The Spirit of Isle Royale, Part 3: Learning from Nature

TV6′s Elizabeth Peterson spent a week on the island and spoke with researchers about the moose/wolf study
TV6's Elizabeth Peterson spent a week on the island and spoke with researchers about the wolf/moose study
Updated: Jun. 16, 2021 at 8:12 AM EDT
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ISLE ROYALE, Mich. (WLUC) - Isle Royale is home to the longest predator, prey study in the world.

Scientists have been studying the moose and wolves on the island since 1958. The program which began at Purdue University is now run through Michigan Tech University. The question at the core of the study seems simple, how does nature work? But the complexity of the answer, found perhaps only here in an ecosystem so rare and untouched - well, it’s been over 70 years and that question remains.

“I think it’s the anticipation of what is going to happen next,” said Rolf Peterson, “because even after 60 years of annual monitoring, we really cannot predict the future very well at all.”

Peterson has been studying wolves and moose on Isle Royale since 1970 when he began as a graduate student in the program. Today he runs the project, studying data collected in the air and on the ground.

“The moose are at a very, very high level,” added Peterson, “almost second highest they’ve ever been, well in the last 70 years.”

Estimates right now set the moose population at 1,800 to 1,900. It’s so high, researchers say, the moose are dying of malnutrition. They’re basically starving as the vegetation on the island can’t keep up.

“They can eat up to 30 pounds of vegetation a day,” said Sarah Hoy, “particularly in the summertime. And so when you have about 1,800 moose on the island, and they’re eating that much every day, obviously that can have really big impacts on the forests.”

And here’s where a bit of mystery comes into play. The National Park Service reintroduced wolves on Isle Royale in 2018, after the population had fallen to just two, a father and daughter, unable to re-produce. At last count there were 12-14 wolves, but the pandemic kept researchers from counting wolves last year.

“In the winter we count them,” said Peterson. ‘We literally find them by finding tracks in the snow, until we see them. And then we count them.”

A litter of pups was confirmed last summer but how many exist today? How many new litters have there been? How many pups have survived? Are packs forming? And what does that look like? There are more questions than answers right now, but one thing is for certain, the wolves are starting to make an impact.

“They are just getting their feel rolling and their teeth working,” said Peterson. “They’re starting to take, especially calf moose, so that cuts into the growth potential of the moose population.”

Information they know because of volunteers who spend time on the island searching for moose bones, it’s a program that’s been running since 1988.

“Spring groups do better,” said volunteer Erik Freeman, “my group had 10 last week, so it was an awesome week.”

Ten sites of moose remains that tell a bigger story. The teeth offer information on age and the time of death. Their bones tell researchers about disease and nutrition. It’s citizen research at its finest and it’s work vital to the mission.

“The research methods have changed a little now that we have GPS technology, we can see places where the wolves have been visiting repeatedly,” said volunteer LynneAnne Vesper, “now we’re a lot more methodical about where we look.”

There’s an excitement on the island right now among researchers, the wonder of what happened this past year, the events that are sure to unfold over the next year and the lessons from nature it will all provide.

“We hope to constantly be redefining our understanding of how nature works,” added Peterson, “particularly predators and prey, particularly the wolf.

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