I've long wanted to visit Isle Royale National Park. The mix of rock and forest surrounded by Lake Superior has intrigued me for many years, as has the park's resident wolf and moose populations.
Some think wolves reached the island in the 1940s during one of the winters when the lake waters surrounding Isle Royale froze solid and provided a bridge to the mainland. By 1958, wildlife biologists realized this provided the perfect setting for prey-predator studies, and Durward Allen launched the initial study of the park's wolves and moose.
Throughout 2008 park officials will be celebrating the 50th consecutive year of wolf-moose studies -- a mark of longevity no other prey-predator study has matched -- with a series of talks, programs, and commemorative books and posters.
“The anniversary is a fantastic opportunity to get kids excited about science and to inform the public about wolves, moose, conservation of natural resources and the conduct of scientific research, ” says Phyllis Green, Isle Royale's superintendent.
Watching the interplay of wolves and moose these days are Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, population biologists at Michigan Tech’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. They do aerial and ground observations in summer and winter, collect moose and wolf bones to analyze, and study vegetation, climate, air and water contaminants, and other environmental factors, according to a joint release from Michigan Tech and the National Park Service.
“Although wolves and moose are in the spotlight, this study has implications for understanding the broader components of an ecosystem,” says Peterson, who has headed the Isle Royale wolf-moose study since 1976.
The primary lesson learned from this long-running study is that wildlife systems are complex, unpredictable and dynamic by nature, and they are influenced by a large number of environmental factors, says Vucetich. “The data collected in the Isle Royale study provide a historical perspective that is very different from isolated snapshots of 5- or 10-year periods,” he explains. Collection of thousands of moose bones over decades, for example, enabled scientists to assess the levels of mercury and lead accumulation in bones prior to and after changes in clean air regulations.
How long this research will continue is hard to say, as climate change could bring it to a halt sooner than biologists would prefer. Moose are not comfortable under increasingly warmer temperatures, and could move north off the island if year-round temperatures at Isle Royale grow too warm.