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 Wolf-Moose Study Celebrates 50 Years

Sarah Brengman
Sean Curry
Nicole Vander Heiden

A Living Classroom:
Isle Royale and the Wolf-Moose Study

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the world’s longest ongoing wildlife research project – the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study. This study has yielded up considerable data on the predator-prey relationship and their interdependency. But a closer look reveals that the island has also had a significant impact on many of the researchers who have explored its terrain.

Tom Beery, an instructor at UMD, has used Isle Royale as a classroom for a field-based Environmental Education course since 2003. “I started going to this island for recreational purposes,” said Beery. “Like most visitors, I got interested in the wolf-moose study. But the more you probe, the more you realize it goes way beyond animal population studies. It’s about your human relationship with this place. . . . the strong bonds we form with wild places in America.”

Over the past five years numerous UMD students, including Sarah Brengman, Sean Curry, and Nicole Vander Heiden, have traveled to Isle Royale to immerse themselves in the beauty of the island and learn more about the wolf-moose project. Like Beery, each was captivated by Isle Royale and each found their lives enriched by their experiences there.

Isle Royale and the Wolf-Moose Study

Isle Royale is located in northern Lake Superior and is part of Michigan. The island is approximately 45 miles long by eight miles wide. Isle Royale was designated a national park in 1931, and in 1976, it was further protected with wilderness designation.

The first moose arrived on Isle Royale in about 1900. The wolves arrived sometime in the late 1940’s. Most likely each group reached the island when an ice bridge temporarily connected it with the mainland, although it is possible that the moose swam there. The population of each species has fluctuated over the years. Disease and climate changes have contributed to these fluctuations. In 2007, it was estimated that there were about 650 moose and about 24 grey wolves (divided into four packs) living on Isle Royale.

The wolf–moose study was started in 1958 by Durward Allen of Purdue University. The project is now headed by Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, both of Michigan Technological University's School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. UMD, in partnership with Michigan Technological University and Isle Royale National Park, have established the Isle Royale Institute. UMD Professor John Pastor has joined Peterson to conduct research on the island.

In addition to Tom Beery’s course work, the UMD Outdoor Education undergraduate program has placed three students in internship roles on the island over the past two years. The UMD Recreation Sports Outdoor Program has also recently begun using the park as a site for outdoor recreation.

A Living Classroom

Sarah Brengman is a fifth year student in Teaching Life Sciences with an Environmental Education concentration. This past May, she and nine other students went to Isle Royale as part of Tom Beery’s Field Interpretation course. Field interpretation draws from a number of disciplines in order to better understand a site. Brengman studied both the natural history of Isle Royale as well as its cultural history. “It’s pulling all the pieces about a place to create a story or stories about why things are the way they are,” Brengman said.

As they backpacked around the island, Brengman recalled how each student was expected to present on a particular topic. Her topic was the ecology of the boreal forest. In addition, each student had a bird to report on. If the bird was spotted or its call heard, it was “stop and go – report on your bird,” Brengman laughed. “The class was really cool. Tom wasn’t the only instructor,” she said.

Nicole Vander Heiden examines Peterson's collection of moose skulls and antlers

Nicole Vander Heiden is a senior in Outdoor Education. She has been to Isle Royale twice. The first time was in May 2007 with Tom Beery’s class, then in August 2008 when she helped lead a Recreation Sports Outdoor Program for freshman UMD students. This seven-day program was designed to introduce new students to the outdoor programs that are available at UMD. They also did activities to address student’s concerns and anxieties about college life. “We did an activity called Fears in a Hat,” she said. Freshmen wrote down their biggest fears about college and put them into hat. Then one at a time, the fear was discussed and the students given practical advise from upper classmen and administrators who know UMD.

Sean Curry, a second year graduate student in Environmental Education has been to the island three times. The first time was with Tom Beery’s class in 2005. During the summers of 2007 and 2008, Curry actually lived and worked on the island. Much of his time was spent educating visitors about Isle Royale. This included important Leave No Trace information. “Education helps people find a link or connection to the island,” Curry said.

Brengman, Curry and Vander Heiden agree that they were fortunate to come from families that appreciated the outdoors. As a girl, Vander Heiden recalled that she would “rather be playing outside than inside.” Camping was a regular activity for all three. Curry, who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, remembered times spent fishing, hunting “and running loose in farm fields.” Each student is keenly aware, however, that not every child grows up being exposed to nature.

The three students are very passionate about educating young people about the natural world around them and why it is important to help preserve it. Brengman, who wants to teach at the high school level, plans to bring her students outdoors so that they can truly develop a connection to nature. “By not having a connection, its hard for them to care,” Brengman said. She believes that once they begin to care, “they begin to problem solve.”

All three students are drawn to various scientific aspects of the wolf-moose study. And while each can talk about what moose antlers tell researchers about the age and health of a moose or about rising and falling wolf pack numbers, it is their personal stories that make it all come alive.

Vander Heiden said that she would always remember meeting up with an Earthwatch group that had collected moose bones as part of the wolf-moose study. “They showed us all the thing that they had found. They really enjoy collecting. It’s like a big hide-and-go-seek game for them,” she laughed.

Brengman described her amazement at seeing a moose standing in a bog. Curry recalled the thrill of listening to wolves howl. “It was so cool. . . . One would start and then another,” he said. When he worked on the island, Curry used a story-telling program to educate visitors about the wolf packs on Isle Royale.

The students understand that statistics are important, but ultimately they know it’s the stories that capture the heart, engage the mind and help us to love places that are so wild.

A Wolf-Moose Celebration

Join the Isle Royale Wolf–Moose Study Celebration November 5, 6 and 7 when a variety of events will highlight Isle Royale’s role in biological research, environmental education, and outdoor recreation. All programs are free and open to the public.

Wednesday, November 5:

Noon – 1:00 p.m., Filmmaker George Desort in Viz Lab will discuss the art and science of filmmaking in the wilderness.

4:00 – 5:00 p.m., Michael Nelson presents "Aldo Leopold on Wilderness, Science, and the Preservation of Nature" in SpHC 212. Nelson is a leading wilderness scholar and leads wilderness ethics courses on Isle Royale.

7:30 p.m., National Park Service Family Assembly at Hartley Nature Center, 3001 Woodland Avenue. Engaging wolf-moose science for all ages. A moose skeleton and a wolf skeleton will be on display. (Features UMD’s Sean Curry)

Thursday, November 6:

7:00 p.m., Duluth premier of Fortunate Wilderness, with filmmaker George Desort at the Marshall Performing Arts Center at UMD. This film captures the visuals of the wolf-moose research on Isle Royale and features original music by Duluth band, Low. To view the trailer, visit

Friday, November 7:

10:00 – 11:00 a.m., Carolyn Peterson presents Isle Royale: Lessons in Nature and Spirit in Boh H 112. Peterson has been a part of the Moose Wolf research for 35 years and has developed a deep relationship with Isle Royale based on her keen observations of the natural world, her efforts in raising a family in the wilderness and her intense involvement in the on-going research. Peterson has recently written a book about her experiences, A View from the Wolf's Eye.

Noon -1:00 p.m., Michael Nelson presents American Indian Ethics Meets Wolf Moose Research in the Fourth Floor Library Rotunda. Nelson describes his presentation . . . Why do some believe that American Indians possessed a good and inclusive environmental ethic while some believe the exact opposite? How do we decide the extent of someone's or some group's ethical commitments to the environment? Finally, how does the 50 years of work on the Isle Royale wolf-moose project influence environmental ethics? By exploring the fusion between questions of American Indian environmental ethics, the philosophy and ethics of Aldo Leopold, and the moral relevance of long-term research such as that done on wolves and moose on Isle Royale, we not only begin to unify some of our disparate interests but we also begin to glimpse a way to engage in ethical discourse and ultimately ethical remediation.

7:00 p.m., 50 years of Wolf-Moose Research, a public presentation by Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich at the Marshall Performing Arts Center at UMD. Come early. Information will be displayed at 5:30 p.m. from other regional wildlife and science organizations, including opportunities to buy books on Isle Royale from the Natural History Association.

For information about the Isle Royale Institute, visit

Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann,

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

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