fox as he woke from a nap on a baseball diamond.
The fox's origin is unclear but aside from being about 1,000 miles south of its natural habitat, local law enforcement believes it must have been a domesticated pet based on its friendly demeanor, the Lansing State Journal writes.
From the LSJ's Tom Thelen:
“We were receiving calls about it for about a week,” said Portland police chief Bob Bauer. “People were seeing at in various parts of the city...We believe that it either escaped or was turned loose,” said Bauer. “It was not afraid of anyone. In fact, it would coming running out to people and some of them were scared by the way it ran up to them.”
Thelen reports that authorities found an owner of another arctic fox in nearby Lake Odessa who agreed to care for the captured animal.
LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan's new hunting program for children will start this year, with licenses on sale starting March 1.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced Friday that the Michigan Natural Resources Commission approved the program aimed at introducing children under the age of 10 to hunting and fishing.
A recent law eliminated the minimum hunting age, allowing kids under 10 to hunt with an adult who's at least 21 years old. Under the rules for the new youth program, the adult must have previous hunting experience and possess a valid Michigan hunting license.
A Mentored Youth Hunting license will cost $7.50. Details about hunting rules are posted on the DNR's website.
As of last Friday, wolves in Michigan are no longer a federally protected “endangered species.”
On December 21, 2011 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced in Washington that Gray wolf populations in the Western Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin have exceeded recovery goals and are stable enough to be removed from the Endangered Species List.
Snowy owls typically live in the northern reaches of the arctic tundra.
Living year round in the arctic shows how tough these birds are.
But this year they've been traveling south in search of food.
The owls have been spotted in states such as Massachusetts, Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
To see where they've been spotted in Michigan, click on the slides above for a Google Map.
So why are they flying down here?
Biologists think the growth in Snowy owl sightings around the U.S. is due to a drop in the owl's main prey in the Arctic - lemmings. Lemmings go through boom and bust periods, and right now, lemming numbers are probably down, so the owls are scrounging around here for rodents, rabbits, fish, or any other suitable food source.
Similar cycles occur with other birds of prey.
The Great Gray owl, which normally keeps to northern Canada forests, has been known to fly south when its food is in short supply.
Reporter David Sommerstein produced a story on Great Gray sightings in a piece he did for the Environment Report back in 2005.
It was a year the owls were flying south and was one of the biggest Great Gray owl migrations on record.
The U.S. Interior Department announced today gray wolf populations in the Great Lakes region have recovered and no longer require the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
They will lose their federal protection as of January 27, 2012.
From a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release:
"Gray wolves are thriving in the Great Lakes region, and their successful recovery is a testament to the hard work of the Service and our state and local partners," said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. "We are confident state and tribal wildlife managers in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin will effectively manage healthy wolf populations now that federal protection is no longer needed."
The Associated Press reports that Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Rodney Stokes says "the change will give state officials more flexibility to deal with problem wolves and make people more supportive of having the predators in their midst."
Wisconsin officials will issue permits allowing landowners to control "problem wolves" on their property.
The wolf population in Michigan has been growing. Michigan DNR estimates put it at more than 650 animals for 2010-2011. The number was around 430 wolves in 2004-2005.
Wolves in the western Great Lakes region have been taken off the Endangered Species List before, and conservation groups have successfully sued the federal government to put them back on the list.
Now, the Associated Press reports western Great Lakes wolves will be delisted again.
From the AP:
The Obama administration is taking gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region off the federal endangered species list.
The Associated Press obtained a Wednesday statement in which Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the more than 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have exceeded recovery goals and no longer need federal protection.
Responsibility for managing and protecting those wolves will be turned over to state wildlife agencies. The populations will be monitored for at least five years to make sure they remain at sustainable levels.
The Interior Department also says it's reconsidering a previously announced plan to remove endangered species protections for wolves in 29 Eastern states, even though they aren't believed to have any established wolf populations. Officials say they'll decide on the status of Eastern wolves later.
State officials say they're prepared for federal delisting. The state of Michigan has a wolf management plan.
Once management is turned over to the state, people would have more flexibility in killing "problem wolves." From Bob Allen's report on The Environment Report:
The plan would give people the authority to defend against attacks on their pets and livestock, and it would allow them to cull wolves in places where they’re putting a lot of pressure on deer.
The current state management plan does not call for a hunting season on wolves. It would take an act of the state legislature to make a hunt a reality.
Black bears have been doing well in northern Michigan for a while. There are somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 bears in the state, mostly in the U.P. and the northern lower peninsula, but in recent years, bears have been on the move.
Some people are already getting a little closer to bears than they’d like to.
“There’s one coming up to inspect...”
Terry Klein is a commercial beekeeper and he’s checking on the hives in his backyard.
“These are in good shape if they’re that far down and there’s that much honey on them,” said Klein.
He lives in St. Charles. It’s about 20 miles southwest of Saginaw.
“This spring is the most recent fun we had with the bear, if you want to call it that.”
Klein had 20 hives set up near the Saginaw-Midland county line. Only two of them survived the winter. And those last two hives were the ones the bear decided to eat. He left behind a calling card.
“There was one very definite paw print in one of the frames that had fallen or got knocked out of the hive, and there were several other frames that you could see claw marks.”
Bears do love honey, but they also love to eat the bee larvae. So they can devour the entire hive.
Black bears are not just wandering into the Saginaw area. They’ve been showing up all over southern Michigan.
Colder weather means squirrels are looking for indoor homes and places to cache their food. Some are more aggressive in establishing their indoor domiciles than others.
From the Associated Press:
Officials at Consumers Energy are blaming a squirrel for knocking out electrical service to about 10,000 customers yesterday in the Grand Rapids area. The critter managed to get into a piece of equipment at a substation, briefly knocking out power.
LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan wildlife biologists say two deer in Cass County have been diagnosed with an often-fatal viral disease.
The deer tested positive for epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD.
The Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday the disease is transmitted by a biting fly. It causes extensive bleeding. Infected deer lose their appetite and fear of humans, grow progressively weaker, develop a high fever and finally lose consciousness.
It's not believed that humans can get EHD.
DNR wildlife chief Russ Mason says there is no known way to treat or control the disease. Michigan has had several deer die-offs from EHD as far back as 1955. The latest covered six counties last year.
Mason says outbreaks are happening more frequently, possibly because climate change is driving the biting flies farther north.
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Yellowstone National Park officials say a grizzly bear killed a 59-year-old Michigan man whose body was found by hikers last week.
The victim was identified Monday as John Wallace of Chassell, Mich.
Wallace's body was discovered along a trail about five miles from the nearest trailhead. Results of an autopsy released Monday concluded Wallace died as a result of traumatic injuries from a bear attack.
It is the second time a visitor to the park has been killed by a bear this year.
Last May, the federal government proposed dropping gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region off the endangered species list... again.
The public comment period on that proposal ended July 5, but now the federal agency in charge of the Endangered Species Act wants to open the comment period back up.
The reason? They want to get their scientific history right.
The federal government historically had the gray wolf ranging in 48 states.
But in all or parts of 29 eastern states there was actually a different wolf species - aptly named the "eastern wolf."
Scientists suspect the gray wolf species did not historically range in these 29 states.
In their proposal to de-list the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes region, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also proposed to revise the range of the gray wolf, and to establish the range of the eastern wolf.
the Service received significant comments from states and other stakeholders concerning North American wolf taxonomy. The Service is seeking all information, data, and comments from the public with respect to any new information relevant to the taxonomy of wolves in North America.
So if you want to weigh in on the taxonomic history of gray wolves and eastern wolves, you have 30 days to do so starting tomorrow.
What do a Lake Erie watersnake, a bald eagle, and an American alligator have in common?
They've all rebounded from the threat of extinction and no longer require the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
The only place these snakes are found in the world is on the western edge of Lake Erie in Canada and Ohio.
The snakes were listed as threatened in 1999 because of habitat loss and because humans often killed them.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the tide has turned for the watersnake. The Service published a rule in the Federal Register today delisting the species. From a USFWS press release:
Recovery criteria include a combined population of at least 5,555 snakes on the U.S. islands, sustained for six years, and protection of key habitat.
Through continued habitat protection and public education, the Lake Erie watersnake population grew to about 11,980 in 2009, and has exceeded the minimum recovery level since 2002. About 300 acres of inland habitat and 11 miles of shoreline have been protected for the snake since it was listed.
The snake biologists don’t just look under rocks. They dive into the lake for snakes. They sneak up on piles of snakes and then grab the whole writhing mass.
The snakes bite. The researchers' arms are covered in snakebites. The bites aren't life threatening, but they're really, really bloody. And then it comes to the job at hand. The biologists are going to force the snakes' stomach contents out. They call it "barfing the snakes."
And what were they barfing up? Mostly round gobies - an invasive species. So here is a case where native species are taking a bite out of an invasive species' population.
The Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe did an episode on the job of a Lake Erie watersnake researcher in 2006 (the snakes poop, pee, bite, and release a musky smell when they're caught).
You can watch Rowe drop to his knees and get chomped on by a Lake Erie watersnake at about 6:20 in this video:
The snakes are still listed as endangered by the state of Ohio, so killing them is still illegal under state law... no matter how much they bite you.
Allen reported that the return of the gray wolf in the U.P. more than 20 years ago didn't cause concern, but that's changed in the last few years as some hunters are convinced wolves are decimating the white tail deer population.
Coyotes have been moving into a lot of American cities. Here in Michigan, you could potentially see coyotes almost anywhere. But researchers don't know a whole lot about the state’s urban coyotes.
A small research team from Wayne State University hopes to change that. They're trying to figure the animals out. They want to find out how many coyotes are living in cities. And they want to know what they’re eating, and how they survive.
A few weeks ago, one day just after dawn, I met up with the research team at the side of a road in Oakland County. We crossed the road to get to a grassy, undeveloped piece of land. The group fanned out to look for evidence of coyotes... that is: tracks, and scat.
The Michigan DNRE has been trying to reduce their population in the state for decades. By reducing Mute swan numbers, state wildlife officials hope to allow more room for native birds, such as Loons and Trumpeter swans (the USFWS says Mute swans were brought to the U.S. more than 100 years ago as "decorative waterfowl" for parks, zoos, and estates).
Barbara Avers is a waterfowl specialist with the DNRE. She says mute swans are not native to the U.S. – they were brought over from Europe in the 1800's. Basically, because they’re pretty.
“They’ve grown exponentially in Michigan. They’re kind of many times the bullies of the marsh.”
Avers says mute swans eat a huge amount of vegetation in lakes. They can push out native birds, such as the trumpeter swan. And she says mute swans can snap and charge at people.
“Routinely each year we get reports of mute swan attacks on land, and kayakers, people on jet skis, people out fishing in a boat, and what we see is as mute swan population grows so do the number of conflicts we see.”
Crews are still out on the Kalamazoo River cleaning up oil from last summer’s spill. More than 840,000 gallons spilled from a ruptured pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners, LP. Right now, crews are focusing on cleaning the contaminated soil.
It’s not clear what the long term impacts will be on wildlife.
After the spill, rescue teams collected more than 2,400 birds, mammals, fish and reptiles... and took them to a rehab center to have the oil cleaned off. Most of the animals brought into the center survived.
The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting "a bizarre scene evolving along the Chicago lakefront."
Geese and mallard ducks are apparently gulping down thousands of dead fish that are in the ice or floating in the open water around the ice.
The paper quotes Lake Michigan Program biologist Dan Makauskas who says:
"Gizzard shad are pretty sensitive. On the toughness scale, [they] are pretty soft."
Some biologists attribute the die-off to lower oxygen levels because of ice cover around the lakefront.
Former Muskegon Chronicle reporter Jeff Alexander wrote about a gizzard shad die-off on Mona Lake in Muskegon County back in 2008.
That die-off was attributed to a hard winter as well. From Alexander's report:
Gizzard shad die-offs are common in several area lakes. The fish often die during winter as ice cover decreases oxygen levels in the water; the fish also die from thermal shock when the lake warms up rapidly in the spring, said Rich O'Neal, a fisheries biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Gizzard shad are members of the herring family and are native to the Great Lakes.