Michigan Tech researchers return to the island to discover new insights about the
wolves and moose of Isle Royale.
The COVID-19 pandemic halted the in-person wintertime survey of wolves and moose on
the island for the first time in 63 years. Consequently, there are no estimates of
wolf or moose abundance for 2021, and the next estimates are scheduled in February
2022. But though the Isle Royale Winter Study didn’t happen quite as planned, researchers
were still able to visit the remote national park in the spring.
Now, fieldwork has resumed and Michigan Technological University researchers have
already uncovered new information about these two iconic wildlife populations. In
particular, wolves produced at least two litters of pups, and moose appear poised
In the Isle Royale Winter Study, Michigan Tech researchers share other significant developments about curating the
world’s largest moose bone collection, advances in understanding of wolf foraging
behavior and the nutritional health of the moose population.
The Isle Royale Wolf Population is Likely Growing
While population estimates are delayed, MTU’s research team gleaned enough clues to
suggest that the Isle Royale wolf population is thriving.
“We recovered footage of a group of four wolf pups taken in January 2021 by remote
cameras at the east end of Isle Royale,” said Sarah Hoy, research assistant professor in Michigan Tech’s College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science (CFRES). “Additionally, observations of tracks and scats left by wolf pups last fall
at two different locations suggest that there were probably two different litters
of pups living at the east end of the island in September 2020.”
There may also have been another litter born at the west end of the island last year.
With reproduction figures like that, Hoy and colleagues expect the wolf population
to have grown slightly or moderately since the last survey count, so long as there
hasn’t been an unusually high death rate.
Michigan Tech researchers are currently working with the U.S. National Park Service
and other research collaborators to discern death rates and the number of litters
Mark Romanski, biologist and natural resources program manager at Isle Royale National
Park, said the National Park Service will use the information collected by MTU researchers, along
with information derived from genetic analyses conducted through Kristin Brzeski’s conservation genetics lab at Michigan Tech and in collaboration with Jerrold Belant at the State University of New York using remote cameras, to provide a formal wolf
“We anticipate completing an initial summary of these data in July,” Romanski said.
“Because of constraints placed on field activities during the pandemic, we are especially
pleased to have multiple lines of evidence to enumerate the population.”
Wolves Are Specialized Foragers
Wolf scientists have long known that wolves are selective when it comes to their prey,
preferring easier pickings: the young, the old and the infirm. What has not been known
is whether that general tendency varies over time.
“Wolves tackle prey, like moose, that are 10 times their own body size with their
teeth, which are only two inches long.”
“It’s a daunting task, as there is a risk that wolves will be seriously injured or
even killed by their 900-pound prey. So, it’s no surprise that wolves tend to prey
on moose calves that are smaller and a bit less savvy than adults or on older moose
that are in poorer health,” Hoy said.
But the proportion of calves or elderly moose in the overall population changes from
year to year. MTU researchers wanted to know what wolves do when more vulnerable prey
is relatively scarce.
Wolves face a choice: Keep searching for easy but rare prey, or attack the more abundant,
healthier moose to save time spent looking for food, which comes with the increased
risk of being seriously injured or killed. Turns out wolves prefer less risk — and
not just on Isle Royale.
Hoy says classic foraging theory suggests that if predators want more food, they focus
on whatever food is most widely available at the time.
“However, we found that wolves do not much exhibit that kind of flexibility,” she
said. “Wolf foraging behavior seems driven by minimizing the risks associated with
killing large prey, like moose, even when the differences in vulnerability among individual
moose might seem relatively subtle compared to when predators are choosing between
different prey species.”
Doug Smith of the U.S. National Park Service, who spearheaded the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, and Dan MacNulty of Utah State University, contributed to the report with research
that suggests Yellowstone wolves also continue to seek out more vulnerable calves
and elderly prey even if it means going hungry for longer stretches.
“We’ve long known that wolf and moose abundances on Isle Royale exhibit pronounced
fluctuations over time,” said John Vucetich, CFRES distinguished professor of ecology at Michigan Tech. “Now we know that an
important contributor to those fluctuations are these dynamic foraging preferences
for weaker prey.”
Nutritional Stress Stacks the Deck Against Moose
When individuals of a population are in good nutritional condition, they are more
likely to survive the year and successfully reproduce. Consequently, understanding
the fluctuations in the abundance of a population depends greatly on knowing the nutritional
condition of the individuals.
In a good year for moose on Isle Royale, less than 5% of the moose population is in
very poor nutritional condition and starving; in a bad year, almost 25% of moose are
starving. This observation led researchers to wonder what factors cause the nutritional
health of moose to fluctuate so much from each year.
In much the same way that doctors use human urine to identify or rule out certain
health issues, MTU researchers combed through three decades worth of data from moose urine samples. Moose urine contains certain metabolites that provide important
clues about an individual’s health.
Researchers analyzed that data to see how the nutritional condition of moose changed
with weather, competition for food and the likelihood of being killed by wolves. The
analysis revealed that two-thirds of variation in moose nutritional condition from one year to the next is related to the weather.
“We found that the nutritional health of moose was importantly influenced by how hot
it is during the summer, and also by how deep the snow is in winter,” Hoy said. “Moose
tended to be more nutritionally stressed during winters with deep snow, which may
be because deeper snow makes it more difficult for moose to move around and find food.”
Moose also tend to be more nutritionally stressed following a hot summer. Moose can
become heat-stressed during hot summers. In response, they start to reduce the amount
of food they eat and increase the time spent in thermal refuges, such as in conifer
Additionally, balsam fir, the preferred food of Isle Royale moose, does not grow as
well in warm climates. Therefore, after a hot summer there may be less high-quality
food available to moose, which could also impact the overall nutritional health of
the moose population.
“This research has important implications for understanding how moose are likely to cope with a warming climate,” Hoy said.
The Isle Royale Moose Population is Likely Declining
Since fieldwork resumed in spring 2021, MTU researchers have made several key observations
about the island’s moose.
“Moose really struggled to find enough food this past winter,” Hoy said. “Because
there have been such large numbers of moose on the island over the last five years
and moose ate branches faster than the trees can recover and replace them, the amount
of food available to moose during winter has been getting progressively worse each
year since 2017.
“Balsam fir saplings, the main winter food source for moose, are in the worst condition
ever observed during the 17 years that we’ve been monitoring them.”
During spring vegetation surveys, researchers found that most balsam fir saplings
had been browsed so severely that they had either been killed or left with only a
few green branches at the west end of the island. Researchers also found the bodies of 13 moose, when in a regular year they would typically
find only one to two starved moose.
Ticks Cause Moose to Scratch Off Their Winter Coats
Winter ticks are also worse than usual this year, as evidenced by moose with very
little fur left in spring — having scratched or bitten off almost all of their winter
coats in an effort to rid themselves of the blood-sucking parasites. This is significant
because blood loss to ticks can exacerbate the detrimental effects of food shortage.
Despite the mild winter, depleted food supplies and ticks made life harder for the
island’s moose this year.
The impact of wolves on moose over the last year remains unknown, but researchers
continue to recover the remains of moose killed by wolves. Learning the full extent
of wolf predation on moose will also wait until 2022’s winter field season.
The World’s Largest Catalog of Moose Bones
In addition to the research into wolves’ preferred prey and moose nutrition, the researchers
also collaborated with the National Park Service to modernize the curation of thousands
of moose bones, including a large share collected over decades by citizen scientists
known as Moose Watch volunteers.
The world’s largest collection of moose bones will be further cleaned, photo-documented
and put into a nationwide database of National Park Service biological artifacts at
a facility with climate control and fire protection.
“It is gratifying to see the National Park Service invest in the long-term preservation
of moose bones, and it is almost certain that the scientific value of the collection
will increase over time,” said Rolf Peterson, CFRES research professor. “We have already put it to use in ways never anticipated
when the bones were first collected and saved.”
The National Park Service provided personnel to develop plans to modernize the curation
of moose bones and for a state-of-the-art, multi-park museum storage facility that
will eventually house the bone collection. The National Park Service also provides
vital funding to support the Michigan Tech students who clean and re-catalog the specimens,
and to purchase the supplies and materials they need.
Despite the missed winter research on Isle Royale because of the pandemic, Michigan
Tech’s wolf and moose researchers turned adversity into opportunity, providing further
insight for the longest-running predator-prey study in the world.
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.