To listen to the music of the wilderness, is to listen to the howl of the wolf. Man may never fully understand the composer, nor his passion behind each note, but the aura of mystery that surrounds him will forever fill our dreams with wonder and adventure. For centuries, wolves have carried their melodies on a small island in northern Lake Superior, known as Isle Royale. Completely cut off from the mainland, Isle Royale is extremely isolated, with only a handful of human structures and trails. The wolves who reside on the island are not alone, however, accompanied by a native of the cervidae family, the moose (Peterson).
Together, these two species, combined with the remote nature of Isle Royale, produce one of the most incredible ecological relationships in the world. Their lives deeply intertwined, the moose and wolves share a unique predator-prey relationship. The moose consume the raw flora of the island, and the wolves feed on the moose without competition from other predators. The distribution of both species is limited to the islands shores, which creates a highly controlled setting. Such an incredible scenario has drawn the attention of biologists and ecologists from around the world.
Beginning in 1958 and continuing to present day, the Isle Royale Research Project has intensively researched, documented, and monitored the interaction between the wolf and moose free of human presence (Peterson). The island is the perfect location for a study. In essence the island itself acts as a controlled laboratory, and the researchers can observe the interaction between the species away from human impact. To fully understand the relationship between the two species and the ecological study paralleling them, one must first understand the island and its history.
With a total area of 206 square miles, the Isle Royale archipelago reaches 45 miles long and 9 miles wide (Uhler). According to the National Park Service, lava flows nearly a billion years ago formed the island and the many ridges and valleys that characterize it. The climate of Isle Royale is very moderate in temperature range, with generally cool summers and warm winters (Allen 3). Nearly 80% of the island is aquatic environment, with hundreds of shallow lakes as well as numerous rivers and streams that fall to the rugged shorelines of Lake Superior (Uhler).
According to Durward Allan, Isle Royale is entirely forested, and in 1936 nearly 20% of it burned, giving way to regeneration of mostly Birch and Aspen trees that now dominate the island. Far before the European arrival to Isle Royale, the Chippewa Indians mined copper from the island’s bedrock (Uhler). Archaeologist have discovered evidence of these ancient mining pits dating back 4,500 years (Uhler). According to historical research conducted by the the National Park Service, Isle Royale fell under French possession in 1671, but switched hands to become an American territory in 1843.
During the 1800’s, mining and commercial fishing boomed, resulting in deforestation, development, and devastation to native fish populations (Allen 4). Throughout the 20th century Isle Royale became a popular location for summer homes and wilderness retreats (Uhler). In 1938, Detroit Journalist Albert Stoll began the campaign to bring Isle Royale under the title of National Park, and in 1940 succeeded in doing so (“Isle Royale National Park. ”). It is believed that in the early 1900’s, moose arrived to Isle Royale by swimming across Lake Superior from Canada (Vucetich 2).
In a predator free environment, the moose flourished for half a century, their populations rising and falling with food availability and weather conditions (Peterson 1). In a report written by John Vucetich, it is documented that wolves followed the moose to the island in 1949, via an ice bridge that formed during an especially cold winter (2). Isle Royale provided a perfect habitat for the moose, with heavy vegetation and excellent browsing availability (Allen 24). During the winter months as snow accumulates, moose turn to conifers for cover and moderate protection from the elements (Allen 25).
In spring and summer, moose live close to aquatic environments which provide safety and a vitally important source of sodium (Allen 25). The newly arrived wolves also found excellent habitat at Isle Royale. With an exploding moose population, the wolves found prey easy to locate and in great supply (Peterson). Another fortune of the wolves was the absence of other predators (Peterson). Unlike any other ecosystem the wolves had since taken part in, Isle Royale did not host mountain lions or bears.
The Isle Royale Moose-Wolf Study truly began in 1958 in a cooperative effort by the National Park Service and Purdue University (Allen 2). Durward Allen, a chief biologist at Purdue University, lead the study for the first 12 years accompanied by three of his graduate students (Peterson). In 1970, Rolf Peterson, a distinguished zoologist at Minnesota University, was brought into the study to aid in the growing task of researching the two populations (Allen 2). Over the course of the Study, Rolf and his wife Carolyn would become the two most instrumental researchers in the Isle Royale Moose-Wolf Study.
According to Durward Allen’s book on Isle Royale, after 1971 with the arrival of new funding by the National Park Service, the project was taken to a new level of both research and success. In 1983, the project acquired Don Glaser, a bush pilot who’s skills and resources allowed aerial censuses, research, and photography (Vucetich 6). According to Peterson, this addition greatly strengthened the accuracy and diversity of the project, allowing the researchers to both count individual animals from the sky as well as spot dens, diseased moose, and land features that divided wolf packs.
Ground observations were also taken but became difficult during the summer months as vegetation overcame the island. Carolyn Peterson in the late 1980’s began an intensive genetic encyclopedia of the Islands wolf packs and lineage, with information gathered through dead specimens as well as captured and recaptured wolves (Vucetich 4). As the study continued to expand and more information attained, the researches began making incredible discoveries on the interaction between wolves and moose. Patterns, behaviors, and cycles developed that were previously found no where else on the planet (Peterson).
To this day, the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study continues to relay outstanding information on the lives and drama of the two species. The study is currently in its 52nd year, and plans to terminate it are nonexistent (Peterson). Over the course of the project, researchers have made several distinct findings that have affected the ecological world dramatically. First, the study has shown that in a natural environment, without human presence, wolves and moose sustain each other’s populations to form a near perfect balance in the long term (Vucetich 12).
Second, wolves are extremely selective predators, taking only what they need, which generally equates to the young, old, or diseased moose (Peterson). Third, according to Rolf Peterson, is the fact that in short term fluctuations in moose abundance, wolves play the least important factor. Climatic factors as well as parasitic factors take a much more dramatic toll on moose in short fluctuations. Fourth and most important, as again claimed by Rolf Peterson, is the idea that the abundance of moose is directly related to the abundance of wolves, and vice-versa, in a human-free ecosystem.
In the 2011 Annual Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Report by John Vucetich, it is stated that there are currently 515 moose and only 16 wolves on the island, divided into two packs (9). Presently, the wolves of Isle Royale are being severely disabled by a population entirely inbred. As for the moose, they are currently recovering from a three year devastation by ticks, which nearly destroyed the population (Peterson). Over 52 years, the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study has made groundbreaking discoveries in the field of wildlife ecology.
It is the longest study of its kind, and has relayed vast amounts of unique information on the relationship between the wolves and moose in an environment void of human disruption.
Allen, Durward L. , ed. Wolf Ecology and Prey Relationships on Isle Royale. Illus. Frederick H. Montague, Gerhard C. Peterson, and Rolf Olin Peterson. 11th ed. Vol. 1. 1977. Washington D. C: Purdue University, 1977. 1 vols. National Park Service. Web. 2 May 2011. . “Isle Royale National Park. ” U. S National Park Service. National Park Service, 2011.
Web. 5 May 2011. . Peterson, Rolf. The Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Project: Fifty Years of Challenge and Insight. Ed. Michael P Nelson. N. p. : George Wright, 2008. George Wright Society. Web. 29 Apr. 2011. . Vucetich, John A. Ecological Studies of Wolves on Isle Royale. Houghton, Mi: Isle Royale National History Association, 2011. isleroyalewolf. org. Web. 2 May 2011. . Uhler, John William. “Isle Royale National Park Information Page. ” Isle Royale National Park Information Page. Page Makers, LLC, 2002. Web. 5 May 2011