Groups Sue Over Wolverine Listing Decision

Two weeks ago, eight environmental groups filed suit over the wolverine listing decision, with twelve more following last week. Additional information and a more comprehensive article are here. This has been expected since the USFWS withdrew the proposed listing rule back in August. Groups are required to submit a 60-day notice of intent to sue, and the Monday on which the lawsuit was filed marked the 60th day since the decision came out. The document itself is here, and cites the abrupt change in direction that the USFWS made in May when a regional director circulated a memo – later leaked – ordering the withdrawal of the proposed rule:

“In executing this sudden about-face, FWS did not identify any new scientific information that cast doubt on the previous conclusions of the agency’s own expert biologists. Nor did FWS identify any existing scientific information that the agency’s biologists had overlooked. Instead, FWS attempted to apply a new interpretation of the existing scientific record in an effort to justify a refusal to afford the wolverine any protections under the ESA. In so doing, FWS disregarded the best available scientific information and the recommendations of
its own scientists, made numerous analytical errors, and ultimately violated the ESA.”
If environmental groups form one clear stakeholder group in this argument, state wildlife agencies form another – the third major character in the ongoing perspectivist morality play that is environmental policy-making in the American West. The states, too, issued a follow-up document to the listing decision, and I want to give them their due, and representation here. Here’s the text of the letter, which was published in various newspapers and circulated on various email lists:

Wolverine fares well

The states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have noted the recent criticisms about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Aug. 12 decision to not list wolverine in the western United States as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. For the record, our states opposed the service’s original recommendation to list wolverines based on our concerns about listing a species that is at its highest population level in the past 80-100 years and still increasing. This fact supports the conclusion that state management works for the wolverine. The states also expressed our concerns over the uncertainty inherent in using projected changes in climate over the next 40-80 years to speculate about what might happen to wolverine habitat and wolverine populations.

The service, however, didn’t reverse its original proposal due solely to state input. The service chose, instead, to convene an independent panel of climate and wildlife scientists to review and discuss the science underlying the original listing proposal. Endangered Species Act listing is a complex arena that requires decisions based on imperfect data, and we applaud the service’s efforts to seek independent advice. It’s likely the model used for wolverines — a model based on cooperation with the states — will have utility for future decisions.

Ultimately, the service made the right decision for wolverines for the right reasons. We thank the service for its willingness to listen, keep an open mind and utilize additional methods to fully explore science in its decision process.

Together we remain fully committed to the conservation of wolverines.

— Virgil Moore, director,

Idaho Department of Fish and Game

— M. Jeff Hagener, director,

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

— Scott Talbott, director,

Wyoming Game and Fish Department

The purpose of the letter seems to be three-fold: to express approval of the decision, first of all, and to deny that the states exerted any undue influence on the decision – both of which are perfectly reasonable things to assert (I have no information about whether the second claim is true, but let’s just assume that it is, so that we can avoid venturing into speculation unfounded on evidence.) But the third purpose is an attempt to push a particular story, a story titled “Wolverines are fine, so don’t worry about anything!” This story, of course, stands in opposition to the other dominant narrative around the facts, a story titled, “Wolverines are facing some problems and we should try to do something about it.”

The “Wolverines are fine!” story purveyed in this letter is one that I’ve heard, in various fragments and in its entirety, since the listing decision, and it deserves some scrutiny. Let me establish my standpoint from the outset; I obviously disagree with this narrative, and I’m not going to hide that bias behind a blind appeal to neutral and objective science. There are uncertainties in the science (albeit about the margins, not the substance, and even those uncertainties cut both ways), and the science does not tell us what we should do about wolverines, in either the policy or the moral realm. But neither do the scientific facts correspond to the “Wolverines are fine!” narrative, which is based on assumptions and glosses that betray a way of thinking about problems – and science – that is less complex than the world we’re living in calls for. The science does indeed indicate that wolverines face a threat, and in an ideal world, that would trigger a precautionary stance, which is the stance implicit in the “Wolverines are facing a threat” narrative. In this case, it has not triggered a precautionary approach; instead, it’s triggered a stance of apathy and inaction, related, I think, to fear, confusion, and a sense of being overwhelmed, which is wrapped up with the “Wolverines are fine!” story. But the current, and perhaps temporary, triumph of this story doesn’t change reality. The most fundamental logical error in the “Wolverines are fine!” narrative is the notion that because USFWS decided not to list, wolverines actually aren’t facing a threat. A human decision to ignore the preponderance of scientific evidence does not vindicate the notion that the science is wrong (I refer you to the Catholic Church on the matter of Galileo and heliocentric solar systems) – but it does betray, yet again, the endless conflation between human values and science.

And that’s just the beginning.

As I write, I’m sipping tea in a snug apartment overlooking the cold expanses of Ulaanbaatar, waiting for a plane flight north to wolverine country to meet with protected areas staff who will, I hope, help me take the wolverine research here to the next level. (Incidentally, I’m so excited about this unexpected development that my head is spinning – but more about that later.) So the detailed analysis of the two conflicting stories will have to wait until I return to UB next week – if I’m really on top of things – or until I return to the US in mid-November – the more likely alternative, since this post will require illustrations that I need to draw and scan. Yes, that is correct – you will be treated to cartoon wolverines explaining wolverine science, listing politics, and even the Black Death. And that little matter of Galileo and the Catholic Church. It’s all relevant, trust me. So check back in a couple of weeks, and in the meantime, for those of you in the northern hemisphere, anyway, enjoy the slow tilt of the planet away from the sun and back towards wolverine season.

Thanks for Great Audiences

Thanks to Headwaters Academy for putting on a great wolverine event at the Museum of the Rockies last Friday. It was a pleasure to be part of their panel, to share the stage with filmmaker Gianna Savoie and attorney Adrienne Maxwell, and to meet some of the talented Headwaters Academy students – such as the eighth grade student who has worked with scientists to raise awareness and a very large amount of money for the conservation of the chambered nautilus. Meeting kids like that makes me marginally more hopeful about the future of the planet, and talking to an entire sold-out audience of them, and their parents, teachers, and fellow community members, reminds me that there are a lot of great people out there who really do care about conservation. So many thanks to the excellent audience and their wonderful and thought-provoking questions.

I also recently gave a presentation at the USGS Ecolunch in Bozeman, and that was also a great experience. Thanks go out to Kristen and David for arranging my participation, and to the great audience there, too – in this case, for asking a much tougher set of questions that reminded me, in various ways, of how good it is to have a community of people who are willing to challenge your assertions and assumptions, and help you refine and expand your thinking.

I hadn’t realized that I was going to be doing a separate presentation from Cliff Montagne’s Mongolia presentation until about 24 hours before the Ecolunch, and I already had an all-consuming commitment for the afternoon and evening (the debut reading of portions of my YA novel to my writing group in Bozeman – but that’s another story, and another set of anxieties and hopes), so I threw together a bunch of slides from the ever-evolving wolverine presentation that I usually give to general audiences, including slides from the very beginning of my work in Mongolia, which is now five years in the past (!) These slides and the presentation that I’m accustomed to giving include a lot of references to comparing wolverine populations in Mongolia and the Rockies, and to specific questions that interested me at the start of the work. As people began to ask clarifying questions after the presentation, I realized that important parts of my thinking, my motivations, and my hypotheses have actually shifted or been winnowed down – or broadened – in ways that are not reflected on slides from two or three years ago. Some of this came via a painfully embarrassing resurrection of childhood deficiencies – I used to be so paralyzingly shy that when teachers asked me questions in class, the prospect of having to speak out loud in front of an entire classroom would make me freeze, as if my tongue was actually stuck to the roof of my mouth (I had a reputation for being extremely stupid throughout my school career – the curse of the hyper-introvert faced with an extrovert-norm culture. But that’s also another story.) I haven’t had that experience in years, but I did again, momentarily, during the Q&A. Instead of making me feel like something subhuman, as it always did when I was in school, it actually, once the cringe-factor subsided, reminded me that the first step to answering really good questions is being challenged to think hard and recognize that you don’t, in fact, have all the answers.

So again, many thanks to great audiences – the ones who ask the enthusiastic, wonder-filled questions, and the ones who ask the hard questions too. Both kinds of interest are so vital to feeling that what one is doing is important. Keep thinking of good questions, and I’ll keep trying to think of good answers.




Wolverine Film and Panel in Bozeman

On Friday, October 10th, Headwaters Academy in Bozeman will host a showing of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom at the Museum of the Rockies. There’s a poster with details below. Gianna Savoie and I will both be there, to participate in the panel, along with Adrienne Maxwell, an attorney with Earthjustice. Many thanks to Headwaters Academy and the co-sponsors for putting this together.

Hope to see you there!




Mongolian Wolverines Tomorrow at USGS, Bozeman

Short notice, but tomorrow at noon colleagues from my 2014 Mongolia trip will present a seminar on our capacity building work with the Mongolian Protected Areas. Following an overview of the potential for collaboration between Mongolia and the Greater Yellowstone by Dr. Cliff Montagne of BioRegions International, I’ll give a short presentation on the Mongolian wolverine work to date, where I see it going in the future, and how the listing decision has changed my own thoughts about the relevance of the Mongolia work. Also present will be Mongolia 2014 trip participants and co-presenters Kristen Legg and David Thoma of the US National Park Service, and Lance Craighead of the Craighead Institute. Needless to say, after many years of working in the comparative vacuum chamber of my own crazy wolverine quest, I am excited to be part of a great team working on the broader context of conservation and park management in Mongolia.

The presentation will be held at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in Bozeman, Montana, as part of the USGS EcoLunch seminar series. Details are here. Hope to see you there!



And now for something completely different – I’m eager to get out of the morass of listing politics and back to writing about the work in Mongolia. Part one of summer adventures in camera trapping.

The storm comes in fast, when we’re at 9600 feet on an exposed ridge, close to the crest of the divide between Mongolia and Russia. We’ve been toiling upwards for nearly two hours now, and I’ve made the mistake of keeping my eyes front and up, or else on my feet picking their way through the talus, and I don’t glance behind me until a small golden weasel – Mustela erminea, at a guess – pops out from among the rocks and dances around me, and I turn, following it as it does the quintessential weasel dance, circling, peering at the interloper, curious and unafraid, and as I turn, I see the sky roiling in behind us, up the valley, a veil of precipitation cloaking the mountains, snake tongues of lightning flicking across the sky, flickering among the clouds the way the weasel flickers among the rocks, and I realize that we are in trouble.

Ermine in the talus

Ermine in the talus, moving too fast to focus.

The ridge drops away sheer on either side for a thousand feet, maybe more, all the way down to a rushing stream that drains out of the big bowl whose southern rim we are climbing. The world is a palette of subdued colors; rock and snowfields and the copper and rust of vegetation just liberated from winter snows, the only vital color the golden weasel and the deep aqua around the edges of the icebound lakes far below. The valley is a dizzying distance below, and the mountain offers neither shelter nor any easy descent – it is a mountain ground down to a million pieces of mountain, an edifice of precariously balanced talus that seems ready to slide if you put a single foot wrong. The only way off is the way we came up.


Snow leopard country.

I shout up to my companions, who have not stopped to watch the weasel and who have not turned and who have not, therefore, seen the storm bearing down on us. Ulzii, the ranger, turns and I wave and point and say that we need to get off the ridge, now. Tsend, who has joined me from Ulaanbaatar as a bridge between my fairly proficient standard Khalkh Mongolian and the nearly-incomprehensible dialect of the Darhad region, comes back down a few feet, squints at the storm, and says, “Maybe it will miss us.”

“It’s not going to miss us.”

“You need to have a more positive attitude,” he admonishes me, and heads back off up the ridge.

A crack of thunder shatters the air around us and the wind rises as Ulzii and I stare in consternation at Tsend’s back, retreating up the ridge. The clouds swallow the last of the sun and the thunder booms again. I’ve been in the wilderness with a couple of people who I really admire as expedition leaders, people who display qualities of calm and cool that I would like to now emulate, as a leader myself, but that seem impossible to evoke amidst the rising panic and simultaneous frustration that threaten to overwhelm me. The rain starts then, and it turns quickly to sleet and hail. Within seconds the talus, already precarious when dry, is soaked and slippery, making the prospect of a descent even more daunting.

In a tone of the deadest calm I can muster, I ask Ulzii to go get Tsend and bring him back, but he has barely gone a few feet when I feel my heart lurch and skip, and a strange itching sensation passes along my scalp and my teeth hurt and my head spins. I put my hand to my head and look back up at Ulzii, and he is on the ground with his back against a large boulder, his face white. Behind him, I see Tsend rapidly returning down the ridge. Positive attitude indeed, I think, and flatten myself against the rocks, pushing my backpack with its metal water bottle and various electronics as far from myself as it can get without going over the edge. I’m shivering, I realize, soaked to the skin, so I chance pulling the backpack closer, and extract my winter gear – puffy jacket, down jacket, raincoat, hat – and pull them on, feeling the instant relief of warmth through my headache and the strange fuzziness of thinking that seems to have overtaken me. I’m the only one who has this kind of gear; broach the idea of emergency layers with a Mongolian and he’ll just laugh and say, “Zugeer, zugeer,” which is an all-purpose Mongolian expression that means, in essence, “It’s not a problem,” but which can also mean, “You’re being overly cautious and no descendant of Chingis Khan requires such coddling.” This is probably true; Mongolians are the toughest people I’ve ever met. Nevertheless, I worry about Ulzii and Tsend, Ulzii in his uninsulated rubber riding boots and thin jacket, Tsend in the office-wear that he has brought, cotton pants and button-down shirts and a sweater and windbreaker, neither with a winter hat. The hail and the thunder and the lightning crackle and pelt and roar around us, the cloud that is the heart of the storm enveloping the ridge. It goes on and on and on as we crouch there, growing colder and wetter and – at least on my part – counting the intervals between lightning and thunder to try to figure out whether the storm is moving away from us. It doesn’t seem to, it seems to have settled in, huddling over us the way we are huddling against the rocks. We are far up the valley, nearly at the headwaters of the drainage, the vast encircling wall of mountains that mark the upper end, and the storm hits that wall and stays, pushing at the peaks.

Finally it seems to dissipate, marginally, and we scramble down the mountain as another wall of precipitation and flickering lightning moves up the valley towards us. Halfway down, Tsend suggests that we wait and see, that perhaps this one will miss us and we can go back up, but Ulzii mutters “Ayul, ayul,” which means “dangerous,” and I’m glad that he has said it so that I can avoid speaking. My head still hurts. Later, I know that I’ll have to talk to them again about gear and about mountain safety issues – the awkward problem of the dynamic of a young woman telling two older men what to do – hopefully this time with more impact, but for now, between my aching teeth and muscles and the splitting headache, I’m glad not to have to talk.

Not until we’re back at our camp, huddled under the battered old tent fly that Ulizii has stretched between two trees, tending to a sputtering fire and trying to avoid the leaks as another round of rain and hail pelt down, do I process what happened. Ulizii and Tsend both felt it too – the lurch of the heart, the prickling skin, the burn along the edges of the scalp: lightning passing through us from a charge in the ground. The realization comes with the sense of deferred awe that people seem to experience only after they emerge from extremely dangerous situations, when the adrenaline releases its hold and the mind stutters to life again. We could have died up there.

It’s day four of a research trip to set up wildlife cameras in the most remote reaches of northern Mongolia, and I ask myself a question that I’ve asked myself many times before: is this work worth the risk?

I don’t have the right to answer this question for my companions, but they’ve made it clear that they want to be here and understand that it’s potentially dangerous. For myself, the answer remains the same: Yes, it’s worth it. And we’ll be back up that mountain tomorrow, even though, looking up at it from our camp, I have the uneasy sense that it’s not finished with us yet.


Trying to keep the fire alive back at camp in the post-lightning deluge.



The long-expected news that wolverines will not be listed under the Endangered Species Act finally appeared in the official record last week. I said I wasn’t going to analyze this situation any further than I already did in a previous post a couple of weeks ago. Digging further into the science isn’t going to do any good, since this situation involves political currents that are far outside my realm and that have nothing to do with research. But here is a general press roundup, with attention to a few statements made by key players.

The original AP article, picked up by outlets nationwide, and expanded upon in various publications (including Science) outlines the decision to withdraw the proposal for listing, and quotes a number of people involved in the decision. First, issues of factual accuracy: of note here are statements made by Dan Ashe, the director of USFWS, particularly the assertion that recent confirmed records of wolverines in places like Utah, Colorado, and California suggest that wolverines might be “adapting” to climate change. Let me put this in the most temperate fashion I can muster right now: this idea is absurd. We believe that wolverines were extirpated from their former range – including Utah, Colorado, and California – due primarily to poison bait campaigns against wolves and other predators in the early 20th century. They are currently reoccupying former range, not expanding into new and different habitat. This reoccupation of former range offers zero indication of adaptation, although it is certainly testimony to the enduring toughness and resilience of the creature in question. Wolverines suddenly denning in the lowlands of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho might suggest evidence of adaptation to higher temperatures and less snow. So far, however, we have no such examples. The fact that the director of the USFWS conflates re-inhabiting former range with adaptation to climate change is distressing because it suggests a casual – dare I say negligent? – attitude towards the realities of evolutionary biology, within the very agency that is supposed to be addressing these realities in the interest of protecting the nation’s wildlife. I know that I just wrote a long post about how science is malleable in the face of people’s underlying values, but I am still taken aback by this casual glossing of ‘adaptation.’

Very quickly after the official announcement of the decision not to list, the environmental advocacy community declared their intention to sue the USFWS. Statements appeared from, among others, Rocky Mountain Wild, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Climate Science Watch, and the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. In the past, I’ve been skeptical about the value of litigation. It’s not a tactic of which I approve, since it usually escalates identity politics and creates a committed cadre of conservation opponents. I’ve done my best, within the limited scope of my powers, to encourage people to pursue alternative options to deal with wolverine conservation needs. In this instance, however, I am going to stay out of it. I’m not saying that I’m now in favor of litigation as a general tactic. I’m just saying that in some cases, one finds oneself more interested in sitting back with a good book and glass of wine and remaining judiciously quiet.

Nevertheless, I hope that the environmental activist community continues to maintain a high standard of accuracy in their statements about this situation, and doesn’t stoop to pushing the same old identity-based narratives that certain other parties (beyond the environmental community) in this debate have already resorted to. I’m not going to point to specific individuals here, but I did hear a radio interview in which some generally inaccurate statements were made by an environmental advocate – wolverines are threatened by logging, wolverines are threatened by snowmobiles, the wolverine population was originally knocked back to Canada by trapping, etc. None of this is true, and while I think the idea of building a broad base of support for wolverine conservation may be moot by now, it still doesn’t serve the wolverine’s interests to cultivate more enemies by picking at snowmobilers, trappers, and the logging industry. Climate change threatens snowmobilers and wolverines alike. Most likely, it will also change forest ecology and take a toll on the timber industry. And as for trappers, they can’t trap wolverines if there aren’t any around, so if they’re serious about preserving trapping culture, they have every reason to be interested in real conservation. This is bigger than wolverines – it always has been, because it’s always been about the survival of human communities that depend on mountains, as well as natural communities. So I hope that the environmental advocacy community will remain attentive to the story they chose to tell about why this animal is important, and I hope that that story will still leave room for everyone who wants to be part of it.

The round of lawsuits was entirely predictable, and it’s probably going to cost more in time and resources to settle this issue in court than it would have to provide resources for wolverine conservation through listing in the first place. This is the biggest tragedy, and the thing that I’m still having trouble getting my head around, especially since part of the argument against listing had to do with limited resources. Of course, listing would have set a precedent and provoked a conversation that USFWS is perhaps eager to avoid – more on that in a later post. For now, however, the situation remains strikingly illogical.

The proposed Colorado reintroduction may or may not be another casualty of the decision not to list. Right now it’s unclear what is happening. It still could go forward, especially since a state-led effort might be more palatable to people who are suspicious of federal government.

I’ve started this post a number of times, and have remained unable to find anything eloquent to say about a situation that evokes no elegant language, only simple disgust. I’m posting this today, in its raw and unbeautiful form, because September 1st, 2014, marks a sad centennial that has a certain resonance for the topic at hand. A century ago today, the passenger pigeon went extinct. In a New Yorker post, Elizabeth Kolbert gives us these facts:

The passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird in North America, perhaps in the world; it’s estimated that when the first European settlers arrived, at least one of every four birds on the continent was a passenger pigeon. The early colonists were awed by the vastness of the flocks, which contained hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of birds. 

Jonathan Rosen, in a longer New Yorker article, worth the read, further elucidates:

In 1813, John James Audubon saw a flock—if that is what you call an agglomeration of birds moving at sixty miles an hour and obliterating the noonday sun—that was merely the advance guard of a multitude that took three days to pass. Alexander Wilson, the other great bird observer of the time, reckoned that a flock he saw contained 2,230,272,000 individuals….

But the profusion was misleading. [In 1900], a boy in Ohio shot a passenger pigeon out of a tree with a twelve-gauge shotgun, killing what was quickly identified as the last wild member of the species…A small captive population remained at the Cincinnati Zoo, including a pair patriotically named George and Martha, but there would be no new feathered nation. By 1910, Martha was the sole survivor, an extraordinary fate for a bird whose ancestors had, in Audubon’s words, sounded—from a distance!—like “a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel.”

Martha spent four years as a melancholy zoo attraction. Visitors tossed sand to get her to move. Officials offered a thousand-dollar reward for a mate, but on September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon in the world died.

When Europeans arrived here, passenger pigeons existed in flocks that numbered in the billions, flocks that took three days to fly by and that denuded entire stretches of forest when they roosted and ate. The passenger pigeon was a victim of human greed in combination with technological innovation – specifically, transportation technology. The advent of refrigerated train cars made it possible to ship dead pigeons from rural areas to urban markets, and they were quickly hunted down to low densities by people eager to exploit this market. As both authors point out, however, the pigeon was also brought down by some mystery of biology, some aspect of its life history that we still don’t understand. Kolbert again:

By the eighteen-nineties, the only passenger pigeon sightings were of small, ragged flocks. And this is what makes the bird’s extinction difficult to entirely explain. Once the passenger pigeon was no longer abundant, it also was no longer worth hunting, or at least no more worth hunting than any other medium-sized bird. So why didn’t it persist at low densities?

There are several other factors that could have contributed to the pigeon’s ultimate inability to recover. Whatever the final fatal factor was, though, we can be sure that no one in early 19th century America would have imagined that the passenger pigeon was at risk of extinction “in the foreseeable future.” We can be sure that every single person who witnessed those massive, sky-obliterating flocks imagined that the species would persist forever. How could it not? What was there to worry about? Nothing at all. And even if they had had an inkling that there was some ecological or biological need or condition with which humans were interfering, the parameters of those needs and conditions were uncertain, unclear, imprecise….and so caution was not warranted.

My ancestors were around during the demise of the passenger pigeon. They probably killed and ate some of the birds. They didn’t know the consequences of what they were doing, but I’m still mad at them for depriving me of the chance to see a flock of birds so vast that it could wipe out the sun. I’m mad at them for depriving all of us of our natural heritage. A hundred years is the foreseeable future – your grandchildren, if you’re of my generation, will probably still be alive. Two hundred years is also foreseeable, to anyone with even minimal vision. And when we can look two hundred years back in time and see what happened in the past, the future comes into even clearer – even if not absolutely precise – focus. USFWS is taking an official stance that wolverines are not threatened in a clearly definable way in the “forseeable future.” Tell that to Martha, and see if she agrees that lack of foresight and lack of ecological understanding are an excuse for inaction.

I give the final word to Jeff Copeland, who went on the record to sum up the entire situation in the AP article: “What’s happened today is nothing less than a travesty of science…This was not a scientific process. It was a political process.”








Political Animals

Go away for two months, cut yourself off from communication with the outside world, and one of the first things you notice on returning is how little you missed blow-by-blow news updates. While I was buying my ticket back to UB from the provincial capital of Murun, I ran into an Israeli guy who mentioned that some of his friends were headed home from their travels, which, in his opinion, was deeply stupid. I nodded politely and then said, “Wait. Why is it stupid?”

He looked at me as if he might have just found a new definition for the quality we were discussing, and said, “There’s kind of a war going on in Gaza right now.”

And I thought, yes, of course there’s a war in Gaza, and I am back in the real world, which is actually a sort of manufactured world compared to the even more real world of mountains and weather and horses and wildlife in which I’ve been living for the past eight weeks, but this is the world with which I am supposed to be current, and right now I do not care, because there is always conflict in the Middle East and there is nothing I can do about it. In my pocket, during this conversation, I had a USB drive containing all of the photos we’d downloaded from our camera traps, which I hadn’t yet been able to look at, and the sum total of pressingly urgent business in the entire universe revolved around whether or not there was a snow leopard among those pictures. I wanted to ignore everything else.

When I got back to the city, however, and opened up my email, it was full of alerts and messages about other news that I would have preferred to ignore in the excitement of sorting through what turned out to be more than 15,000 photos from the camera traps. I am working on a luxuriantly long set of posts detailing the adventures that led to those photos, because it was an amazing summer and deserves a good story, well and carefully written. But time flows relentlessly here in the clock-and-calendar-governed world, and it turns out that on Monday – while I am on a plane for the 24-hour trip back to the United States – the decision on wolverine listing under the Endangered Species Act will at long last be issued. So before I enter the time warp of jetlag, here are a few thoughts on some recent developments in the wolverine world of the US.

First, a wolverine was finally captured on camera in the Uintas in Utah. The presence of the species there has long been suspected, and after a wolverine was photographed this spring in Evanston, Wyoming, close to the state border, the idea of wolverines in the Uintas picked up even more currency, so it’s nice to have some confirmation. The big question now is whether they’re breeding there, or whether the animals in Utah are dispersers – a great research project for a particularly determined gulo-phile.  As recent efforts in Montana make clear, capturing wolverines on camera – let alone figuring out what the animals are up to – is not easy. But people will persist, because this is a compelling species.

Second, in July a leaked memo from a regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service reached the press. The memo, written in late May, ordered the withdrawal of the proposed rule for listing. The author, Noreen Walsh, director of Region 6 of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which includes the Rocky Mountain states, stated that climate change should not be considered a threat to wolverines, since there is “uncertainty” around the scale at which wolverine habitat will be affected by snowpack loss, and also uncertainty about the status of the current population in the Rockies. Walsh made this determination despite the fact that the majority of scientists – including the majority of the original reviewers and the majority of a panel convened to consider the debate over the climate modeling – concurred that wolverines rely on snowpack and are threatened by the future loss of snowpack. The memo includes more detail, and there are some excellent quotes that could be pulled out to highlight and explore her reasoning, but in summary, that is the essence.

Immediately, the environmental community decried the fact that politics were influencing what was supposed to be a neutral decision process governed by scientific reason. The memo makes it clear that an individual is exercising a position of influence to go against the grain of scientific consensus and making an arbitrary decision based on the fact that she does “not believe that the available information indicates that listing as threatened is warranted” (memo, pg 17.) She makes some reasoned points about the scope of the ESA and the limitations of language that require it to assess the threats to a species within “the foreseeable future,” which, when you are dealing with geophysical processes like climate and biological processes like evolution and maintenance of genetic diversity, is, legitimately, difficult to define. But her assessment of the science is simply an exercise in delving into more what-ifs and uncertainties, and this is where the memo becomes a tool for exploring how science really works in environmental policy-making.

Let me make it clear that I don’t know the author of the memo, and I have nothing against her, and I am not trying to use this post as a platform to suggest that she’s scientifically ignorant. In fact, I do not intend to go into the details of the scientific arguments and counterarguments made in the memo. I’ll simply restate my position: Wolverines are cold-climate dependent animals. We don’t understand with precision the mechanisms of their relationship with cold and snow, but we know it’s there, and we have a strong inference that it revolves around snow-obligate denning, and around other benefits accruing to a creature who can monopolize and maximize a snowbound niche for much of the year. We also know that during a colder age, in the Pleistocene, wolverines were much more widespread than they are now, with fossils and human cultural artifacts attesting to their presence as far south as Maryland in the US, and France and Spain in Europe. We have the capacity to observe, though the fossil and archaeological record, the consequences of climatic warming on wolverines during a previous episode of major climate change. They vanished from the southern extent of their range. Whatever human-related factors the species was dealing with at that time, when the entire global population of Homo sapiens was a bare handful of dust tossed into the wind and scattered across the landscape, pale in comparison to what they are coping with now, when there are seven billion of us occupying every spare corner of the planet. I doubt that humans were the decisive factor in the previous range contraction of the wolverine, and I doubt that it’s happenstance that the places in which they persist are Pleistocene-reminiscent swaths of snowbound tundra habitat, with a near-perfect adherence to these conditions, at varying elevations, throughout their global range. I admit that I am unaware of anyone ever having written a paper looking closely at the fossil, archaeological, and climate records as they relate to the previous range contraction of wolverines, so this is off-the-cuff and not backed up by anything in the literature other than the various published reports of wolverine fossils. But when you see a trend in the past, with an animal responding in a particular way under particular conditions, and you see those conditions rolling towards you again, and you have a whole pile of additional evidence, based on what we know about their needs and behavior through observation, about why the animal responded as it did, it seems reasonable to conclude that there is a looming threat.

So much for my opinion. As for politics coming into conflict with science-based decision-making, this is like conflict in the Middle East: inevitable, unless and until there’s consensus among all stakeholders about underlying values and goals. And that’s why I think this memo is particularly illustrative of the role – or non-role – of science in the decision process. Science, to quote my father, is about making natural phenomena incrementally more observable to limited human vision, adding, bit by bit, to our store of knowledge about how the world around (and, in the case of human biology, inside) us might be operating. It is not a process that reveals immutable and absolute truth – not because natural laws somehow change in the face of subjective interpretation, as people on both the right (climate deniers, anti-evolutionists) and the left (certain social science professors, anti-vaccine activists) would have us believe, but because our vision will always be limited, no matter how much technology or philosophy we create to improve it. In the case of ecology and wildlife biology, we are attempting to comprehend incredibly complex systems that operate with different pitches of intensity at different scales. This is not an easy endeavor. The science we produce is, therefore, always going to allow room for uncertainty, which makes it (as opposed to the broad natural laws that it describes) open to differing interpretations. This, in turn, renders our discussions about it, as we seek to create policy, vulnerable to the kind of nit-picking that’s endemic to wildlife policy-making and that has been on display in the case of wolverines over the past year. In short, science is an amazing endeavor, but it is not a good tool for making clear policy decisions, because it very seldom provides a definite description of what is going on. And policy is about the concrete.

Case in point: the memo references two uncertainties, which I’ve mentioned above. One is the “uncertainty” about wolverines being cold-climate dependent and vulnerable to climate change. I put this in quotes because I don’t see that there is uncertainty about this fact; there’s uncertainty about precise mechanisms. The second uncertainty – which is a real uncertainty, because of the difficulty of studying the species – is about the demographics and population status of wolverines in the Lower 48. In the memo, Walsh argues that we don’t know that climate change will have impacts at the scale of wolverine denning habitat, so therefore we shouldn’t worry, because this might not happen, they might be fine. She also argues that we are not certain what is going on with the population, and that the population might just as easily be increasing as decreasing, and that, in the absence of any evidence either way, we might as well assume that they are actually doing really well. This reflects a stance that concludes that we shouldn’t worry about something if we can’t describe the problem with 100% precision, even if we can describe it in broadly accurate terms.

These interpretations could easily be shifted in the opposite direction – that we don’t know how climate change will affect wolverine habitat and that we have little idea of demographics within the population, and so we should therefore take a precautionary approach, list the species, and seek to better understand the demographics and ecology until such a time as we are certain that they are going to be okay (and then delist) or are certain that they are not. This reflects a stance that concludes that we should worry about something if we can describe the problem even in a broadly accurate sense, even if we can’t be 100% precise.

The decision that one makes about how to interpret and deal with these uncertainties – precautionary approach versus doing nothing – will almost certainly rest on one’s pre-existing values and how far one’s sense of obligation extends into the outer reaches of various social ingroups and outgroups through time and space. Some people value the wolverine’s inherent right to exist, other people would like their children and grandchildren to have a chance to see one, still others see the close link between ecological and human well-being, and place priority on these outcomes. Other people see interference in the autonomy of state government and the potential for restriction on the growth of profit for companies operating in wolverine habitat, and place priority on mitigating these possibilities. The marginal scientific uncertainty can be exploited to support policy that benefits either position, but the emotional root of either stance has nothing to do with what the climate models say. There is no consensus that the overarching goal should be fulfillment of a moral obligation to protect a species’ right to exist, or, on the other hand, to ensure that every American citizen has an uninfringed right to profit. We do not agree about these things, and the disagreement mutates and pops up in various distressing ways in policy debates, well beyond the wildlife world, that are supposed to be based in science and evidence, but that very seldom are.

Scientists have subsequently submitted letters urging the Secretary of the Interior to overturn the order to withdraw the listing. Additional letters were submitted by the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Society of Mammalogists. I would have signed the letter too, if I’d been in communication when it was circulating, because I am convinced, through the preponderance of evidence in the published literature, the fossil record, and through unfortunately as-yet-unpublished results from my own work in Mongolia, that wolverines are bound to the cold and snow. Uncertainty is part of science, but uncertainty doesn’t absolve us of what I perceive to be our responsibilities to take a precautionary approach when the evidence supports the fact that there is a threat. But my reasons for supporting a precautionary approach are not rooted in science; they’re rooted in my own values, experiences, and upbringing. And unfortunately, not everyone has the same goals I do. So this sort of debate will continue, on and on into the ever-diminishing future of diverse life on planet earth, well after I’m dead.

This summer, while hiking up precarious 10,000 foot ridges, dodging bolts of lightening, and fording raging rivers through roiling water up to my waist, I spent a lot of time thinking about why I do what I do, and it’s not because I enjoy engaging with people and their issues, nor because I see myself as a warrior committed to a particular side in a predetermined battle of some sort. Nor am I fan of the intricacies of policy-making, because policy-making is inherently about dealing with people and their issues. I do what I do because I’m curious. I do it because I’m addicted to stories, and there is a story about wolverines and I barely even know what that story looks like, and I want to know. I do it because I like pushing myself, physically and intellectually. I do it because I think that this process of making natural phenomena more observable to humans, and of finding a way to explain what we are observing, is infinitely enthralling. And, since I’m as self-indulgent as everyone else, let me admit: I do it because I like being out in the mountains and I like seeing wildlife. I don’t know why, but it makes me happy, and it makes me kinder and more generous and altogether a better person.

I’ve spent the past year not writing much on this blog because the major trends in the wolverine world were about policy and human identity issues, not about wolverines. I’ve tried to figure out how to tell this story alongside the one that I’m really interested in, without pointing fingers or suggesting that individual people are inherently wrong in either their scientific interpretations or their value positions. This is a very tricky thing to pull off, especially since I genuinely do respect everyone involved in the wolverine world, and because no matter how wearying I find segments of society that are more interested in power and profit than in pure intellectual enlightenment, everyone is entitled to their own values and beliefs. I hope now for two things: one, that this situation will be resolved in the best interests of wolverines and their ecosystem, in a way that gives them the most enduring chance for survival over the long term. And two: that I’m able to get back to writing about the species and its ecosystem with an enthusiasm and a clarity of focus that have been lacking. So while I’ll probably write a post on whatever the final decision turns out to be, I’ll keep it brief. There are fantastic stories to be told, about the work in Mongolia and about other research, and that’s where I’ll be putting my creative energy.

Thanks for reading. Onward to an account of Mongolian adventures, and to a better, clearer, and more certain understanding of the wolverine and its ecosystem.