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 Wolves and Moose on Isle Royale

UMD Students Get an Up-Close Look

Field Interpretation Class

For the past several years, Tom Beery, instructor in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, takes a field interpretation class on a May term trip to the Isle Royale National Park, one of the most remote and least-visited of the nation's national parks. The class has to drive northeast, practically to Canada, and then take a boat over to the island, across 15 miles of icy-cold Lake Superior water. Left photo (l-r): Tom Beery, Amalia Christgau, Leah Carlson, Emily Demmer, Ben Wagner, Rianna Reiter, Raphael Tiller, Sean Curry. Right photo, the moose has rubbed its hide raw to get rid of the ticks.

“It’s an incredible laboratory,” Beery said. “Because it is so isolated, it is ideal for the study of animal populations. It’s almost impossible for animals to come and go.” The unique situation prompted the United Nations to designate Isle Royale as an International Biosphere Reserve, giving it global scientific and educational significance.

One class requirement is that students keep a daily journal. They backpack and camp, traveling from one end of the island to the other, studying many aspects of Isle Royale: the migrating songbirds, the boreal forest, wildflowers, cultural landscape relics, and physical landforms. They learn about Native American history, copper mining, commercial fishing, and shipping. In addition, they study the one of the more fascinating topics, the wolf-moose dynamic of the island.

Wildlife Surveys

Ben Mattila, a UMD senior from Hudson, Wisconsin, took the field interpretation class last year. “We learned a lot about the interaction between wolves and moose from Rolf Peterson and his wife, Candy.” Peterson, a Michigan Tech wildlife biologist, has directed annual surveys for the National Park Service since 1970. As part of the study, Peterson tries to find the bones of every moose that has died, as an additional way of tracking population cycles. The couple spend summers in a tiny, rustic 1926 cabin on the island and return to Houghton during the academic year. The cabin is named the Bangsund Cabin in honor of the Norwegian family that used the site during the commercial fishing era. “All around the cabin are natural things from the island,” said Mattila. We got to see the bones that Peterson studies. He showed us what he can learn about diseases, nutrition, and age of moose, just from looking at the bones." Peterson notes where he finds moose bones. Recently, one moose skeleton was found at the bottom of a cliff. "That discovery might mean the moose was trying to reach food, indicating a vegetation shortage,” said Beery.

Campsite Visitor

Not long after visiting the Petersons, the field interpretive class got their own dose of experiential learning. A yearling moose wandered into their campsite. (See the pictures above taken by Ben Mattila).

Mattila noticed the patched of missing hair from the moose’s hide. “They get so many ticks in warm winters, they rub their hide raw to try and get rid of them,” he said. “That leaves them weak and vulnerable.”

“Other things became clear to us,” said Beery. “The moose wasn’t afraid because we were at a campsite. That may be because wolves stay away from the smell of humans and moose are comfortable when they don’t smell wolf. Also, after one year of following their mother and siblings, yearling moose are chased away as mom prepares to give birth once again. This one might have missed its mother because it seemed to want to follow us around.”

The moose visitor brought home many more of the lessons learned by this intensive study of wolves and moose. Isle Royale provides an almost perfect natural laboratory for the study of predator (wolves) and prey (moose). Biologists believe wolves walked across lake ice to Isle Royale about 50 years ago. Moose are thought to have arrived earlier, probably around 1900, by swimming from the Canadian mainland. Moose populations since Isle Royale research began have ranged from a high of 3,000 to a current low of about 450. About 30 wolves live in three packs on the island.

Wolves take out the old, injured, sick, and the young moose, and that has a direct impact on the moose population. The numbers of wolves to moose goes up and down depending on the severity of the winters and summers, the birth rate, disease, and most importantly, the availability of vegetation for food.

Antlers and the Peterson's cabin

Learning from the Island

On the 2005 UMD trip, the group never saw a wolf but they heard them at night and they saw fresh wolf tracks. “It never felt like a classroom, but we learned so much,” Mattila said. “It was amazing just to stand at a prehistoric mining site, or see where a Norwegian fishing village once stood. There’s nothing like it. When we hiked, we walked into untouched wilderness.”

Mattila still has his journal from the trip. He flipped through it and found the record of the night he slept in a hammock. “I woke up and there was fog everywhere and I heard a barred owl,” he said. “It sounded like it was all around the camp. Really eerie and magical.”

Beery’s field interpretation class fills early. He’ll take another group in May, 2006 to Isle Royale, to experience all of the different aspects of the location, but especially to learn about wolves and moose from the longest-running study of a wildlife population in the world.

About the Environmental Education 5343 class:

Written by Cheryl Reitan. April 14, 2006

UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830

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