Lessons from Isle Royale's Wolves and Moose

To find the northernmost point in Michigan, you have to take a boat or seaplane to Isle Royale.

The island is the largest in Lake Superior and it's also home to Michigan's only National Park.

The remoteness of the island, and the fact that the island is largely untouched by humans has made for a perfect place to watch nature take its course.

Michigan Radio's Rebecca Williams and Mark Brush traveled to Isle Royale to meet the researchers who have been watching how wolves and moose interact for 54 years. The research project is the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world.

What researchers have learned on this natural island laboratory has informed ecological science around the world.

The Environment Report
5:35 pm
Thu May 1, 2014

Wolves barely hanging on, moose "on vacation" on Isle Royale

Credit www.isleroyalewolf.org

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.”

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Environment & Science
5:48 pm
Fri March 14, 2014

Isle Royale wolf that crossed ice bridge was shot with pellet gun

"Isabelle" on the icy shoreline of Isle Royale before she crossed to the mainland.
Isle Royale Wolf Moose Study

A wolf that fled from Isle Royale National Park over an ice bridge was found dead on the Minnesota mainland last month.

Researchers were unsure how the wolf died at the time, but a necropsy found that the five-year-old female wolf was shot with a pellet gun.

Lee Berquist of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has more:

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Environment & Science
3:02 pm
Fri February 7, 2014

Ice bridge to Isle Royale is complete, will new wolves cross it?

Lake Superior on Feb. 4, 2014. Can you find the ice bridge to Isle Royale in this photo? It's there.
MODIS NASA

The last time I checked, the ice bridge to Isle Royale had not fully formed, but there's an ice bridge now.

Michigan Technological University's Rolf Peterson confirmed it in an e-mail to me last night.

"There's been a good ice bridge for the past 10 days."

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Environment & Science
1:38 pm
Thu January 9, 2014

Wolf researchers keeping an eye on a potential ice bridge to Isle Royale

The ice forming north of Isle Royale on Jan. 1, 2014.
MODIS NASA

Update: Friday, February 7, 2014

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.

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9:19 pm
Thu May 9, 2013

Should humans put more wolves on Isle Royale?

Lead in text: 
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.
IN Lake Superior lies a remote island, Isle Royale National Park, 134,000 acres of boreal and hardwood forests where a life-or-death struggle between wolves and moose has been the subject of the world's longest study of predators and their prey, now in its 55th year.
The Environment Report
11:36 am
Thu April 18, 2013

Decision time for Isle Royale, only 8 wolves left

Rolf Peterson, John Vucetich Michigan Tech

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.

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Environment & Science
8:08 pm
Thu February 21, 2013

Park revises 2012 Isle Royale female wolf total

Rolf Peterson, John Vucetich Michigan Tech

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.

Environment & Science
3:27 pm
Fri June 15, 2012

Romeo dies in an old mine: How three Isle Royale wolves died

"Romeo" was eager to mate with other females. He was one of the wolves that died in the mine shaft last fall. He's seen here following a female wolf in 2010.
Michigan Tech

In the last year, seven wolves on Isle Royale died. The total population is now down to nine wolves.

That's the lowest number recorded by researchers who have been studying the Isle Royale wolf population for the last 54 years. It's the longest continuous predator-prey study in the world.

When Rebecca Williams and I visited Rolf Peterson on Isle Royale last month, we asked him about the die-off.

He told us they didn't know what happened to them, "but we will know," he said.

Well, now they know how three of the seven wolves died. One was a young female wolf.

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Lessons from Isle Royale
2:51 pm
Fri June 8, 2012

Extinction of wolves could lead to extinction of study on Isle Royale

Rolf Peterson holds up the song sheet for the evening. Candy Peterson loves to get people singing. She says "people shouldn't say, 'I can't sing,' they should say 'I don't sing very often.'"
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

We've been posting radio pieces, videos, and blog posts all week as part of our series Lessons from Isle Royale's Wolves and Moose.

Researchers like Durwood Allen, and Michigan Tech's John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson have been keeping a close eye on the animals on the island for more than five decades.

Peterson has been doing it the longest. He's been watching and documenting things on Isle Royale for 42 years.

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Lessons from Isle Royale
9:20 am
Thu June 7, 2012

Volunteers hunt for moose bones on Isle Royale

Moosewatch volunteer Dave Beck holds up a marked antler. Team leader Jeff Holden looks on. They mark the antlers and hang them in a tree so others know the antler has been found and documented.
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

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.

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Lessons from Isle Royale
8:49 am
Thu June 7, 2012

VIDEO: Moosewatch volunteers slog through forest searching for bones

Moosewatch volunteers Susie Morrison (front), (L to R) Dave Beck, Pete Prawdzick, Jeff Holden (group leader), Dave Conrad, and Jeff Morrison.
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

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."

Lessons from Isle Royale
2:46 pm
Wed June 6, 2012

Messages from Shelter #10 on Isle Royale

A message from a visitor in shelter #10 on Isle Royale.
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

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.

Lessons from Isle Royale
9:00 am
Wed June 6, 2012

VIDEO: Picking apart a dead moose on Isle Royale

Wolf biologist Rolf Peterson taking us to the site of a moose carcass on Caribou Island. He and other researchers collect bones from dead moose as part of their research.
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

It's not as gross as it sounds. And if you heard yesterday's report from Rebecca Williams, it really does sound gross.

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.

Lessons from Isle Royale
9:00 am
Tue June 5, 2012

Watching the lives of wolves and moose unfold on Isle Royale

Rolf Peterson on Caribou Island, one of more than 450 smaller islands in the national park's archipelago.
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

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.

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Lessons from Isle Royale
8:30 am
Tue June 5, 2012

VIDEO: Isle Royale wolves "hanging by their teeth"

Rolf Peterson, John Vucetich Michigan Tech

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 Wilderness by 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.)

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Environment & Science
9:00 am
Mon June 4, 2012

What's so special about Isle Royale?

The Isle Royale Queen IV docked at Rock Harbor on Isle Royale.
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

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.

You can find all the stories we produce on our series page Lessons from Isle Royale's Wolves and Moose.

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?

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