Isle Royale Wrap-up 2020

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Flying back from Daisy farm overlooking the north shore of the island with Ontario in the distance. The antennae helps locate wildlife from the air and the skis to locate them from the ground.

We last posted on March 5 and left the island on March 12.  We spent our final days on the West end of the Island at Windigo trying to collect samples from moose that we had previously sampled over 3 weeks earlier.  Repeated sampling throughout the winter provides the wolf/moose study with insights regarding changes in the nutritional status and diet composition of moose. For instance, as snow depth increases over the course of the winter, we often find moose abandoning the more interior and higher elevations of the island and concentrating more along the lake shores and cedar swamps where the dense conifer canopies moderate snow depth and allow moose to move more easily. On the west end of the island we often find this movement associated with the browsing of more white cedar especially since most of the available balsam fir browse has already been utilized. Moose are also more nutritionally stressed later in the winter as they are forced to feed on less desirable forage. This we can document by looking at different urine chemicals. Locating the collared cow moose a second time also gave us an opportunity to see if the calves that we found them with the first time were still alive. We determine that a calf is present if we find a small bed and small tracks associated with the cow beds and tracks.  The calf at this time of year is about half the size of its mother. If a calf makes it through the first year of its life, biologists consider that it has been recruited into the population.  At this point, a moose has a much greater chance of survival. Over the course of the study, we determined that 5 of 15 radio-collared cows that we located and sampled from had calves, one of which had twins.

Beaver Island

The Minong is the most prominent ridge on the north side of the island and has a popular hiking trail running along it’s length.

Beaver Island

Coming in for a landing on Washington Harbor with Beaver Island below. This island is one of the last areas on the west end of Isle Royale that still has browseable fir for moose.  We saw 7 of them on the east end of the island (left side) as we made our final approach. The Windigo area and the bunkhouse are off this picture and up to the left.

Our ability to re-sample moose, however, was hindered by a few obstacles when we returned to Windigo. Many of the radio-collared cows had left the area and so were inaccessible to us, the radio-collar on one study moose stopped working so we couldn’t locate it, and the terrific snow that we had for the first 5 weeks of the study began to rapidly melt making snow travel difficult and so limited our working range.  The best conditions for back country ski travel requires a good solid base beneath fresh snow that never melts.  We had these conditions in spades for the first 5 weeks and we definitely took advantage of it.  Snow conditions can change in a hurry. Initially, as temperatures rise above freezing, the surface snow or the snow in the sun melts before the deeper snow or snow in the shade.  The ski gets wet as we go through these areas and as soon as we get into cold dry snow it sticks.  At this point it is mandatory to scrape off all the snow, dry the ski in place, and apply glide wax so it won’t happen again. As the snow column completely melts it can no longer support a skier and we can sink to the bottom requiring that we pull our ski up through the heavy and wet snow with every stride. Suction from water in the snow on our ski bases also reduces the glide of the ski on the snow.

 

One of those times that we had to scrape and apply glide wax!!

Along the 250+ miles of beautiful wilderness that we traveled through this winter we were constantly scanning the tree canopies and listening for birds. The species we see are similar from year to year but vary based on a number of factors including food availability and temperature. The biggest difference this year was the presence of copious yellow birch seeds and plentiful mountain ash berries. It appeared that it was a productive white spruce cone year as well. Consequently, we saw more pine siskins than in years past feeding on the birch seeds, more crossbills (both red and white-winged) feeding on seeds in the spruce cones, and robins, purple finches, blue jays, and on two occasions pileated wood peckers feeding on the mountain ash berries.

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Both of these photos, red crossbill above and white-winged below were taken by out friend and Michigan Tech researcher Sarah Hoy outside the bunkhouse

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We saw more ravens this year than any years in the past probably because there was more food available to them in the form of carcasses provide by the larger population of wolves. We saw more bald eagles this year too probably for the same reason but also because there was more open water than in years past providing fishing opportunities. The bird that was the most ubiquitous was the red-breasted nuthatch and we would delight in hearing its call and watching it flit back and forth from tree to tree (We did not see any white breasted). They were so frequently present that we joked that they were following us around the island. In addition, we also observed hairy and downy woodpeckers, had one sighting of a black-backed woodpecker, pine grosbeaks, gray jays, and Juncos. We did see chickadees but were surprised with how few we saw.  Because there was some periodic open water near the dock at Daisy Farm we had looks at common mergansers, red-breasted merganser, and a scaup of unidentified species.

As travelers usually do at the end of a trip, we frequently revisited images in our heads of what we had seen over the 7 weeks of our stay. The common theme of these images was just how beautiful this island wilderness is, especially in the winter. The feelings that frequently bubbled up were those of joy, happiness, and gratitude for the opportunity to experience this unique ecosystem and be part of this transcendent study.

The day we returned to the mainland on March 12, a capture crew consisting of representatives from the National Park Service, the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and a helicopter crew from South Africa came to the island to radio-collar more moose.  In that effort, they were successful in radio-collaring 19 cow and 6 bull moose. These will be moose we will follow next year in addition to the ones from this year that still have functioning radio-collars!  The pictures below summarize the final days of our stay.

The next four photos are paired photos that show the result of heavy browsing by moose on their primary winter forage, balsam fir.  Ten years ago the population was estimated at just over 500 animals and currently it is hovering around 2,000.  During the years  when moose density was low, browsing pressure on the balsam fir saplings was reduced and many were able to grow unbrowsed for years. Some of the small trees like the ones shown in this picture, however, are older trees that never had a chance to grow because they were constantly browsed by moose.  We call trees like the ones in this first photo ‘released’ as they have been released from the pruning influence of moose.  The trees in this picture show 6-7 years of new growth that has not yet been browsed.

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Picture taken in February of 2018. Note the 9′ – 12′ firs on either side with copious new growth

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Same trees this year on February 29th. The moose not only ate all the twigs and needles but broke them in half to get to the tops.  The stems are brittle in the cold winters and are easily snapped off by moose that bite their stems and then tilt their heads.

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This cluster of young firs is on Beaver Island. For many years the island vegetation was only lightly browsed likely because the island was somewhat removed from the rest of the island- until just recently.  Now the island suffers the same heavy browsing as the rest of the western end of Isle Royale. This picture was taken on February 2, 2019

2020

This is the same stand as above on February 27 of this year showing the result of a single year of browsing.  Note the large spruce on the left is the same as in the picture above. The same individual saplings are also easily identified. Repopulating Isle Royale with wolves should lead to a reduction in moose numbers allowing the fir trees to recover.

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This picture is taken from the south shore of Washington Harbor to the west of the Windigo visitor center.  Beaver island is in the middle left of the photo.  All the naked stems are dead or heavily browsed balsam firs.  In the foreground is one that had been released and grew tall enough that the moose couldn’t reach its upper branches. However, because the lower stem has been denuded of twigs, it is now susceptible to girdling (which will kill it by damaging the vascular tissue of the tree) from bull moose rubbing their antlers on it mostly during the rut and also from bark chewing in the winter.  This is the first year that we saw such damage.

Cedars

White cedars are mostly associated with wet areas and commonly found in dense swamps.  In certain areas, however, especially with reduced competition from other trees they can thrive in upland areas.  This beautiful stand is near the top of a ridge on the northwest corner of the island.

Massive Cedar

This upland cedar is approximately 40″ in diameter.

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There exist historic reports of a large fury two-legged beast walking the remote wilderness of Isle Royale. This is the first ever picture of what turned out to be a Sasquatch taken in early March!!!!

 

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…….. and this is the second! He turned out to be quite friendly!

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We will certainly miss the peace and solitude of the island! The moon at sunrise over Moskey Basin

Sunrise over Isle Royale

The last sunrise we would see over Lake Superior as we began our drive west from Grand Marais, MN to Montana on March 11 to reunite with our dog Phoebe and visit with Lisa’s two sisters.

 

We hope to write more about our experiences next year!

Keep an eye out for the 2019-2020 Isle Royale Annual Report coming out soon.  You can find it at https://isleroyalewolf.org/wolfhome/ann_rep.html

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East end of the Island – Daisy Farm 2020

The Daisy Farm cabin hasn’t changed much over the years and that is why we like it.  Same books, same mugs, same pots and pans, and probably the tracks of some of the same squirrels, hares, foxes, and moose on our path to the outhouse. This year was different though, a single track of a wolf paralleling our path. In years past we would see the tracks of many wolves passing in front of the cabin, and one year we even watched from inside the cabin as a group of 3 wolves passed by on the commonly used travel route, thrilled to actually see the wolves that made the tracks and captivated while the largest wolf, a male, stared us down through the window while cautiously approaching our water hole in the ice and lifting his leg and urinating on it.  These wolves in 2013 likely knew we were there but this other wolf that left the track was one of the newcomers still trying to find its place on the island. Nineteen wolves had been translocated onto the island between October 2018 and September 2019 from Minnesota, Michigan and Ontario. They were comfortable with the areas they came from and familiar with the groups of other wolves bordering their territories, so this was a new start – new habitat, new neighbors, and for some new prey. Plenty to figure out. We would later learn that the tracks near out cabin belonged to female wolf #14F – moved to Isle Royale with six other wolves from Michipicotin Island and from the Wawa area of Ontario in March of 2019.

Location data from GPS radio-collars fit to each wolf has allowed the research team to follow the wolves’ progress as they investigate the island.  We can see which wolves may have encountered one another, which ones have partnered up and are travelling together, and where likely moose kill locations are. Mortality messages are sent when a radio collar has not moved in a while signaling that a collar has dropped off a wolf or a wolf has died.  We are encouraged to see potential male/female pairs of wolves travelling together because February is mating season. If everything goes to plan, some pairs will produce offspring, the population will begin to naturally grow, and eventually the wolves will help to maintain the moose population at an ecologically healthy number.

Even from last year we have noticed a significant difference in balsam fir forage availability especially on the west end of the island. It appears in its absence, moose are selecting less preferred forage such as white cedar, speckled alder, elderberry, and white pine and we have even been seeing evidence of browsing on white spruce which moose rarely eat. As forage quality and quantity continue to decline, and without population regulation from wolf predation, moose certainly will begin to starve during winter. Here on the east end of the island at Daisy Farm we will continue our studies to help the moose/wolf study team understand the intricacies of this relation ship between wolves, their moose prey, and the vegetation that supports moose during the winter. We tell the story of our time at Daisy Farm with the pictures and captions below.

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Pilot Don Murray flying his 1946 Aeronca Champion comes in for a landing to Daisy Farm with Lisa on board.  Note antennas on both wings for air tracking the islands wolves and moose.

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The Daisy Farm cabin is used in the summer to house a seasonal ranger. During the 1930s a CCC camp was set up in the vicinity and a garden planted to provide vegetables for the workers. It was noted then that daisies grew better than did vegetables in the garden – the name Daisy Farm stuck.

 

 

Two of three mugs in the cabin. ‘The Boys of Summer’ and ‘Not Ditzy Dolls’. The third ‘Quality only happens when you care to do your very best’.

Left – Ten ‘target’ cow moose on the east end of the island. We collected samples from 8 of the 10 as collars on two of the moose were not functioning. Two check marks identify a cow that we sampled a second time, two weeks after the first time.

Right – Map of sampling routes. Sampling from these moose allowed us to explore some new territory and took us up and over the Greenstone Ridge on five different occasions. The cabin is at the origin of all these routes.

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Approaching Ojibway fire tower atop the Greenstone Ridge. Three fire towers still stand on the island previously used for this purpose in the 1970s. The Ojibway structure now supports radio, weather and other equipment.

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Lisa skiing up to the south side of the Greenstone Ridge early one morning

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Panoramic view towards the west end of the island from the tower. Moskey Basin is the body of water to the upper left, Lake Ojibway below it, and Sargent Lake to the upper right.

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The ridge provides unobstructed views to the north.  15 miles of open water separate Isle Royale from coastal Ontario islands.

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Lisa skis the length of Lake Linklater, one of 48 named lakes on the island, near the north shore in search of moose #12. We are likely the first to pass through this beautiful wilderness on skis as the park is closed during winters. We are humbled at the opportunity to do so!

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The north sides of the island ridges are steep compared to the gradual slopes on the south sides. A billion years ago the weight of a great lava flow at the center of the Lake Superior basin pushed down on even older layers of lava causing cracks in the bedrock. At two fault lines, the layers were forced upward forming the parallel ridges of Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula to the south. The ridges towards the center of Lake Superior being gradual and the ones on the opposite sides of the ridges being steeper. Shown here is the north side of the Greenstone. 

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Lisa skiing up the north side of the Greenstone towards Ojibway tower as the sun sets over Sargent Lake. Probably few have ever witnessed this as the sun sets much further north during the other seasons when the park is open.

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We also visited known carcass sites of two moose that the wolves were feeding on-a yearling cow that was killed by wolves and a mature bull that had died earlier in the winter and was being scavenged.  It had shed its antlers early suggesting it was in poor health. Shown here are samples collected from a yearling cow moose. We can determine age from the teeth, sex from the skull, and condition from the amount of fat in the femur bone marrow.  

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A red fox feeds at the yearling moose carcass site.  Wolf carcasses provide for a host of scavengers including foxes, ravens, eagles and jays. 

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We turned one morning to take in the scenery on Moskey Basin and found this fox following our tracks . Like other animals travelling in snow, they often take the path of least resistance.  One afternoon we saw a jet black fox, an uncommon color morph for Isle Royale foxes. 

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This same fox took to investigating urine marks from another fox left in the snow.  As it was breeding time for foxes, perhaps this is a male looking for a female to breed.

Wolves frequently use frozen lakes and harbors for travel.  These tracks were located on Moskey Basin, part of a common travel route for the island’s wolves.

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Collecting fir samples on Ransom Ridge for a study of plant chemical defenses to moose herbivory. 

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Winter ticks infest moose here on the island like with many other populations but because there are no deer on the island the moose are not infected with the fatal brain worm.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunrise from our commute to work-February 22.  This day we were heading to the north shore to locate a moose north of Linklater Lake. Note frozen ski tracks on ice. A common travel route for us too.

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Sunset over Moskey Basin. We are frequently returning to our cabin in the fading light of the day.

 

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Beavers once occupied a vast range across the temperate zone in the northern hemisphere where they helped shape the landscape such as this ancient beaver meadow. Like in many areas around the globe, beaver populations are increasing in number on Isle Royale after being extirpated from much of their native range by trappers. To learn more about this and the ecological importance of beaver recolonization of historic habitats I suggest reading Eager by Ben Goldfarb which we both read at Daisy Farm. 

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A cold and windy day at Baker Point – Moskey Basin. We avoid this area as water and wind currents combine to make ice thickness here dangerously thin.

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There was a bumper crop of mountain ash berries this year. We documented purple finches, foxes, robins (probably still on the island ONLY because of the berries), pileated woodpeckers, red squirrels, and pine marten eating them.

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People frequently ask us what it’s like on a frozen island, in the middle of a frozen lake, in the middle of the winter. With a smile we say it is very cold and snowy and we love it!

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A moose antler marks the location of our water hole through the ice.

Only antler

We found the fewest antlers this year compared to years past, likely because they were covered up by the early winter snow. This one had just dropped and we found it near a fallen spruce tree, its top branches freshly rubbed off presumably by this moose.  

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The dock at Daisy Farm campground is frequently encased in ice in winter. All the inland lakes and the heads of the bays had thick ice but with windy conditions this year ice at the bay mouths never permanently formed.

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February 25-packing up to fly back to Windigo.  Until next year    ………….  !

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Isle Royale National Park Wolf/Moose Study – 62nd Anniversary – 2020

While we were unable to post to this blog last year, we are hopeful that this won’t be the last for 2020! With the primary focus of the Isle Royale wolf/moose study remaining the same since it began in 1958, the year to year experience on the island can vary greatly depending on many factors including existing snowpack and ice conditions, weather, personnel, and variation in wolf and moose numbers. We expect that the latter will have the biggest impact on our experience this year with moose numbers continuing to increase and with new wolves translocated to the island! For those of you interested in looking at results from last winters study you can find the 2018-2019 annual report at https://isleroyalewolf.org/wolfhome/ann_rep.html

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Good to be here at Windigo!

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Drifts on the harbor this year would make landing a ski plane challenging.  We previously flew to the island on U.S. Forest Service De Havilland Beavers which were subject to both ice conditions and more stringent weather parameters.

We arrived on the island on January 21 following our twenty-minute flight from Thunder Bay, Ontario on a Bell 412 helicopter piloted by WiskAir. Our crew included Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, lead project biologists from Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI, National Park Service representative and Isle Royale National Park trails and construction crew member, Marcus Tanskanen, and the Vermont Koitzschs. Project pilot, and Minnesota Conservation Officer Don Murray, would fly in and join us later in the day in his Aeronca Champion ski plane from mainland Minnesota. We will be joined in mid-January by Michigan Tech researcher Sarah Hoy and project pilot Don Glaser from Alaska. A storm that hit a few days earlier stretching from the Dakotas to New England had added to the snow total on the island – we measured 28 inches upon arrival. The wind had built-up 20″ high snow drifts on the harbor that would have impeded the landing of the planes we used to take to the island.  Helicopter travel certainly has its advantages. The temperature was in the 20’s, but we expect warmer weather into the next week with temperatures hovering at the freezing mark. The snowpack is different this year compared to many in the past because there was a settled layer underneath the fresh snow from a rain that soaked the island a few weeks earlier that now provides some flotation for our skis. Because we rely on ski travel for our work, this was a welcome discovery!

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The Bunkhouse

Bunkhouse Aerial

The Bunkhouse is the building on the left.  The clearing serves as the helicopter landing site.

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Wiskair Pilot Vic and Bell 412 helicopter.

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Lisa hauling gear up to the bunkhouse.

We unloaded and opened the “Bunkhouse”, one of many buildings that house National Park Service employees during the 6 months of the year when the park is open to visitors. We are asked frequently about our living situation on the island with many thinking we are camping out in a tent or curled up under a log at night. The bunkhouse is actually pretty comfortable. It has four bedrooms, two bathrooms (not used as bathrooms in the winter!) and two kitchens, and a common area in the middle heated by a wood stove.  Firewood is cut and stacked on the bunkhouse porch in the fall to supply heat for the seven-week study, We go through up to 4 cords over the duration of the study.

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Heat, hot water, and drying! Osburn 2400 stove.

We use a propane stove for cooking, the bathroom farthest from the wood stove as our refrigerator (we keep the door closed to this bathroom but crack the window open to insure it stays cold), and the bathroom closest to the kitchen for water storage which is supplied directly from a hole in the ice in Washington Harbor. Water for washing dishes and hands is heated in big stainless-steel pots that sit on top of the wood stove. The bathroom we do use is an outhouse off to the side of the building – we keep the toilet seat warm next to the wood stove. For body washing, we use a wood fired sauna that heats up a large barrel of lake water. Water temperature is regulated by adding cold water to the hot in a plastic ice cream bucket – the vessel from which we do our washing.  Everyone has their own ice cream bucket. Ice cream, with chocolate syrup of course, is a very popular dessert on the island!

2020 is an exciting year on Isle Royale as nineteen wolves from Minnesota, Ontario, and Michigan were captured between October 2018 and September 2019 and translocated to the island to help augment a struggling wolf population. The population has been suffering from genetic inbreeding as no mainland wolves have recently moved onto the island. Consequently, there was only a pair of wolves left but they were highly inbred and that could not produce viable offspring.

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Photo taken of male (back) and female pair from 2019. The pair are both highly inbred being father-daughter and half siblings.

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Ontario wolf released during winter of 2019 on Washington Harbor. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The primary purpose of this effort was to restore a balance to the ecosystem by helping to slow the growth and eventually reduce the size of a moose population that had exceeded its biological carrying capacity (the maximum population size that can be sustained indefinitely) and was over-browsing vegetation on the island, especially its primary winter forage – regenerating balsam fir. Researchers were worried that because mature seed producing trees were reaching old age and dying and that growth of young saplings on the west end of the island was being restricted by excessive moose browsing, that the firs would eventually cease to exist on the western end of the island.

 

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Severely browsed west end balsam fir from 2019.  Not much left to eat for over 2,000 moose this winter!

Reducing moose numbers would also prevent a likely die-off of moose which has happened in recent history when an estimated 1,000 out of 2,500 moose died from starvation following the particularly harsh winter of 1995-1996. Winter ticks also contributed to moose vulnerability during this winter by inducing hair loss and by taking blood.

At the end of the study last March, there remained only the resident pair of wolves and an estimated 2,070 moose on the island. One of the wolves, a male, was found dead this fall killed by other wolves and the fate of the female is unknown. Currently there are a maximum of 14 wolves on the island, assuming the female from the resident pair is still alive. We know this because all the wolves that were translocated wear GPS radio collars. Assuming population growth of 10% from last year (20% is attainable in healthy populations), there may be as many as 2,300 moose. Aerial counts of moose during the study will ultimately determine the current population size.

And this is where we come in!

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Preparing for a snowmobile assist across Washington Harbor. On the west end of the island we can avoid long approaches to our study areas by getting a pull across the ice, thus allowing more time for sampling.

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Tracks of moose exiting her bed leaving both pellets and urine (in foreground)

While the primary objective of Winter Study is to understand the predator/prey relationship between wolves and moose, projects researchers are also interested in understanding the effects of moose browsing on the island vegetation, particularly of regenerating balsam fir, which moose depend on as their primary winter forage.  While Rolf and John are observing and counting moose and wolves from small single engine planes flown by one of the two Dons, Lisa and I will be on our skis literally beating the bush in search of moose fecal pellets (poop) and urine to collect from 19 cow moose that were captured and GPS radio-collared in February 2019 when we were here on the island.

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One of 20 cow moose radio-collared in February 2019.  Lisa and I will be collecting her pellets and urine sometime this winter. Note that this moose has hair loss on her flank from attempting to remove ticks by rubbing on trees.

 

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Computer generated locations of two GPS radio-collared cow moose. Locations are in 30 minute intervals.  Clusters of points are usually bedding sites that Lisa and I visit first to collect pellets and urine.  We then track her to a fir foraging patch and collect fir samples from trees she is browsing from for chemical analysis. We learn volumes about moose winter ecology by following their daily movements.

From the microscopic analysis of fecal pellets, researchers can determine diet composition (how much of what browse species the moose is eating). The chemical ratios in the urine provide insights on the health of the moose at the time it was sampled. Specifically, we can determine at what point in the winter a moose exhausts its stores of fat and begins to metabolize its own muscle for energy and how much energy a moose expends detoxifying its diet of balsam fir browse.  As a means of defending itself from being eaten, plants can concentrate toxic chemicals in their leaves which require herbivores to detoxify them (which requires energy) before they can properly digest them. As it is, winter is the hardest season for moose as bulls come into it depleted of fat reserves after expending much of it during the breeding season, cows are physiologically nurturing a growing fetus which requires extra energy, and calves simply do not have much for energy reserves because they are expended for bodily growth. For details on this relationship between fir chemical defense and moose diet composition and how these relate to moose nutritional condition you can look at this article Fir chemical defense and moose.

 

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Diet analysis of this orange colored urine will likely determine that this cow moose was eating white cedar.

To date, we have spent all our time on the western end of the Island based out of Windigo. We spent three of these days on the southwest corner of the island camping near Feldtmann Lake where we collected samples from 3 radio-collared moose in the vicinity.  We spent two nights winter camping in this effort. Lisa loved it!!!

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Pilot Don Murray and Lisa in Aeronca Champion getting ready to take off from Feldtmann Lake

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Lisa tending to camp!

Solo Stove

Our new friend – the incredible Solo camping stove that can boil water using only twigs!

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Tasty but not the good food we are eating at Windigo!

Starting Monday, weather permitting for flying, we will be transported to Daisy Farm on the east end of the island where we will spend up to 3 1/2 weeks.  At this point we will be mostly out of contact as there is no electricity and of course no email or internet.  Other than being out of touch with loved ones and friends, we thrill at spending time alone together in this wilderness outpost. Our next post will be a summary of our Daisy Farm experience!

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Daisy Farm, here we come!

 

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Studying Wolves in Yellowstone 2018

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Mollie’s Pack in January 2018.  A large pack of big wolves that winters in the park interior feeding on bison. Photo by friend and NPS wolf biologist Dan Stahler.

Something looked different as we drove into Yellowstone National Park on February 23rd…there was snow everywhere, lots of snow! We have not had much snow out here over the past three years (last good snow was winter of 2011) especially at the elevations we typically work at, between 5,500 and 7,500 feet, so it was a very welcome sight. It meant that we could travel more easily and efficiently over the expansive Yellowstone landscape to perform our work. We were very excited to say the least!

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Yellowstone’s Northeast entrance.  While closed in the winter, people still pass through here to access Silvergate and Cooke City located outside the park.

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Lisa and Phoebe on Republic Creek Trail. The sign is usually head-high!

We met for a day of training for the March 2018 Winter Study on February 28th to review the details of the wolf/elk predation study we have been a part of for the last 10 years, and to meet all the new crew members. Fourteen of us would be working daily on the observation and GPS cluster crews for the month of March. In addition, an air crew would take to the sky in a Piper Super Cub every day weather permitted to locate packs and their kills.  Three observation crews of three technicians each would be observing the three study wolf packs – 8-Mile (14 wolves), Junction Butte (8 wolves), and the 1108M Group (a four wolf subgroup of the 8-mile pack that has been separate since December). Our cluster crew consisted of myself, Lisa, Brenna Cassidy (an Illinois native and a full-time wolf and bird project technician, who is headed to graduate school in the fall at the University of Montana), Nels Christensen (an Alaskan timber framer and fisherman originally from Rangeley, ME), and Elise Loggers (from Washington and an interpretive ranger, cougar project technician, and second time wolf project volunteer). Our crew is incredibly competent and experienced and all have solid back country travel and skiing skills!

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One of our first days in the field with a ground crew and a couple of visitors up slope from Roosevelt Arch, the northern entrance to Yellowstone in Gardiner, MT.

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Cluster crew members: Ky, Brenna, Lisa and Elise at the Hellroaring suspension bridge.

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Winter faeries Brenna and Elise coming out of the back country after a long day in Upper Oxbow and Elk Creeks. 

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Nels and I in Little America.  Nels is a fun field partner and accomplished skier.  During a period of four days, we took 3 trips that averaged over 30 km each.

The main objective of the study is to quantify the total predation rate for the month – this means how many prey animals each wolf pack kills – and to do this, we use a statistical analysis called the triple count method to estimate the number of kills per month. We do this by combining the efforts of three methods of observing wolf packs on kills – observation crews, an aerial crew and the GPS cluster crew (that’s us!) who search wolf locations that have been transmitted every hour via satellite from radio collared wolves. Our cluster crew is following six individual wolves from three different packs this month and our goal is to find kills that the observation and air crews don’t find and to conduct necropsies on any kills we do find. Every four days, Lisa receives GPS collar download information from Matt Metz (long-time wolf project predation expert) and converts the data into points on a map that we can all navigate to and search for kills. This has been a relatively difficult winter for the Park’s ungulates and we are finding a number of winter-killed elk and bison this year. Just the other day, we also found two bison killed by an avalanche earlier this winter.

The highlight of the month was Lisa’s and my 28 km day surveying from the Hellroaring trail suspension bridge, downstream along the Yellowstone River, and then up the Blacktailed Deer Creek trail to the Mary Mar cabin parking area.  Not only was the scenery beautiful, the adventure epic in that we reached our truck well after dark, but we also had a very close encounter with the 8-mile wolf pack.  It was beginning to get dark at ~6:15 as we ascended up the trail along the steep banks of Blacktail Creek.  Above us we saw movement and then two wolves ran past us at 50 meters as they continued down the creek drainage. We didn’t think it was more than a chance sighting until we saw the rest of the pack, 14 wolves in all, running straight towards us down the trail above.  A large sagebrush bush and a bulge in the hillside prevented us from seeing around the corner in front of us and momentarily obscured our view of the wolves. We thought they had seen us and left the trail and vanished up the slope to our right. All of a sudden there they all were in front of us only 6 ski lengths away, still running at a good clip.  The first wolf to come into view was a large gray-colored wolf with a radio collar and it was definitely as surprised to see us as we were to see it!  It bailed off the trail down the steep slope to our left and disappeared into the creek drainage.  After that it was like a car pile-up on the highway with wolves seemingly skidding to a stop with others right on their tails, some running up slope and others running down.  Still more were stopped behind the leaders, not sure of what to do and whining with trepidation and uncertainty.  And still more came until 14 wolves in all passed before us, four grays and 10 blacks.  We stayed still and watched as the wolves regrouped further up the trail and quietly made their way up the steep slope towards Blacktail Plateau.  They looked over their shoulders from time to time and then they were gone.  We stood still for a few more moments listening for howls but they moved away silently.  The next day, remotely gathered GPS locations revealed that the 1108M Group was in that same location at the same time as the 8-mile group and were likely being chased by them.  The fact that they were running supported this theory.  Perhaps our unintentional roadblock  interrupted a potentially fatal interaction between the two groups.

The remainder of this blog consists of pictures portraying our work, our crew, the Yellowstone scenery and its wildlife.

For more detailed information on the wolf study, see some of our previous Yellowstone Blogs or this link to the Yellowstone Wolf Project annual reports and info. Yellowstone Wolf Project.

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Large groups of bull elk often winter on high elevation wind blown ridges such as this one in upper Elk Creek.

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A Rocky Mountain Bighorn rest high up on Specimen Ridge. 

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The start of our epic 28 km day approaching the suspension bridge over the Yellowstone River. Skiing this part of the trail is usually sketchy at best but this year there was plenty of snow.

 

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Lisa preparing to conduct a necropsy on a bull elk calf that died of malnutrition and was scavenged upon by the 1108M group near the Two Tom drainage above the Yellowstone River.

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Lisa skiing towards Cottonwood Creek and Hell Mountain. Our encounter with the 8-Mile pack was only hours away. 

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Nels and I skiied into the Cache Creek drainage to collect data from a bull elk that was killed by the Mollie’s pack. This pack of 16 wolves, led by alpha male 890M (formerly of the Junction Butte Pack), spends most of its time in the Interior but occasionally come up to the Northern Range.  

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High up on the slopes of Prospect Peak at a winter-killed bull bison carcass that the 8-Mile pack fed on.  You can just see the tip of its horn sticking out of the snow.

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Elise prepares to collect a metatarsus bone that helps us determine health of an animal at birth and also a femur section for marrow fat analysis from a young bull elk killed by the Junction Butte pack up the Hellroaring Creek drainage near Bull Mountain.

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Freshly excavated den under a large boulder of the Junction Butte Pack.  They had used this den in the recent past.

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Lisa skiing up to the Trough after crossing the frozen Lamar River just below the trolley.  .

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One of the best snow days of the study was one of the last with 8-10 new inches of light snow in the upper reaches of Oxbow Creek.  Our fearless leader Doug Smith, head wolf project biologist (far right), and Matt Metz, project biologist and current University of Montana PhD student (second from right), joined in on the fun.  We always enjoy their company in the field. 

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Skiing over McBride Lake on the way to upper Slough Creek. Cut-off Mountain looms in the background. 

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At the bottom of an avalanche chute on the side of Specimen Ridge, we located the remains of two adult bison that had been swept down off one of the cornices.

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Free of unstable snow after the avalanche, we used the slide path to access the crest of Specimen Ridge above us.  

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Nels tops out on Specimen Ridge, one of our favorite places to be in the winter time.

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These high elevation cornices allowed us to ski along wind swept ridges.  Here we traversed the ridge between Amethyst Creek and Specimen Ridge.

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Some days we helped the cougar crew study search its GPS clusters (and other days they helped us!).  There are 6 cougars collared on the Northern range. Above, a mother cat with dirty paws sat and rested near a bedding spot.  Below, a bed beneath the root ball of a fallen lodgepole pine was recently used by this female and her year-old kitten. 

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Common birds but not so common scavengers.  The Steller’s jay (above) and Clark’s Nutcracker (below) are colorful and raucous members of the Yellowstone ecosystem. 

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Friend Joe Kirkland, originally from Halton, PA and now living in Billings, MT, visited for a couple of days and joined us on a few cluster crew adventures.

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A ski I’ve been wanting to do for a while and the last big adventure of the month! Nels and I skied the summits of Prospect Peak (9525 ft), Folsom Peak (9326 ft), and Cook Peak (9742 ft) on a 32 km back country tour.  Cook Peak in distance to the left of the far cornice from the west flank of Folsom Peak. 

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And of course, Phoebe had the time of her life and had many memorable adventures.  Skiing above Gardiner, MT in the Eagle Creek Drainage (above) and up Republic Creek (below).

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Phoebe and her Yellowstone adventure partner Indy on a long, snowy ski just outside of the Park. The two were exhausted at the end of the day!

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Some of the Mollie’s pack making their way through the snow in Pelican Valley this winter. Photo taken from the air by our good friend and Wolf Project Research Associate Kira Cassidy.

Posted in Yellowstone National Park | 1 Comment

Isle Royale National Park Wolf/Moose Study – 2018

We arrived in Thunder Bay, Ontario late in the afternoon on January 14th.  Lisa and I had driven the two days before from Montana, me flying in to meet her after she spent a week visiting her sisters and dropping off our puppy Phoebe who would spend our time on Isle Royale with her 6 cousins (Tarn, Elf, Frog, Bounder, Spring, and Kestrel – all pictured below).  I had been visiting my folks and brother’s family in PA and enjoyed giving a talk on our Yellowstone wolf research to my parent’s retirement community just before I left.

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Bounder, Frog, Spring, Elf, Kestrel, and Tarn

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Our Girl – Phoebe Piranha Monkey

Once in Thunder Bay, Lisa and I were responsible for making sure our food orders were ready to go and to coordinate with Mark Wiskemann from WiskAir who would fly us to Isle Royale National Park on Jan 16th in his Bell 412 helicopter. Dry goods had been stocked on the island in October but perishables, including meat, dairy, and vegetables had to be purchased just before we left.  We picked up the prepared orders of over 30 pounds of meat and 13 ‘apple’ boxes of other food and met Rolf Peterson (Co-Project Leader from Michigan Technological University), Sarah Hoy (Research Assistant Professor, MTU), and Nate Hanks (National Park Service representative for the study) at the airport on the morning of our flight. John and Leah Vucetich (co-project leader and research scientist from MTU, respectively) were not able to join us this year due to personal reasons. We missed their company and companionship!

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Loading up food and gear at the hangar

Flying conditions were favorable but we had to wait a couple of hours for the helicopter to return from a job it had just completed the two days prior relocating nine cow and one bull caribou from Michipicoten Island to the Slate Islands in northern Lake Superior. The most southern remnants of Ontario’s woodland or boreal caribou still occupy these small coastal islands and were relocated from one island to the other to remove caribou from Michipicoten to protect them from wolf predation and to repopulate the Slate Islands. When lake ice used to form frequently between the islands and the mainland, wolves and caribou could travel freely between land masses. However, due to effects from global warming trends these ice bridges freeze less frequently and trap vulnerable caribou on the islands with wolves with no way to escape. As soon as we unloaded from our return trip on February 12, Wisk Air would fly back to Michipicoten to relocate more caribou to Caribou Island a little further south in Lake Superior. To learn more about Ontario caribou, see Ontario Woodland Caribou Conservation 

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Picture by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

The 20 minute/30 mile flight from Thunder Bay to the 210 square mile island of Isle Royale is beautiful! We always thrill to see the land below us disappear as we begin our flight out over the icy-cold waters of Lake Superior and then get our first glimpse of the island on the distant horizon. Ice is always present on the lake, sometimes in solid sheets that appear dark black where snow has not covered them and other times in a broken mosaic of geometric patterns created by wind and water currents and that stretch as far as the eye can see. The formation of ice is significant for the ecology of Isle Royale because it is assumed that wolves had to have crossed the ice from Ontario in order to get to the island over 70 years ago. Any wolves that came over in subsequent years would have made the same crossing.  Throughout much of the 20th century ice would freeze 8 out of 10 years but recently it is predicted that it will only freeze 2 out of 10 years, meaning that the opportunity for wolves to arrive from the mainland and infuse the dwindling population on the island with new genes is greatly reduced. Mark landed us safely in front of the Windigo bunkhouse on the west end of the island, our base camp for the next month.

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From left: Lisa, Ky, Rolf, Nate and Sarah

When we left the island last February, much discussion surrounded the proposed National Park Service plan to augment the existing population of wolves with individuals from the mainland. Over the years, as many as 50 wolves had kept the moose population on Isle Royale in balance with the fragile island ecosystem but wolf numbers had dropped drastically since the 1980’s due to introduced disease and inbreeding depression and only two wolves were observed in 2017 (and two sets of tracks were found both by the plane and by Lisa and I on the island in January 2018). DNA gathered from wolf scats identified that the two wolves were closely related and could not produce viable offspring, the male was both father and half sibling to the female.

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Two wolves pictured from 2017-only tracks from a pair of wolves have been seen in 2018. Photo by Michigan Tech researcher.

 

The moose population was estimated at ~1,600 and would grow at a predicted rate of 20% per year. Unchecked by wolf predation, this growing population could eventually deplete their winter forage. Overpopulation coupled with winter habitat depletion, severe winter weather, and the potential for winter tick infestation (which causes anemia and leaves moose exposed due to severe hair loss from grooming) could prove devastating. This scenario had played out in 1995-1996 when an estimated number of 2,400 moose (possibly the highest recorded moose densities in the world) were subjected to these conditions and over 1,200 died over the course of the winter. For details, see Annual Report 1995-96.

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Cow with female calf that visited Lisa and I near Daisy Farm. Productivity is high with many cows with twins observed this year.

We were met on the island by current project pilot and Minnesota Fish and Game Warden Don Murray, who flew from Two Harbors, MN in his single-prop Aeronca Champ plane.  Don is the grandson of the original project pilot (also Don Murray) who flew for the study for 19 years starting in 1959. He was succeeded by another Don (Glaser), a former employee and current air-taxi pilot in Alaska. Don Glaser still flies periodically for the project and was scheduled to be here for two weeks this winter. Unfortunately, he began having mechanical problems with his Piper Super-Cub (aka, The Flagship) and had to fly back to the mainland for repairs.

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The two Dons, Murray (left) and Glaser (right). These pilots are always fun to be around.

‘Young’ Don Murray, who first started flying for the project in 2008, is still flying his grandfather’s plane. Many years ago after Don ‘Senior’ stopped flying, he sold his plane and it was subsequently owned by at least two different pilots. One day, while driving through the Minnesota countryside, ‘Young’ Don saw the plane sitting abandoned and in disrepair in the middle of a field. He recognized the plane as his grandfather’s and approached the owner in the hopes of purchasing it.  The plane at the time was not for sale but Don stayed in touch with the owner over the next few years, circumstances changed, and eventually he was able to buy it.  Sixty years later, the red and white Champ with call sign ‘N1713E’ can still be seen flying low over Isle Royale surveying for moose and wolves.

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Champ and Don Murray picking us up from our Daisy Farm outpost on the eastern end of Isle Royale. The ice was over 14″ thick this year so Champ was able to land close to the cabin.

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Both Champ (behind) and the Flagship (in front) landing on Moskey Basin on the eastern end to bring us back to Windigo on the western end.

Once ensconced on the island, Winter Study began!  Rolf, a former Professor at MTU who has been working on the study since 1970, and Don Murray would fly the island (weather permitting) and count moose on 91-1 km2 survey plots in order to estimate population size.  Because dense forest limits visibility of the moose on parts of the island, sightability correction factors (determined through years of surveying) have to be applied to counts to determine the total number of moose seen.

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12 moose were counted in this plot – 11 are visible in this photo by Rolf Peterson

Rolf also coordinated the study from the bunkhouse, prepared most of the delicious morning and evening meals, and baked some wonderful fresh bread!  Sarah flew periodically to help locate wolves, prepared the samples Lisa and I collected from the field for future chemical analyses, and added some tasty vegetarian meals to our menu. Nate was instrumental in keeping operations going in the bunkhouse by keeping it warm by constantly stoking the wood stove, maintaining generators to keep lights on, and restocking water supplies every day from our ice hole in Washington Harbor.  Nate also prepared a wood-fired sauna twice a week, which we used to relax and soothe tired muscles and also to bathe. Everybody chipped in to make the bunkhouse a comfortable winter retreat!

Lisa and I continued our field work from last year spending most of our time skiing on the west end of the island based out of Windigo and 10 days on the east end at Daisy Farm . We collected fecal pellets and urine deposited in the snow from individual moose at both ends of the island for studies of individual diet composition and chemical analysis of urine to determine both the health of the moose and how much energy moose put into detoxifying their diet of balsam fir.

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Sampling from a browsed fir tree on Ransom Ridge overlooking Rock Harbor (East end)

We also collected balsam fir twig samples from randomly selected plots vs used plots (where moose had recently browsed) to compare concentrations of plant secondary metabolites, defense chemicals that are concentrated in fir annual growth as a possible defense to moose herbivory. For more details on these topics, see this link to our blog from last year Isle Royale 2017 and this link to a paper that Lisa and I collected the data for Fir chemical defense and moose.

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Lisa on a beaver dam in Tobin Creek – east end of the island.

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Lisa recording measurements from heavily browsed fir trees.

Researchers have known that moose on Isle Royale are more genetically susceptible to arthritis than other populations, probably because the small founder population that first swam to the island over 110 years ago carried the arthritis gene. Recently, they determined that IR moose also share some of the same genetic markers used for diagnosing arthritis in humans. In the coming years they would like to start a study following individual moose throughout their life to track these genetic markers and possibly the progression of arthritis in the hopes they can learn more about the disease to help humans. In that effort we are also focusing on collecting as many pellet samples from individual calves, which will then be identified from their DNA. These will become “known-aged” animals for this study. Over 23 total days in the field, Lisa and I skied and bushwhacked 168 miles across the island’s lakes and harbors and through dense forests, thickets and swamps.

Of course, we always enjoy the prospect of finding a shed moose antler!

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While we are fascinated by all that we learn on Isle Royale in this, the 60th year of the study, we are also excited to experience this isolated wilderness that has seen minimal impact by humankind. Other than fires that were purposely set on the east end of the island for removing vegetation for copper mining exploration in the mid-1800s, large clear cutting around Siskiwit Lake on the south side of the island in 1936, and fires that burned much of the central part of the island that same year, much of the island has remained pristine virgin forest.  Such old-growth forests do not exist in North America, especially in New England, where commercial forest practices have altered much of the landscape. The eastern end of the island is covered with lush conifer forests at the lower elevations – white spruce and balsam fir predominate, with black spruce the common species of wet boggy areas. Towering aspens are found scattered about the conifer forests particularly along the lake and harbor shores. The western end of the island, which has deeper nutrient rich soils left by the retreating glaciers, supports massive yellow birches and large expanses of sugar maples.  On both ends of the island, white cedar predominates in almost impenetrable marshes and can be found mixed with hardwoods even in upper elevations.

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White birch with white cedar.

The middle of the island, which burned in 1936 and grew back as a large white birch forest, provides little cover for moose in the winter, so consequently, wintering moose are found mostly on either end of the island or along the shorelines.

The mammalian fauna on the island is also unique. Only 15 miles from the mainland, there are only a few mammal species that live here:  wolves, moose, red fox, red squirrel, snowshoe hare, pine marten, river otter, beaver, muskrat, deer mice, short-tailed weasel and mink. Other species have at one time inhabited the island but are not found here anymore, including little brown bats, coyote, lynx, and caribou.  There are no bear, deer, porcupine, raccoon, bobcat, or gray squirrel. It’s amazing that these animals have never made it to the island!

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Snowshoe Hare – picture by Sarah Hoy

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Young bull moose browsing at Windigo – picture by Rolf Peterson.

We truly feel privileged to be part of this iconic wolf moose-study and to be able to experience this beautiful wilderness in the winter!  We look forward to sharing our experiences from next year!

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Sunset on Moskey Basin on the way home to Daisy Farm Cabin

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Sunset over Washington Harbor and Beaver Island the first day we arrived

 

Posted in Isle Royale National Park | 3 Comments