Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Preparing to Live With Wolves

January 16, 2012
Isle Royale wolves chasing a bull moose. 
John A. VucetichIsle Royale wolves chasing a bull moose.
 
John Vucetich, a wildlife ecologist from Michigan Technological University, leads the wolf-moose Winter Study at Isle Royale National Park.

Monday, Jan. 9
It’s January. In my house, that means it’s time to pack our warmest winter undies and leave to live with the wolves and moose on Isle Royale.
Isle Royale is a remote wilderness island, isolated by the frigid waters of Lake Superior and home to a population of wolves and moose. As predator and prey, their lives and deaths are linked in a drama as timeless as it is historic. The struggle is historic because we have been documenting their lives for decades.

 
National Park Service
 
In a few days, we head to Isle Royale for the 54th consecutive winter observing these wolves and moose. This research is the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world.

Rolf Peterson – a blond, bearded Norwegian, as fit as he is observant – has been there every winter for more than four decades. A retired professor at Michigan Technological University, Rolf is the go-to expert on wolves and moose for scientists, conservation organizations and governments around the world. Don Glaser, our pilot, with more than 40,000 hours at the control stick, has also been to Isle Royale every winter for more than four decades. It really is all about the pilot, but more on that later. I’m the young fellow in the crowd. I began working on the project in my late teens as a field technician. After a decade of schooling, I began leading the project with Rolf at the turn of the century.
Tracks of a lone wolf catching up with his pack. 
John A. VucetichTracks of a lone wolf catching up with his pack.
 
For seven weeks we’ll live on Isle Royale, following the lives of wolves and moose in this remote wilderness. Sometimes is it cold enough to cause living tree trunks to split in the night. The snow can top the hip of a human, up to the chest on a wolf. Several times each winter the winds roar across the open waters of Lake Superior and strike the island in excess of 50 miles per hour. Moose are forced to bed down while snow drifts on their windward backsides.
But we’re prepared for the weather – a cabin heated by wood stove, stock-piled dry goods, water drawn from a hole in the ice of the protected harbor next to our cabin and a fire-stoked sauna where we bathe every few nights. Even the outhouse is equipped with a portable wooden toilet seat that lives next to the wood stove in the cabin, except when in use. And a small diesel generator permits some civilities, like satellite Internet, allowing us to share our adventures in learning.

“The Flagship” and its pilot, Don Glaser. 
John A. VucetichFrom the Flagship, piloted by Don Glaser, we make our observations of wolves and moose on Isle Royale.
 
Every day, weather permitting, we prepare the Flagship for work – check and warm her engine, load her with research equipment, untie her from the ice and take off over the trees. The Flagship is a tiny plane, more like a kite, with a fabric fuselage no wider than a yardstick. Don flies her from the front seat. Rolf and I switch each flight, taking a turn in the observer’s seat behind Don.
From the Flagship, we observe wolf packs chasing moose, defending their territories from each other, competing with pack mates to feed on their kills. After the two or three days it takes for wolves for finish feeding on each moose carcass, we land the Flagship on the nearest frozen lake, strap on snow shoes and hike in to perform a necropsy. From these bits of information, we piece together a picture of the wolves’ lives.
For the past decade, the moose population has steadily slid to its lowest level. They’ve suffered hot summers and winter ticks. Wolves took advantage of struggling moose, fueling high rates of predation. The wolves had been thriving until 2009. Then one wolf pack failed after another. Twenty-four wolves living in four packs had been reduced by the end of last year’s Winter Study to nine wolves living in one pack, and another half-dozen wolves, the socially disorganized remnants of another pack. DNA analysis of wolf scats we collect at kill sites indicate no more than two adult females in the population. If they die before giving birth to new females, the wolves will be headed for extinction.

A graph of wolf and moose abundance. 
John A. Vucetich & Rolf O. PetersonFluctuations in the abundance of wolves and moose on Isle Royale, 1959-2011. These fluctuations are documented during winter study.
 
So this winter we’re anxious for evidence that pups have survived the summer and fall, and we’re watching for behaviors indicative of courtship and mating. But with nature, it’s always the unexpected that is most important. From the privileged perspective of the Flagship, we’ll be hoping we’re observant enough to recognize it when it happens.
I’m not ready to leave for Isle Royale. My room is a collection of vague piles. Long underwear is separated by camera equipment from a collection of my best wool socks, next to an assortment of hats and mitts. My mind is equally disorganized, pulled in different directions by meetings to review outreach to raise awareness of wolves, conference calls to discuss the recovery of Mexican wolves, preparing manuscripts on the inbred wolves of Scandinavia. It’s time to get focused and get ready for Winter Study.

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