The Wolverine Week in Review

A small avalanche of articles on wolverines has appeared over the past two weeks. From an enthusiastic write-up of Doug Chadwick’s Canadian tour promoting The Wolverine Way, to two pleas (here, a piece in New West, and here, in National Parks Traveler) for wider protection of the species in the US, to a synopsis in High Country News of new climate change research that suggests that wolverines are facing harder times ahead, to a recap of the adventures of the lone Sierra male, wolverines are becoming more newsworthy day-by-day. Average daily visits to this blog are about twice what they were six months ago, and attendance at wolverine talks in Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming has been standing-room-only for the past ten months. All of this indicates an increased interest, which is gratifying to those of us who have long hoped that the wolverine would gain a more prominent place in our collective awareness.

Sometimes, wider attention can be two-edged, however. Over the past few years, as we’ve prepared to induct the wolverine into the ranks of conservation darlings, I’ve had a few moments of panic over the way in which good intentions could go awry. There’s a thin line between reasoned advocacy and blind enthusiasm, and it’s easy for the former to tip over into the latter. The wolverine needs a constituency, but it needs a constituency that advocates for smart things, in a smart way.

Immediately following the listing decision in December,  the environmentalist reaction to the “warranted but precluded” designation was primarily one of disappointment and reproach. I was particularly taken aback by an editorial that lambasted the decision as “political” and called for immediate listing. I’ve struggled to articulate reasons for my reaction to this piece, because I too would have preferred to see the wolverine listed and offered endangered species protections, even while realizing that the ‘warranted but precluded’ status represents a huge step forward. But, after some reflection, after a lesser resurgence of frustration while reading some of last week’s articles, and partially in reaction to some recent discussions about Montana’s trapping season (about which more to come in later posts), I think it comes down to this:

The environmental movement gained its foothold in the midst of the crises of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and its narrative – its essential script – is always of crisis. Environmental advocates are caught in a perpetual reactive cycle that is fundamentally defensive, combative, and angry. And in order to be defensive and combative, one requires, of course, someone against whom to direct one’s anger – an enemy.

In reacting to the listing decision in December, some people chose to cast the federal government in the role of enemy. There have been murmurs within the environmental advocacy community and the growing wolverine fan base, seeking to assign that role to other groups – to snowmobilers, to trappers, to ranchers. It is to the credit of environmental advocates that none of these narratives of threat have blown up and taken off, but the risk is always there. And it is a risk, for two reasons. First, using any of these potent narratives against a specific identity-based group has the potential to evoke an anti-wolverine reaction from politically powerful people. Take a ten-second glance at the state of wolf conservation, and you will understand why this would be a disaster. Second,  re-enacting the ritual battles of cultural identity that characterize environmental disputes in the West distracts us  from the real issues surrounding wolverine conservation, which are climate change and habitat fragmentation.

This, then, is why calls for listing as a conservation solution for wolverines make my stomach flip. Listing has worked fantastically for a number of species, but it’s as if people have come to believe that putting an animal on the list is the equivalent of having conserved it. That’s not the case. The wolverine could be listed, and it would make little difference to its long-term prospects, because we lack the political and social will to tackle those big, looming issues, and the ESA, which doesn’t allow us to regulate for climate change, gives us no grounds to do so.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t list the wolverine, but that we need to stay focused on substantive as well as symbolic actions. We’ve become so accustomed to fighting for listing as the apotheosis of endangered species conservation that, in some ways, we’re floundering in confusion, and clinging to the comfort of those old successes, as we try to deal with the fact that wolverines – and polar bears, and other species threatened by climate change – call for something above and beyond the predictable strategies that have worked well in the past. We don’t yet know what those solutions will look like, but we know that they will have to be bigger and just as systemic as the problems that necessitate them.

And this brings me back to narratives of combat, crisis, and enemies. If we’re going to tackle these bigger issues, we need alliances, not battle lines. We need to use reasonable federal decisions as a jumping-off point instead of entrenching and employing limited resources to fight the government. We need better data on critical questions about reproduction,  dispersal, and genetic exchange so that we know how to take effective action – which means that we need to fund research and monitoring. We need to guarantee every single wolverine a fighting chance to successfully disperse and reproduce, with as few potential sources of direct mortality as possible. We need instantaneous action on climate change, although – as Synte Peacock’s recent paper on climate modeling in wolverine habitat in the Rockies points out – it may be too late for that already. We need a push for a new conservation narrative, more complex, more sophisticated, and ultimately more successful, that can build alliances for action on those larger issues.

So keep the interest in wolverines high, and keep calling for listing, but let’s make sure that we’re also talking about what we’re going to do beyond that to ensure that the wolverine stays on the ground in the Rockies. There is a crisis, but it’s not a simple crisis with a single solution – it’s worldwide and culturally embedded, and its implications extend far beyond wolverines.

That was something of a rant, and I apologize for any sense of negativity. I deeply appreciate the increasing interest in wolverines and the sincerity behind people’s desire to see it protected. But I hope we can direct energy and resources in the most effective fashion, without getting distracted by protracted legal or media battles unless they are necessary.

To bring things down a notch, I’ll leave off with a series of camera-trap photos from Banff National Park in Canada, which includes some photos of a wolverine gnawing on a moose carcass, and a great action shot of a wolverine in mid-air, chasing a raven. Enjoy.

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5 thoughts on “The Wolverine Week in Review

  1. While I agree with pretty much all of this, recently you said you wish there were enough wolverines for every trapper to get one. Regardless of how one feels about trapping, this statement fell far short of promoting the needs of the wolverine population. As Montana continues to allow the hunting and trapping of wolverine, much more than an emotional reaction is in effect. The scientific research provides the tools and knowledge to advocate and educate about the needs of the wolverine and the tremendous impacts on them with the loss of each and every one, even at limited quotas. Your statement, “We need to guarantee every single wolverine a fighting chance to successfully disperse and reproduce, with as few potential sources of direct mortality as possible, ” needs to be reiterated again and again. If the wolverine scientists and researchers become more concerned with politics and opinions then communicating objective scientific findings and making unfavorable recommendations, the wolverine is truly misrepresented and will lose. Their losses will be due to more then climate change, loss of habitat, shortage of research dollars, hunting and trapping.

    • I think you misinterpreted my statement. I DO wish that there were enough wolverines for every trapper to take one without consequence to the population – the key part of that statement is “without consequence to the population,” not “I wish trappers could get wolverines.” From a population perspective, if there were that many wolverines out there, they wouldn’t be threatened, and that would be great.

      I also added to that statement, “Unfortunately, the science suggests that this is not the case.” Throughout, above all things, I’ve emphasized sticking to the science in this discussion, and not taking off into an emotional, animal-rights-based stance. So we are on the same page.

      Unfortunately, though, science provides us only with intimations, not directives. And sometimes it doesn’t even provide us with definitive answers – only with a general suggestion of what’s going on. For example, the science, contrary to claims, does not definitively state that trapping is bad for the population – no one has ever actually explored that hypothesis. We have a wealth of other information that strongly suggests that this is the case, but we don’t have a carved-in-stone answer. Likewise, there’s no definite science that says that backcountry recreation is bad for wolverines – there are just strong suggestions. So we need to be very careful about what we claim, and how we advocate for our desired outcomes. This doesn’t mean giving up – it means understanding and being realistic about how the system works.

      Science and policy are two different things, and transforming the former into the latter is always a political and social process. Conservation policy isn’t about the triumph of truth, no matter what we would like to think; it’s about negotiating among subjective values, and to be effective, conservationists and researchers and advocates have to remain aware of this. Of course we are not talking about making concessions that will harm the wolverine – we’re talking about playing smart instead of playing rough. I think of it as the difference between engaging in a boxing match, and playing chess. If you think of the situation as the former, you’re just going to find yourself back in the ring again and again, getting beaten up or beating up the other guy, round after round, at the end of which someone is always going to emerge bruised and ticked off. If you think of it as the latter, you maneuver all of your pieces, all of your information, all of your diplomatic skills, until you have your opponent in checkmate. But if you play chess right, you are always being respectful of your opponent’s skills and strategies, because you know that if you don’t respect what s/he is thinking about and trying to do, you’re going to lose. Hopefully you both emerge feeling like you learned something, and willing to come back to the game next time in a reasoned way.

  2. I appreciate this wolverine discussion. It is good and healthy. Hopefully we can keep it that way and not let our emotions get the better of us. Don’t get me wrong…emotions are wonderful and add considerable depth to our lives and I believe they can even help us make solid informed decisions if we master them. However, so often we fail to control our emotions because we simply fail to understand those coming from what may be another valid perspective. I really hope wolverine conservation efforts take a different path than that of the wolf. I believe this can happen if we as individuals strive to understand other humans as much as some are striving to understand wolverines.

    • Thanks, Nate. I agree. Those big, emotional debates should be carried out in other venues where they don’t distract from conservation outcomes. I think we too often forget that conservation is about social science as much as it is about biology and ecology, so I appreciate you reminding us of that.

  3. Pingback: Potential Change to Polar Bear ESA Rule « The Wolverine Blog

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