Doug Chadwick on Wolverines in the Lower 48

As a quick foreword, I completely failed at this live blogging experiment. I’m too meticulous (neurotic?) a writer, I suspect, to respond to circumstances unedited. The below was written in real-time, but a medical incident in the middle of the speech threw everything off and I didn’t get around to posting until today. If you never have a chance to see Doug Chadwick speak live, hopefully this will give you some idea of how entertaining he is. 

With promises to catch up on the two remaining talks that occurred earlier today, I’m going to cover Doug Chadwick’s speech, which is about to start. He and I had a great conversation earlier this afternoon, during which I promised that if he got anything wrong, I would mercilessly make fun of him on this blog. So he’s under a lot of pressure….

Beginning with a reading from his book, Doug speaks first to the desire that many of us have to be humbled by our experiences in the natural world, and then adds that you don’t know what it is to be humbled by nature until you’ve tried to follow a wolverine. He tells the story of his background with the project, how he got involved as a way to be outside in the landscape he loves, and how he eventually became so compelled by the species that he decided to write a book about them.

A pause. Then, looking towards the GYC staff, “Can I say badass? I like saying it.”

Now the humor ramps up and the slide show kicks in. We are hearing the story of the traditional view of wolverines – their awful reputation, the lack of scientific data, the adoption of gulo identity by a badass superhero with anger management issues.

“The things that are true about wolverines that seem like myths – they bring down full grown caribou…and they’ve been reported bringing down full grown moose. It’s like you open your curtain in the morning, and look out, and your housecat has got a deer. But they do that. The other thing that’s been reported by reliable people is, they will drive a grizzly off a kill. That’s scientifically known as ‘unmitigated badass behavior.’”

We are hearing the story of F5, the young female who climbed Bearhat Mountain in Glacier National Park in the dead of winter for no apparent reason. We are seeing photos of researchers in wild conditions – blizzards, blowing snow, 90 mph winds. The audience is rapt, leaning forward, some with their mouths literally open. (Though one guy, across the table, appears to be asleep; either that, or he’s closing his eyes to better envision the deprivations of wolverine research…) Doug describes the sound of a wolverine growl: “It’s like a Harley Davidson is mating with a chain saw, and you’re pretty sure that whatever is in the trap is the size of a velociraptor. Okay, I’m kidding, but these things are designed to intimidate.”

Doug goes on to describe conversations about wolverines with trappers in the region.

“So, we’d talk with these trappers, who didn’t believe that we were catching them. They’d say, ‘these creatures are so secretive and so wily, we can’t even catch ‘em once, and you’re saying that you catch them multiple times?’ And we’d say, “Well, we have a trick.” And the trappers’d say, “Yeah? What’s that?” And we’d say, “It’s easy. When we catch ‘em, we don’t kill ‘em.””

This gets a round of applause.

“So, what is this animal?…It’s a member of the weasel family, but I don’t like that name, because unfaithful lovers and hedge fund managers are giving weasels such a bad name.” More laughs. Doug is going on to explain the physiological characteristics that make wolverines so unique – enlarged thyroid glands, enormous feet, and so on.

Now we’re on to climate change effects, not only the issue of snow denning, but the apparent preference that female wolverines show for locating den sites among whitebark pine downfall. Whitebark pine is, of course, suffering a massive die-off in the Rockies due to beetle infestations and disease, part of which can certainly be attributed to warming temperatures.

The compelling story of Jeff Copreland’s hunch that gulo dads were getting a bad rap draws exclamations, and then further exclamations, and then we realize that some of the exclamations are from a table where a woman has collapsed. 911 is called, we all take a break, and I sit with my fingers crossed that in the excitement of picturing all of the crazy activity that Doug’s been describing, wolverines haven’t actually killed someone after all. The paramedics arrive and the woman responds and we all breathe easier as the presentation resumes.

Doug picks up with the full-on climate change segment, referencing Dan Fagre’s work on climate change in Glacier National Park, monitoring of retreating glaciers and climbing tree lines. “So the wolverine is going to tell us the same thing, but maybe in a more dramatic way, as the pika and the mountain goats and the hoary marmots. Their range is going to be constricted.”

“What makes Glacier whole is the knowledge that it is animated by wolverines traveling the landscape, bears sleeping under the snow….it’s not just a list of animals, it’s the fact that they’re all interacting with each other, that there’s a full carnivore community in place.”

The story of M1 climbing Mount Cleveland, 5000 ft in 90 mins, draws the usual gasps and laughs of disbelief. And then the statistics on how few wolverines a place like Glacier, with 1500 square miles, will hold. 350 grizzlies live in Glacier; by contrast, there’s room for about 40 wolverines in the same area. The Tetons are saturated with wolverines; we think that there are maybe four residents adults. The Centennials, according to WCS biologist Bob Inman, hold two adult females. The Cascades hold eight wolverines of which we are aware. The point that Doug is making is that connectivity between these tiny population nodes is critical for the long-term survival of the species.  Isolated parks will not be enough; there must be connectivity throughout the mountain ranges of the West. “This is the scale on which [wolverines] need wildness to be preserved.”

This is the ultimate message of Doug’s speech – that we need to push conservation to a scale that is meaningful for wildlife that evolved in the vastness of the unbounded, unfenced, undeveloped North America, and that still needs that space today.

Healy Hamilton asks what we know about historical densities of wolverines, whether wolverines have always been so rare or whether their current sparsity is “an artifact of the way we’ve treated the landscape.” Doug says he’s not sure, that there’s really no way to know because, “we rolled across the continent so quickly.”

One gentleman asks what the body temperature of a wolverine is. The answer: “Around 100.”

Someone asks whether there are wolverines in the Wyoming Range. Doug turns the microphone over to me, inducing a sense of panic and a long, babbling story about the female born in the Winds who traveled to the Wyoming Range for a while but then went back to the Tetons.

Judging by the long line of people waiting to buy the book – not to mention the excited crowds of people who come to share stories of wolverine sightings with me – people are inspired by the talk and ready to learn more. Which is exactly what we were hoping for.

 

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4 thoughts on “Doug Chadwick on Wolverines in the Lower 48

  1. Saw a male and female wolverine with 2 pups in the Madison range about 12 years ago in early summer. The family occupied a lakeside boulder field about 9700 ft. The lake is very isolated and rarely sees people; We have been back a few more times but have not seen wolverines…

  2. Here is the GPS of the wolverine sightings 1995: 44 55′ 34.00 N 111 27′ 50.11 W Elevation 2973 meters, just above Dutchman lake Montana. I have some pictures, where can I send them?? Don Weber

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