More Tar Sands Oil in Michigan Pipeline?

  • Workers measure pipe before cutting and removing the section from the Enbridge pipeline oil spill site near Marshall, Michigan. This photo was taken on August 6th, 2010. (Photo courtesy of EPA)

Enbridge Energy is planning to replace an old pipeline that runs through Michigan.

It’s called Line 6B. That’s the same line that broke in Marshall nearly two years ago.  The Environmental Protection Agency says more than one million gallons of tar sands oil spilled into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. 

Since the spill, Enbridge has been making repairs on that pipeline.   

Joe Martucci is a spokesperson for Enbridge. He says the new pipeline will cut down on the number of repairs they’ll have to make.

“The purpose and need of it is integrity driven and also to increase the capacity of the line at the same time.”

After the Marshall spill, Enbridge was ordered to reduce the pressure in Line 6B.  That means there’s a lot less oil flowing through that pipeline now than there was before the spill.

Martucci says the new pipeline will allow Enbridge to double the amount of oil they can transport, up to 500,000 barrels per day.  There is the potential for the pipeline to move as much as 800,000 barrels per day. But Joe Martucci says they would have to add more equipment to do so, and file a new application with the state of Michigan.

He says oil from Alberta’s tar sands region will be the main product in their new pipeline. 

“The refiners and others are telling us they want more access to this oil and you know, it’s our job to try and provide them with a transportation capacity that makes that available.”

Some landowners and environmental groups are worried about the idea of more tar sands oil moving through the Great Lakes region.

Beth Wallace is with the National Wildlife Federation. 

“In order for them to transport it in its raw form, which it almost is equivalent to holding a chunk of clay, they have to dilute it with this liquid gas condensate and pump it at very high pressures, which heats the line as well. It’s like sandblasting a line.”

Wallace says her group is concerned those factors could lead to another pipeline spill. The official investigation into what caused the Marshall spill is still underway. 

The federal government is also funding a study to find out whether tar sands oil is more corrosive to pipelines than traditional crude oil. (The Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration was directed by Congress to study whether diluted bitumen, aka tar sands oil, poses any increased risk of spills in pipelines that carry it. PHMSA has contracted this study out to the National Academy of Sciences, to, in PHMSA’s words, “conduct a full and independent
study of this topic.”)

“Once that study is concluded there could be changes that happen to our regulatory system over pipelines, and so for any project to be pushed through before that study is concluded is premature.”

We’ve previously reported that state and federal officials say the nature of tar sands oil made the Marshall spill much more difficult to clean up.

Enbridge spokesperson Joe Martucci says the company does not treat tar sands oil any differently than traditional crude.

“There’s no factual data or technical studies that have been done that indicated that this commodity has any different effect on the pipelines than any other crude oil.”

The pipeline replacement project will include 225 miles of pipeline in Michigan.  But the Michigan Public Service Commission has only approved part of that project.  They’re still making a decision on the remaining 160 miles.

Beth Wallace with the National Wildlife Federation says there’s evidence Enbridge wants to make the Great Lakes region a hub for transporting tar sands oil.

“There’s a way they can push product all the way east for export, and they’ve actually talked about that in some of their presentations and Power Points to their investors.”

To do that, the company would have to reverse the flow of oil in one of its Canadian pipelines.

Enbridge spokesperson Joe Martucci confirms that the company is proposing to reverse the flow of oil in that Canadian pipeline. But he says there is no larger-scale plan in place. 

“Well, I think that’s a notion without substance as far as I know. I know of no plan or proposal that would connect all those dots.”

That's the Environment Report.  I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related stories:

Neighbors Feel Pressured by Enbridge's Pipeline Plans

Enbridge Holds Open House on Oil Pipeline Plans



Renewable Standard & Bee Palooza

  • Michigan State University's first Bee Palooza was held at the Horticultural Gardens on campus. (Photo by Logan Chadde/Michigan Radio)

A Michigan coalition wants to increase the state’s renewable energy standard. Emily Fox reports not everyone is on board:

Michigan already has a renewable energy standard on the books. 10 % of the energy utility companies provide has to come from renewable sources by 2015. But the Michigan Energy, Michigan Jobs Coalition wants to bump that number up to 25% by the year 2025. The group is gathering signatures for a ballot proposal to create an amendment to the state constitution.

Stephen Transeth is with a group that is trying to defeat the so called 25-by-25 ballot proposal. He says he supports the current standard but does not think the new proposal is appropriate to put in
the state constitution.

"When you put a proposal like this into the constitution, you are effectively limiting your options in the future, the way we generate and use electricity in the next five, 10, 20 years from now, is going
to look so much different than today."

But the organizers behind 25-by-25 say utilities are already ahead of schedule to meet the current standard and it’s been cheaper than expected.

Mark Pischea is with the Michigan Energy, Michigan Jobs Coalition. He says Michigan companies are already sending wind turbine parts to places like Spain and China.

"Michigan has the opportunity to again be the hub to export products made in Michigan to the world, just like what we did 100 years ago with the automobile."

330,000 signatures are needed to put the proposal on the ballot in November.

For the Environment Report, I’m Emily Fox.


This is the Environment Report.

Honeybees are responsible for pollinating about one of every three bites of food we eat.

Rufus Isaacs is an entomology professor at Michigan State University. He studies pollination of berry crops.

"Honeybees are, if we’re talking about commercial agriculture, they’re the most important pollinator. We have tens of thousands of those bees that come into Michigan every spring and they do the lion’s share of the work to get our cherry crop, our blueberry crop, our apple crop, our pickling cucumber crop pollinated."

But since 2006, beekeepers have been reporting major honeybee losses. That’s because of something called Colony Collapse Disorder.

Honeybees are not native to Michigan, but there are 400 native bee species in the state. Isaacs says these native bees also pollinate crops and wild flowers.  But he says the overall health of native bee populations is unclear.

"To be honest, we don't really know anything about long-term trends in their populations because there hasn't been any careful monitoring of them over the years."

A few days ago, Isaacs and others in MSU’s entomology department put on an event called Bee Palooza.

The bee experts say human development is threatening the habitats that native bees use. So they wanted to show people how to build homes for native bees in their backyards.

Emily May is a graduate student at MSU. She’s standing next to a structure that’s shaped like a house. It’s made out of logs, bamboo and pieces of wood with a lot of holes in them. May calls it a bee hotel.

"It's really easy to make a bee hotel. You can just basically take a piece of old wood and drill some holes into it around 6 millimeters in diameter, and pretty much if you put it out there, the bees will come."

May says in winter, you should put your bee hotel in the refrigerator so it doesn’t freeze. In the spring, you can put it back outside along with a fresh piece of wood.

If you’re worried about getting stung, the experts at Bee Palooza promise that native bees are docile. They won’t hurt you.

It’s not too late in the year to start a bee hotel, and you can also plant blue, purple and yellow flowers to attract native bees.

This story was reported and written by Suzanne Jacobs.

That’s the Environment Report for today. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Changing Lights to Reduce Bird-Tower Collisions

  • These birds, labeled by species, were found at the base of an 850-foot television tower near Elmira, NY in the wake of Hurricane Floyd. Ornithologists say communications towers pose the greatest hazard to migrating birds during periods of poor visibility. (Cornell University)

Migratory birds and communications towers don’t mix… but a lighting change might help…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Communications towers make all kinds of things possible. Emergency responders, TV stations, and wireless networks need them… and of course, this radio story you’re listening to right now is coming to you by way of a tower. These towers have lights on them at night so pilots can see them and avoid running into them.

But it turns out… some kinds of tower lights can be deadly for migratory birds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other groups recently looked at bird-tower collisions in the U.S. and Canada. The study estimated that close to 7 million birds are killed each year. Neotropical songbirds that migrate at night are the most affected.

“We don’t understand the exact psyche of what’s going on with birds and why they’re attracted into the lights, but it is not unlike a moth attracted into a porch light.”

Joelle Gehring is a senior conservation scientist at the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. It’s part of Michigan State University.

She says during the spring and fall migration, birds that fly at night can get confused by the steady-burning lights on towers. She says cloudy or foggy nights make it hard for birds to navigate using stars.

“Some people believe that when the stars are obscured from vision of these migratory birds who are using stars and sunrise and sunset for navigation, that that is when they are drawn into the lights of the communication tower, that is when they start circling and circling and potentially hitting a guy wire or becoming simply exhausted.”

And she says it appears red lights might be more harmful than other colors.

“There is also some evidence from laboratory studies that have shown the red lights actually change the chemical ability of the bird to use magnetic fields for navigation.”

Gehring has been working with government agencies, and the tower and communications industries to come up with a solution. She and her colleagues conducted research using the Michigan State Police Tower System.

“The steady burning lights, the lights that don’t blink, those lights appear to be drawing in birds at a higher rate and in higher densities than lights that were flashing.”

They found if you turn those steady burning lights off… fewer birds ran into the towers.

“By eliminating those steady burning lights we were able to reduce avian collisions by 50-70% and those are towers with guy wire supports.”

But Gehring says human safety has to come first. So before any changes could be made, the Federal Aviation Administration had to make sure they would be safe for pilots.

The FAA just completed that three-year study. Researchers ran flight evaluations in northern Michigan and tested various kinds of lighting setups for towers. They found that those steady burning lights could be replaced with flashing lights on some towers. And they found that on tall towers, the steady burning lights could be turned off completely… as long as there were other lights that were flashing.

The FAA could not make anyone available for an interview by our deadline. But in an email statement a spokesperson said the agency has updated its tower lighting guidelines. That means tower operators are now legally able to change their lighting systems if they want to… and if government agencies give them the okay.

Darin Schroeder is Vice President of Conservation Advocacy for the American Bird Conservancy. He says making small changes to tower lighting systems could have a big effect on bird kills.

“Migratory birds are in decline. So reducing one anthropogenic threat to birds is a hugely important task – and one we’re really excited about.”

Requests for comment from industry groups were not returned by our deadline.

In case you’re wondering, I talked with Michigan Radio’s chief engineer… and he says he’s looking into the new FAA guidelines.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Tick Boom & Ladies’ Trash Collection

  • (L to R) Moy Garretson, Karen Rooke and Melinda Fons spend some of their free time picking up trash. They say it's great exercise. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

The tick population is booming in parts of Michigan…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Blacklegged ticks – formerly known as deer ticks – are historically rare in the Lower Peninsula. But over the past decade, that’s been changing.

Erik Foster is a medical entomologist with the Michigan Department of Community Health. He’s been studying the tick population as it’s been moving north along the western Michigan shoreline.

“It’s been so rapid, anecdotal reports say within the last five years of these ticks moving in and just really flourishing. Because of the habitat, because of the amount of hosts they have to feed on.”

He says the Lake Michigan shoreline is good habitat for ticks.

Foster says because the winter was so mild, more mice and chipmunks survived. Those animals are hosts for ticks… and that means more ticks made it through the winter too.

He says deer and birds are also hosts for ticks and they’re transporting the insects north.

Foster says black-legged ticks can transmit Lyme disease. He recommends wearing insect repellant that contains DEET and checking yourself and your pets for ticks after you walk in tall grass or in the woods.

Thanks to Interlochen Public Radio’s Rachel Lane for help with this story.

(music bump)

This is the Environment Report.

When you’re driving around southeast Michigan… you might happen to see three women on the side of the road. They’re all moms but their kids are grown up. They work part time. And they fill their free time… by picking up trash… for fun.

“This is a beautiful area and yet we have piles of garbage there.”

Melinda Fons is with her friends Moy Garretson and Karen Rooke in suburban Detroit.

Karen: “Wagons roll!” (laughter)

They get plastic grabbers and garbage bags out of the trunk. And they head into a little wooded patch next to a busy two-lane road.

Karen Rooke starts on the edges.

“I’ve got some cups, a newspaper and a plastic bag. And a credit card… ooh this is good. I’ll take that to the police.”

The three women crawl under trees and into bushes to get the trash. There’s a pile of Styrofoam peanuts, empty rum bottles, a tire… and two more credit cards.

Karen: “I picked up 20 vodka bottles once and Listerine. I think it’s the kids that go drink down there it’s just a quiet road, and have the Listerine so their parents – they think – don’t know. We were young once too!” (laughs)

(trash crinkling)

Melinda Fons admits she’s a little bit obsessed with picking up garbage. She says when her kids were young they’d get embarrassed.

“They would say Mom, you don’t have to pick up garbage everywhere. But it was so easy to do, you just stroll over to the garbage can and deal with it.”

She points out that trash can hurt wildlife… and she says she just can’t stand to see a place messed up.

“I was taught that if you go into an area don’t leave anything there that wasn’t there when you got there. I would like that same kind of reverence, you know, to be everywhere.”

Fons says she started by just picking up garbage on her walks around her neighborhood. Then… she started roping her friends into it. Sometimes they’ll even scramble up hills to clean up trash on highway interchanges.

Moy Garretson says you do have to get used to people staring at you.

“People look at us like we’re crazy, like maybe we’re doing some weekend community service. I’ve had girlfriends yell out the window and say ‘Great job!’ But we don’t see them out here.”

(bags crinkling, cars whizzing by)

After an hour… they call it quits.

They head to the police station to turn in the credit cards. At an intersection, a guy in a leather jacket pulls up next to the car.

Moy: “If that guy throws that cigarette butt out we’re chasing him.” (laughter)

The guy rolls his window down and flicks the cigarette out.

“OOOH Naughty!”

The women stop one more time to pick up a stray water bottle on the side of the road… and then it’s back to Melinda Fons’ house to unload the six big bags of trash.

Karen: “If more people do it, it won’t take long to get everything shipshape, in Bristol fashion.”

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Palisades Plant Shuts Down to Fix Water Leak

  • The Palisades nuclear power plant in Van Buren County, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The Palisades Nuclear Power Plant near South Haven has an aluminum water tank that’s used in case of emergencies or when the plant needs to be refueled.  That water tank has been leaking for several weeks.  On Tuesday evening, the Palisades plant was shut down so workers can fix the leak.

Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s West Michigan reporter. Lindsey, the shutdown this week was a planned outage – so, in other words, the plant operators saw this coming.

Lindsey: That’s right – the company, Entergy, told me this tank has been leaking for several weeks. It’s an old aluminum tank that holds 300,000 gallons of water. By old I mean it’s been around as long as Palisades – 40 years old.

It’s considered to be a small leak and the company has been collecting the water and monitoring it for weeks.  But on Tuesday the amount reached 31 gallons per day… and that was the threshold where the company determined the leak had to be fixed. So that means taking the plant out of service.

Rebecca: Does that water that’s leaking out pose any safety hazard?

Lindsey:  We asked Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson Viktoria Mitlyng that question and she says no.

“They’re collecting that water; it has no way of getting out of the plant. It cannot go outside and it does not pose a threat to plant workers and at this rate of leakage it does not compromise the plant’s stability or safety. "

Rebecca: So any idea how long it’ll take to fix this leak?

Lindsey: No clue. The plant operators will never say how long an outage will last.  Entergy spokesperson Mark Savage walked me through the process though:

“Shut the reactor down which we’ve done, unload the water from the tank, find the leak, repair the leak fill it up again and start the reactor back up.”

Rebecca:  So this time around the shutdown was planned.  But Palisades had five unplanned shutdowns last year – and one of those was considered to be of substantial safety significance.  Because of that the power plant now has one of the worst safety ratings in the country.  

Lindsey: And that means the federal government is watching the plant more closely. NRC spokesperson Viktoria Mitlyng says they want to see how the plant operators handle this repair… and see what caused the leak in the first place.

“You know, we are at the same time evaluating plant performance. If we find any deficiencies or any findings that will be public information, we will document it in the inspection report.”

In addition to this… the Palisades plant has to undergo a major follow-up inspection to see how they’re doing after all those safety problems last year.  The plant has until the end of September to get ready for that inspection. If they’re not ready by then they’ll be moved into a category that’s one step next to mandatory shutdown by the federal government.

Rebecca: You’ve reported recently that Entergy is revamping all of its safety procedures.  But the NRC Chairman toured the plant at the end of May and said that plant operators have made some improvements but they need to work on the fundamentals of nuclear safety. 

Lindsey:  Yeah, that was sort of ear catching, I’ll say, when the NRC chair says a company needs to work on the “basics of nuclear safety” as he put it. The agency is worried about poor maintenance, a questionable safety structure, poor work supervision, failure to follow up on procedures.

Here’s the list of the concerns discussed at the NRC’s January 2012 hearing:

  • Organizational failures
  • The need for a recovery plan
  • Poor quality work instructions
  • Failure to follow procedures
  • Poor supervision and oversight of work
  • Poor maintenance
  • Failure to respect the role of an operator
  • Multiple events caused by personnel or equipment failures
  • Questionable safety structure

But the NRC chairman said that he believes the company is making progress.

Most importantly, the NRC says the Palisades plant is operating safely, and if it were not, they would shut it down.

Rebecca: Thanks Lindsey.  Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s West Michigan reporter. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Tar Sands Report & Supermileage Competition

  • The Penn State University team heads toward the track. (Photo by Logan Chadde/Michigan Radio)

State health officials say there's no long-term health risk for people who come in contact with oil in the sediment from a pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River. Lindsey Smith reports:

It’s been nearly two years since an Enbridge pipeline ruptured near Marshall…leaking more than 843,000 gallons of heavy, thick tar sands oil into the river. Most of it has been cleaned up. What remains has sunk to the river bottom or dried up on the bank.

The study looked at the health risks from accidently swallowing or touching the oil that’s left.

"Like an accidental gulp of water that may have small amounts of sheen wouldn’t really be expected to be a concern."

That’s Dr. Jennifer Gray, one of the toxicologists who did the study.  She says there’s no increased risk of cancer. No need to panic if you accidently touch some oil: just wash the affected area with soap and water.

Gray says some people could get a skin rash from the exposure. If they’re worried, she says they should call their doctor. But Gray says parents should keep small children away from dried out tar patties left behind. She also advised pet owners to bathe animals who may have come into contact with submerged oil.

For the Environment Report, I’m Lindsey Smith.

(music bump) 

This is the Environment Report.

They look like one-person bobsleds. They run on lawnmower engines. And they get incredible mileage.

They’re cars that achieve what’s called supermileage. College engineering students from as far away as Quebec come to compete in the SAE International Supermileage Competition.

It’s held every year at the Eaton Corporation Proving Grounds in Marshall, Michigan.

When we visited last week, a lot of the students were scrambling to finish last-minute improvements to their vehicles before the moment of truth.

(sound of drilling)

Each driver had to complete six laps on a 1.6 mile track. And they had to maintain an average speed of 15 miles per hour. Teams could do as many runs as they wanted.

Laura Pillari is the driver for the University of Michigan team.

"I was a little nervous because there's a lot of stuff to do with my hands, and I'm kind of crammed in there with this little helmet, and it's very, very hot in that car in the sun."

To measure mileage, competition officials gave each team regulation fuel tanks that were weighed before and after each run. These vehicles can get hundreds or even thousands of miles to the gallon.

Most of the teams build their cars out of fiberglass, but carbon fiber is the ideal material for teams with enough experience and resources. It’s extremely sturdy and lightweight.

Jim Gluys is an engineer with the Eaton Corporation. The company sponsors the competition along with SAE International.

"They go through and they highly modify the engine for one thing. They build very aerodynamic bodies for the cars, and then they employ usually what’s called a burn and coast technique."

The students say this driving technique is crucial for achieving high mileage.

John Pearson is a senior at Penn State University – Behrend College.

"The biggest thing is actually how you drive it. We run the engine up to maybe 22 mph and that takes five seconds then we cut the engine and coast for the next two minutes, and then you fire the engine again."

Despite their amazing mileage, these super lightweight vehicles are not made for the highway. They have only 3.5 horsepower.  Compare that to a typical small car, say, the Ford Focus, that has 143 horsepower.

But many team members say the competition is less about real world applications and more about giving students experience and inspiration.

Jon Hofman is a senior from Calvin College. He said it’s especially important for young engineers to value fuel efficiency.

"For a long time it seemed like Detroit didn't care about fuel efficiency, and I think we're trying to change that attitude a little bit. The new cars coming out of Detroit are more and more efficient and that's exciting."

The Calvin College team placed seventh in fuel economy with 705 miles per gallon.

The team from UM placed second in design but they did not place in fuel economy.

The top prize in both design and fuel economy went to Penn State-Behrend. They achieved 1,485 miles per gallon.

This story was reported and written by Suzanne Jacobs.


Volunteers Hunt for Moose Bones on Isle Royale

  • Moosewatch volunteer Dave Beck holds up a marked antler. Team leader Jeff Holden looks on. They mark the antlers and hang them in a tree so others know the antler has been found and documented.

Wolves and moose are at the heart of the world’s longest running study of a predator and its prey.  The drama unfolds on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.

But it’s a big island, almost entirely wilderness.

The researchers from Michigan Tech say they can’t cover all that ground alone. 

So they have a program called Moosewatch.  It’s a backcountry expedition where you pay to help out with the wolf-moose study.  But be warned: it’s no easy little walk in the woods.

"We’re going to trash through the understory here for a third to half of a mile and see if we can find some dead moose."

That’s Jeff Holden. He’s a Moosewatch group leader, in charge of a group of six (himself plus five volunteers).  We’re going to push our way into the thick forest.

I put an arm up to keep the branches from whacking me in the face.

Jeff Holden’s got GPS to guide us… but it’s easy to lose sight of each other as the forest swallows us up.

Holden: "Sue… Jeff… Pete!  (laughs) This is typical, all the yelling around."

Everyone’s eyes are down… looking for a flash of white in the moss.

"Bone! You’ve got a bone? Yeah."

"So, Dave Beck just found a bone. We all converge on it and then we drop packs. (Sue Morrison: 'I've got the flags!') Sue’s got the flags, she puts orange flags out in trees so we know where the center of the search is."

The team fans out and spends a few minutes looking for more bones… but no luck.  Jeff Holden says when wolves kill an adult moose, they’ll rip it apart and drag the parts in different directions.

"The farthest I’ve found a confirmed moose pulled apart was a quarter mile."

These bones hold all kinds of secrets.  Clues to how a moose lived and died.  The volunteers collect skulls and leg bones from the moose skeletons and carry them all week in their backpacks.

We push on… finding a few shed antlers but no moose skeletons.  It’s muggy.  And right around the time I’m regretting wearing non-breathable rain pants… thunder crashes right above us, with a simultaneous flash of lightning.

Holden: “That’s pretty much directly overhead…"

Everybody puts on rain jackets and we hurry back to the camp, getting totally soaked.

"We are making hot chocolate. Sugar and heat; it’s a good thing in the rain after hiking!"

This is Pete Prawdzick’s second Moosewatch trip.  

"The thought of walking where someone hasn’t walked in a long time or maybe never seems to be magical and special.  And also there’s a little bit of the aspect of can I hike off trail with a 45 pound pack? The challenge of it is part of the attraction too."

That complete break from everyday life is a big draw for these volunteers.  But they also say they like helping with the wolf-moose study.

Ann Schumacher and her daughter Kelsey came out here from upstate New York.

"You never know, a bone we pick up might make a huge difference ten years from now that may really change things and help.  It’s a small way to be part of something really big."

The three crews on this trip found 18 dead moose.

Biologist Rolf Peterson says people from all over the world have joined Moosewatch.  Military veterans, engineers, railroad workers, even professional models.

"We rely completely on those volunteers to come every year.  They cover hundreds of miles and weeks and weeks of effort we could never do any other way."

After a week in the woods… the Moosewatch volunteers gather at Rolf and Candy Peterson’s cabin. They eat a hot meal and show off their scars.  Then… the Petersons and the group leaders stand up and serenade us:

"Bone, bone, ain't it great to do Moosewatch… bone, bone, ain't it great to do Moosewatch…"

You can watch the volunteers slog through the forest at I'm Rebecca Williams.


The Lives of Wolves and Moose on Isle Royale

  • Biologist Rolf Peterson on Caribou Island. (Photo by Mark Brush/Michigan Radio)

All this week, we’re visiting an island archipelago in Lake Superior.  Isle Royale National Park is so remote you can only get here by ferry or seaplane.  It's mostly wilderness.  Cell phones don’t work here. 

Wolves and moose have the run of the island.  It’s an ideal place for people who study the big mammals.

"A nine month old calf.  It looks like it might’ve just fallen down the rocky edge and never got up."

Rolf Peterson has come across a moose skeleton.  Mourning cloak butterflies are lapping up sodium from the bones.  With a yank and a twist, Peterson rips off the skull. 

"I think it’s least disruptive if we just saw off the back leg."

Every bone tells a story.  Peterson can tell how the moose lived and how it died.  He can tell whether it fell and broke its ribs, whether it starved or was killed by wolves.  

"We look for any abnormalities in any of the bones.  And particularly, how big it was, what its early developmental history and nutritional history was, which is key to its adult health."

Over the past 54 years, researchers have collected more than 4,ooo moose skeletons on the island.  The bones offer clues about the moose population – and about the wolves.  Wolves got here by crossing an ice bridge from Ontario in the late 1940’s.

This study of wolves and moose is the longest running study in the world of a predator and its prey.  Rolf Peterson has been involved for 42 years of the study. He’s been here through the brutal black fly summers and the harshest winters. He and his wife Candy live in an old fishing cabin on the island for much of the year.

Wolves are secretive on the island. Candy Peterson says it’s unusual to see them.

"It’s really much more fun to hear them because you can hear them without their knowing you’re listening. That mournful, lonely howl, it does really send shivers up and down your back."

Rolf Peterson and other scientists spend the winters flying over the island in a little two seat plane. They watch – and count – the wolves and moose from the air. 

Over the years, they’ve seen the wolf and moose populations boom and crash.  This past winter, the wolf population dropped from 16 wolves down to its lowest point ever: just nine.

"A lot of it was due to high mortality that we don’t even know the cause of.  That’s a big red flag.  There are apparently two females. So two out of nine, they’re just hanging by their teeth, so, high, high risk of extinction."

He says there could be a few reasons why the wolf population has been sinking over the past six years.  The wolves are highly inbred, and Peterson says it’s unlikely that new wolves will come here on their own, because fewer ice bridges are forming in our warmer climate. There’s a shortage of the old moose that wolves like to eat.  And a fatal disease called canine parvovirus could be hurting the wolves. 

If the wolves die off, it will be up to the National Park Service to decide whether or not to re-introduce wolves to Isle Royale.

Long term studies like these are extremely rare.  Rolf Peterson says there are all kinds of hurdles: financial, logistic, political. 

But he says studies that last this long give us a more complete picture of how nature works.

"The answers that you get after 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 years are entirely different from what they would've been after five years.  I mean, sometimes you get the opposite conclusion.  So that makes you very cautious about saying what we know for sure."