Wolverines Beyond the Greater Yellowstone

Wolverines made it onto NPR two days ago, with a short feature about projects in Washington and Idaho. The story offers solid, accurate information about two research endeavors to which I’ve dedicated far too little attention on this blog; the Pacific Northwest Research Station’s North Cascades Project, and the Forest Service/Idaho Snowmobile Association Central Idaho Wolverine-Winter Recreation Study. (More information about both these projects can be found on the Wolverine Foundation’s research page.)

As an aside, when I started this blog, I thought I was dealing with a manageable subject – after all, it’s not like I decided to cook my way through someone’s 1000-page cookbook every day for a year, or try to follow politics, or document my kids, my love life, or something else that’s ongoing and perpetually in front of me. Wolverines are one of the rarest critters on the face of the planet. How much news can a rare animal generate? I figured it would be just enough for one well-written, thoughtful post a week.

As it turns out, wolverine news, like wolverine attitude, seems to be out of proportion to the animal itself. Or maybe I just love the subject enough to delve as deeply as possible into limited information. In any case, I find things slipping by me, planned posts going unwritten, and deserving information being neglected. The neglect says nothing about my opinion of the projects or information, only about my ability to manage my time. With that in mind, I’ll try to summarize below a few interesting stories from beyond my Greater Yellowstone/Mongolia bubble. I’ve been following these, and meaning to mention them, for a bit.

In February of 2010, the North Cascades wolverine study captured a young female that they nicknamed Eowyn. She left the region shortly afterward, earning attention as her journey took her 150 miles to the north, into British Columbia. Her journey was longer than those of most females, and biologists were tracking her progress as she looped back south towards Washington, covering at least 300 miles in total.

Then, in April or May, Eowyn apparently got on the wrong side of a cougar, perhaps by feeding on its kill. Her skull was found buried with deer remains; cougar scat, along with the collar, was nearby. The skull appeared to have been punctured or crushed. We know that young wolverines die in encounters with other predators, that despite their reputation for being able to scare a bear from a kill, it takes not only raw gulo courage, but sheer luck to come out on top in that sort of encounter. Eowyn’s luck was up. The death was disappointing for fans who were following her progress, and repeated a pattern that seems an essential part of the wolverine researcher’s life: catch an animal, come to know and respect its individuality, maybe even experience awe at its feats. Pin your hopes on this animal, pour your spirit into rooting for her or him, and then – the animal is killed. Or it disappears. This happens to a disproportionate number of research animals, especially dispersing juveniles, emphasizing how dangerous the world is for a young wolverine.

Earlier this year, the wolverine biologists on the North Cascades project caught another female, nicknamed Mattie. They believe she might be pregnant, although the article doesn’t specify why they think so. If she is, her kits would be the first documented wolverine reproduction in the Cascades – again, contingent on being able to confirm that she denned and produced young, the notoriously elusive holy grail of wolverine research. It’s exciting to think that we might have another confirmed breeding population of wolverines in the Lower 48. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Mattie as well as F3.

In addition to the winter recreation study in central Idaho, Idaho Fish and Game is undertaking another study in the Cabinet Mountains of northern Idaho. They are trying to assess wolverine population in this region, although so far their array of camera traps and bait stations haven’t detected any wolverines (they’ve gotten some great pictures of fishers, though.) Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness is partnering with IDFG to provide volunteers for this project. We frequently get questions about how people can volunteer on wolverine research, and unfortunately there are few opportunities. But if you live in northern Idaho, you might be in luck, so check it out.

If you prefer to experience gulo research vicariously, Doug Chadwick will also be speaking in northern Idaho in March, with talks on the 17th in Sandpoint, the 18th in Trout Creek, and the 19th in Troy.

Also from last week’s gulo news, an article appeared in a Colorado newspaper with the disappointing headline “State has no plans to bring back wolverine.” The article can only be read if you have a subscription to the paper, so lest people are convinced by the headline that the Colorado reintroduction plan is scrapped, this is simply a case of a poorly-chosen and misleading title. The article states that plans for wolverine reintroduction are subject to legislative approval and to a thorough consultation with all stakeholders, and that therefore we are unlikely to see wolverines on the ground this year. Since we always knew that this was a proposal that would work over a longer timeline, and that the earliest date for wolverines on the ground was likely to be 2012, the article offers no surprises, and simply reaffirms Colorado’s commitment to considering the social and political process.

Finally, from even further afield, Igor Shpilenok, the Russian conservationist whose photos of wolverines in the wilds of Kamchatka have impressed every gulo fan who’s seen them, has posted a couple of new images on his blog, here and here. Shpilenok manages to capture the spirit of these animals – he gets the intelligence, the curiosity, the toughness, the mystique, and even some of the vulnerability of the species, frequently all in the same shot. He’s an amazing photographer (his work, beyond wolverines, is worth a serious, long look.) Previously, I posted translations of some of his posts; in those accompanying these new photos, he simply mentions that it’s his birthday, and that he considers seeing the wolverine an excellent gift.

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