The Wildlife Biologist Mystique

Last night Jason gave a wolverine presentation to a packed auditorium at the Teton County Library. Lydia and I counted 75 people before we got stuck in the utility closet by the press of the crowd and lost our line of sight and our ability to count. Jason talked for 45 minutes to an audience comprised of older nature lovers, young backcountry skiers, and wolverine enthusiasts who had turned out in solidarity with their species of interest. Even peering around the edge of the utility closet, it was possible to locate these guys; the ones who nodded their heads as Jason talked about wolverine characteristics that they identified with, the ones who were quick to offer comments that highlighted their own experiences with wolverines.  During the 20 minute question-and-answer session that followed the talk, several audience members shared their stories of wolverine sightings, and one woman, certain that she had seen the celebrity M56 during his trip to Colorado last year, told us she would drop by our office to give a detailed account. A second woman narrated her encounter with a wolverine in the Gros Ventres. This morning the phone rang early, a woman interested in reporting a possible sighting outside of Wilson, Wyoming.

Shortly before Christmas, I was talking casually with an acquaintance after an event and I mentioned our wolverine work. Two strangers, overhearing the word ‘wolverine,’ politely interrupted to tell me tales of wolverine encounters, one of them more than 20 years ago in the Cascades. Last year, buying skis for wolverine surveys, I mentioned the intended use of the purchase to the guy who was helping me choose my boots, and he and another salesman immediately began regaling me with their own epics (I say that with slight irony; I have some doubts that a wolverine really chased their snowmobile around, but it was a good story all the same, and I enjoyed hearing it.) In September, clearing brush from a conservation easement property in Massachusetts, where I was visiting my family, I mentioned my work to one of my mother’s fellow land trust officers and he had a story of having seen a wolverine in Minnesota as a boy.

As it turns out, nearly everyone has a wolverine story.

The accuracy of some of these stories is open to question, and if we are to use them for even quasi-scientific purposes, we have to be extremely selective about what we count as a ‘confirmed’ sighting. That’s why we’re training people to identify and record tracks in a reliable way. Beyond that, though, the sense of enthusiasm and camaraderie around this animal is intriguing and, to someone interested in the power of story, delightful.

Beneath the eagerness to share these stories is an eagerness – at times poignant – to be included in a conservation effort. I wonder what drives people to identify with a specific animal, or to be so insistent on sharing their story about that animal not only with a scientist who might have use for the information, but with an entire room full of strangers (or even one stranger at a reception.)  I wonder if it is, in part, the mystique and the romanticism surrounding wildlife biologists and their work.  The hard reality of that profession today is the fact that most of us spend most of our time in front of a computer, making models and wrestling with statistics, but the abiding image of the rugged loner spending all his time outdoors, communing with nature and majestic wildlife, prevails. I’m rereading Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, and I remember with each flip of a page how deeply that book resonated the first time I read it, around age 17, and how I wanted that life, of walking through the Himalayas and looking at wildlife and contemplating the mysteries of life in an idiom that offered deeper meaning than that of suburban Massachusetts teenagerdom. I craved that life, and I had no idea how to get there; remote Tibetan monasteries and being a wildlife scientist seemed equally exotic and inaccessible. And yet someone I ended up here anyway, along a convoluted path, certainly, and with a certain degree of sacrifice and existential crisis (it is still unclear to me whether I am more Peter Matthiessen or GS, more interested in the science itself or in the creative interpretation, the storytelling; or, indeed, whether I should just renounce it all and become a Buddhist nun.) But here I am, and I love it, and I am lucky to be as involved as I am, even if I do spend most of my time in front of the computer after all.

For people who haven’t had the opportunity to make their interest in wildlife into a career, the chance to share stories of a wilderness that they identify with and care about is, perhaps, a way of staying connected to that image, which is at heart also the image of the American origin myth: the pioneer crossing the frontier to which he will bring civilization, Adam in the untamed garden of Eden, surrounded by the innocent wilderness to which he will give name and moral order. These myths are two-edged and dangerous, but also deeply, deeply resonant in our culture. Perhaps at some level we all want to be that lone human figure who observes and, in observation, brings order – and the right to shape the story – to the observed universe.

The wolverine is the last of the charismatic large carnivores, now that bears and wolves have been named, observed, scientifically catalogued, and (tenuously) restored. It is a creature whose story in the wider awareness is still being shaped, and whereas we now know that bears and even wolves can survive on the margins of our questionable civilization, scrounging our garbage and breaking into our cars to raid our coolers, the wolverine is truly a creature of wilderness, primarily unobserved, inhabiting the last bastions of undomesticated North America. Maybe the wolverine represents our final chance to participate in the great American myth, and that is why everyone is so eager to participate in the shaping of the wolverine story.

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