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."
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."
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.