Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale

Within a 26 hour period last week, I attended three events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the study of wolves and moose on Isle Royale. This large island is located in Lake Superior, about 15 miles from the mainland. With no permanent human residents and no hunting, the island has provided an excellent location to watch nature in action. Over time there has been a highly variable average of about two dozen wolves and a thousand moose on the island, although the moose population is currently lower due to ticks and climate. Other residents include beavers and red foxes.

The movie Fortunate Wilderness was a bit of a disappointment to me. Maybe I was expecting too much of a Nature style documentary following the animals living their lives. There are some cool shots of critters, but the movie was mostly about the scientists and pilots who have been involved in the project. I should also add that I've never been to the island and don't expect that I ever will visit, so I felt no emotional connection to scenes which would probably mean more to the many folks who have camped and hiked there.

Next I attended a lunchtime presentation by Michael P. Nelson, a philosopher specializing in environmental ethics, and called the philosopher of the Isle Royale study after his time spent on the island with the researchers working there. This was a fascinating hour, exploring ideas of what makes up one's community, does nature matter, and whether the study of the island ecosystem can lead to increased empathy for the beings living there. Nelson seeks to answer the question I find most interesting: what should our relationship be with nature? Using local examples such as Aldo Leopold's land ethic and Ojibwa tales of the personification of nature, he explored positive and negative examples from Native American history to examine that relationship.

That evening came a presentation by the two lead scientists Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, faculty at Michigan Tech University. Vucetich gave an excellent speech, mentioning some of the ecological connections between ravens, wolves, moose, ticks, forest, and climate. This is fascinating information to me, but I was even more pleased to hear a scientist using terms such as excitement, joy, humility, and gratitude in connection with nature. The speech was a variation of this one which I hope you'll read if interested.

Rolf Peterson provided a decade by decade overview of moose and wolf populations on the island, parallelling this with the Keeling Curve which shows the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Both studies began in 1958. A simplistic summary of the decades on the island:

1960s Balance of nature, wolf predation selective, moose increase
1970s Wolves doubled, moose decline, severe winters
1980s Wolf population crashes after canine parvovirus is introduced to island by illegal dog, moose increase
1990s Moose continue increasing until 75% starve during 95/96 winter
2000s Climate change, warm summers lead to increased ticks and hair loss on moose which are at the southern edge of their range . . . will they survive on island? If not, wolves will follow.
A more detailed history with population graph can be found here.

Of course this is just the tip of the eco-relationships iceberg: the ice which used to surround the island in winter and now has become so rare it can be hard to find a place to land their small plane, the mutual effects between the moose and the forest, the increasing size of island moose over time which makes them safer from wolf attack, inbreeding in an isolated location. It's all fascinating, and all serves to show us how unpredictable nature is and how absurd is the notion that humans can manage it.

The last two links both lead to http://www.isleroyalewolf.org which is filled with many other interesting words and photos. Explore the island!

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