Michigan Tech Wolf-Moose Study Named to Michigan Environmental Hall of Fame

Isle Royale wolves face harsh winters and suffer from inbreeding.
Isle Royale wolves face harsh winters and suffer from inbreeding.

Michigan Technological University’s Isle Royale wolf-moose predator-prey study has been elected to the Michigan Environmental Hall of Fame. John Vucetich, associate professor of wildlife ecology in Michigan Tech’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science (SFRES), will represent the research  project at an induction ceremony at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., on April 10.

Ten individuals and organizations will be honored at the ceremony.

"For more than 50 years, the wolves and moose of Isle Royale have been teaching us –all of us—about nature's intricate and interconnected ways,” said Vucetich. “They've been offering vital clues about how we can best relate to the natural world around us.  It's a great honor to accept this recognition from the Michigan Environmental Hall of Fame on behalf of the wolves and moose of Isle Royale."   

Vucetich is director of the Isle Royale wolf-moose research, the longest-running predator-prey study in the world.  The project was started in 1958 by Durward L. Allen. Vucetich calls Allen “a pioneer among ecologists for having the foresight to understand the value of continuing to observe over time where others would have drawn conclusions and moved on to study something else.“

Since then, the wolf and moose populations of the remote wilderness islands have fluctuated dramatically due to a variety of factors. In the early 1980s, the wolves were driven almost to extinction by the accidental introduction of canine parvovirus.  They rebounded, but inbreeding later caused population numbers to drop to an all-time low of 8. 

“When the state of Michigan cleared the way for the islands of Isle Royale to become a national park, they envisioned a special place where nature and man could co-exist and gain a better understanding of the rich flora and fauna of the Island, and a rare recreational opportunity for visitors,” said Phyllis Green, superintendent of Isle Royale National Park.  “The wolf-moose predator-prey study that began shortly after the Park's creation has unveiled an understanding of many of the basic
relationships between predator and prey and continues to surprise us with new information on species resiliency during genetic decline, and now a window into the effects of climate change.

“The research conducted by Michigan Technological University under the auspices of the Park will continue as long as there are moose and wolves on the Island,” she went on to say. “The study continues to resonate with budding biologists as part of primary education programs and reaches internationally to managers and researchers of large prey and predators. The information gained through the study has helped adjust many people's attitudes towards the charismatic but controversial predator, the eastern timber wolf. We are honored to have the study included in Michigan's Environmental Hall of Fame.”

Vucetich has worked on the wolf-moose research since the early 1990s and has been leading the project since 2001 with Research Professor Rolf Peterson, also an SFRES faculty member at Michigan Tech. Major supporters include the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Park Service.

Peterson singled out four individuals whose effort and dedication has made the wolf-moose project what it is today:  Durward L. Allen, Robert Linn, Donald E. Murray and Donald E. Glaser. 

Allen, the study’s originator, was enthralled by accounts of wolves living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the 1930s, when he worked as a research biologist for the Michigan Department of Conservation (now Natural Resources), Peterson said.   In the 1940s, when moose were stripping the forests of a wolf-less Isle Royale, Allen was in Washington, D.C., working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on proposals to introduce wolves as a moose-control measure.  

After wolves colonized the island on their own, Allen realized the unprecedented research potential offered by a single large predator and prey in a protected environment. The political climate within the federal government would not support research on wolves in the early 1950s, and it took Allen many years to finally launch, in 1958, a long-term study of the wolves and moose at Isle Royale, funded by NSF and the National Geographic Society.  The research was billed as a decade-long study of the true role of wolves in nature, but Allen privately hoped that it would continue as long as there were wolves and moose in Isle Royale National Park, Peterson explained.  

Linn was to become a key partner in the effort, first as chief naturalist for the National Park Service at Isle Royale and eventually as chief scientist for the NPS in Washington.   From that position he played a crucial role in protecting both the integrity and support of the research project, occasionally having to overcome resistance within his own agency.  

Research methods have changed over the years to take advantage of advances in technology, now including use of fecal DNA to track generations of wolves and monitoring the chemical ecology of the fir trees consumed by moose.  But one technique that hasn’t changed, Peterson pointed out, is the winter study based on airplane surveys and counts of wolves and moose. The small planes have been flown over the past 56 years of research by just two bush pilots, ‘the two Dons:” Murray  from Minnesota and Glaser from Alaska.

Detailed reports on the annual Winter Study and other information about the wolves and moose of Isle Royale can be found at http://www.isleroyalewolf.org/.

The Michigan Environmental Hall of Fame is sponsored by the Muskegon Environmental Research & Education Society.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.