For the first time in 63 years, researchers won’t be on Lake Superior’s Isle Royale this winter studying the big island’s moose and wolf populations.
The National Park Service on Friday said the 2021 winter research season has been canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and concern for the scientists' health and safety.
The ongoing study of the dynamics between wolves and moose has been conducted each winter since 1958 and is the longest running predator-prey study in the world.
The research had ramped up in recent years with the introduction of new wolves by the Park Service which brought in Minnesota, Michigan and Ontario animals to bolster what had become a dying wolf population on the island.
Researchers from Michigan Technological University, State University of New York College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Minnesota, Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the National Park Service planned to conduct various aspects of ecosystem research this winter as part of the long-term research program as well as assessing the ecological impacts of restoring wolves to the ecosystem.
“The remote island wilderness of Isle Royale cannot claim to be a refuge from the pandemic," the Park Service noted in a statement on the decision.
By last winter’s count, there are about 1,876 moose on the island and about a dozen adult wolves. It’s likely several pups born last spring also are now roaming the island.
"I'm guessing somewhere between 20 and 30 wolves (on the island) now with two and possibly three litters of pups out there'' from this past spring," said Rolf Peterson, Michigan Tech scientist who has headed the Isle Royle research for decades.
Peterson said the year without research will be "huge hole'' in the ongoing study, "but it won't be fatal. It will just be a gap."
In addition to the direct health implications of trying to do the work during the pandemic, officials also noted there were inadequate air rescue options available should something go wrong with researchers on the remote island during the core winter months. The park is generally closed to the public from Nov. 1 to April 15 each year.
While it won’t be until 2022 until both species are fully surveyed again, Park Service officials said they hope to do some wolf research in the summer by studying wolf feces and checking trail cameras for photos of new wolves.
At 45 miles long, Isle Royale is the largest island on Lake Superior, sitting about 14 miles off Minnesota's North Shore from Grand Portage. The island is a national park and mostly designated wilderness with few human visitors. There are no other major predators on the island, no human hunting is allowed and moose are the only large prey species, making it a unique wild laboratory for the ongoing study.
Moose came to the island around 1900, peaking at 2,445 in 1995 and hitting bottom at just 385 in 2007. Wolves are relatively new to the island, having crossed the ice from the North Shore in 1949. Their numbers reached a high of 50 in 1980, and 24 wolves roamed the island as recently as 2009.
Climate change, spurring far fewer years of ice bridges between the island and the mainland, reduced the number of new wolves venturing to the island in recent decades and reduced the pack's genetic diversity. With no new wolves coming to the island, the animals simply inbred and developed genetic deformities that doomed their survival, spurring the dramatic wolf reintroduction effort in recent years to maintain some natural limit on the island's moose.