Story Paralysis

It’s an exciting time to be a writer and researcher specializing in wolverines. I’m running my own small wolverine camera project in Montana, and preparing to set off on a 350 mile ski trip in search of wolverines in Mongolia. In the policy arena, wolverines are proposed for listing, with more press attention than the species has ever seen. Wolverines are poised to become the next celebrity wildlife icon, the standard-bearer for the effects of climate change on mountain ecosystems. Perversely, though, all of this action and activity has served to dampen rather than accelerate my motivation to write.

Part of this collapse of motivation has to do with basic physiological issues – ski or snowshoe six to 14 miles, four or five days a week, breaking trail straight uphill through thigh-deep powder with a 40 pound pack on your back, and see if you’re in the mood to write eloquent odes to wolverine research when you stumble back through the door after dark and realize that there’s no food in the house for dinner.

Part of it, though, also has to do with a certain authorial possessiveness, probably the same sort of pique that devout fans of indie bands feel when their beloved group makes it big, and the preppy, conventional guy down the street suddenly thinks he’s an expert on an art form that – in the eyes of the long-term devoted fan, anyway – he doesn’t really get. A good person, of course, is happy for the success of something they care about, but it’s difficult to escape a certain sense of dispossession. For the past five years, wolverines (as an actual entity rather than a legalistic abstraction….) have been the concern of a very small group of people. The narrative of research and conservation has been contained, manageable, and generally based on consensus. The people with the greatest authority and the clearest voice have been the scientists, who have worked directly with the species, held the animals in their hands, understood the ecological relationships, and built the models that describe those relationships. As far as I know, only three people have chronicled this wolverine research in systematic narratives  – Doug Chadwick, who wrote The Wolverine Way, Gianna Savoie, who wrote and directed Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, and me, in keeping this blog. For someone with an enduring infatuation with knowledge and the processes involved in obtaining it, and a natural wariness of propaganda and conflict, wolverines have been a heady escape from the ritualistic bickering over carnivore conservation in the Western US, precisely because they have been the purview of a limited number of individuals.

Now the story is bigger, and in becoming bigger, it becomes less manageable, with new elements, new concerns, new people, and new agendas. In the face of these new elements, my writing instincts have been temporarily paralyzed, and I decided to take a few weeks off to let these new narratives sink in. I’m back now, and will post updates between now and my departure on March 19th for Mongolia. More soon!

Controversy, Camera Traps, and Unlikely Love in Michigan: A Review of “The Lone Wolverine”

 

The Pretty Girl emerges from obscurity with the help of science teacher Jeff Ford, as documented in “The Lone Wolverine.” Photo copyright Jeff Ford.

 

The Lone Wolverine: Tracking Michigan’s Most Elusive Animal. Elizabeth Phillips Shaw and Jeff Ford. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor. 2012.

The Lone Wolverine begins with an ending – the discovery in early 2010 of Michigan’s only known free-living wolverine dead in a ditch – and the rest of the book is tinged with a sense of impending loss. The sense of loss is oddly elliptical, because before this wolverine appeared, Michigan had no wild wolverines, and after she was gone, it returned to wolverine-free status with no actual loss to global wolverine populations. Instead of sadness at the implications for the species – the sort of chronic depression with which conservation biologists cope every day – the sadness is for the loss of a unique relationship between an individual man and an individual wolverine.

At the core of the story is Jeff Ford, a high school science teacher who, along with his friends Steve Noble and Jason Rosser, conceived a plan to track and photograph a wolverine that showed up in the Michigan Thumb in 2004. Although the Michigan Department of Natural Resources confirmed that the animal was a wolverine and issued a rapid order protecting her from harm, they remained unable to invest in documenting her activities, and Ford and his colleagues’ initiative alone provided the impetus – and funding – to gain insight into her life. Over the next six years, Ford used baited camera traps to photograph and video the animal, and tracked her through the boggy terrain of the Minden City State Game Area. He wrote a series of articles for the popular press, keeping interest in the animal alive. Initiating contact with the wolverine research community, he read through the wolverine science and painstakingly collected DNA samples for the scientific community. A heart condition requiring two surgeries slowed him, but nevertheless he returned to hauling venison to the camera site a scant few weeks after his operation. By the time the wolverine’s body was discovered by hikers, Ford had become the wolverine’s protector, spokesperson, and amateur scientist in his own right. Following her death, the book and an upcoming Michigan-wide tour will allow Ford to continue educating people about their state animal.

Despite Michigan’s renown as the Wolverine State, the species has been extinct there for at least 200 years, making the appearance of this animal especially startling. Did she disperse naturally from Ontario? Or was she a released captive of Alaskan genetic stock? The question of his gulo’s origin drove much of Ford’s work, particularly his quest to obtain DNA samples in order to ascertain both sex and source population. In the first endeavor, the evidence was conclusive – the Michigan wolverine was a female – but in the second, the evidence was not. The question of the origin of Ford’s “pretty girl,” as he called her, remains a subject of controversy. Despite placing this controversy at the heart of the narrative, the book doesn’t resolve the question, nor does it really explore the complicated methodological issues surrounding wildlife genetics research, relying instead primarily on Ford’s explanations and copies of email correspondence between Ford and wolverine researchers.

As disappointing as this is to a scientist whose obsessions lie in educating the public about nuance and uncertainty and all the gritty details of wolverine research, the treatment of the controversy highlights the fact that this is not a book about hard science. It’s the story of Jeff Ford and a tough little wolverine who stuck it out in a tiny home territory, hemmed in on all sides by people (and raccoons, not to mention a pack of carnivorous hares that sound worthy of Monty Python), for six years. If the book isn’t a scientific work, it  does succeed as a story of outdoorsmen and their passionate relationship with landscape and wildlife.  The book is oriented towards this audience, and just as Ford’s popular press articles served an important purpose in reaching a constituency beyond the research community, this book reaches out to people unlikely to read scientific papers and who might shy away from self-proclaimed “environmentalist writing,” but who would be interested in reading about a hunter who used his backwoods skills to orchestrate a monitoring project that no one else was willing to take on.

As a book about individual characters, the story contains some highlights, aside from Ford, Noble, and Rosser. The coyote hunters who first spotted strange tracks in February of 2004 and set their dogs onto those tracks, thinking they might be after a cougar, deserve special mention. When Aaron and Ryan Shenk finally realized what they were chasing, word of the discovery spread, and by the time they treed the wolverine after an hours-long chase, other hunters, snowmobilers, and curious onlookers had arrived, vying for a glimpse and a photo of the animal. Several people in the crowd wanted to shoot the wolverine, but the Shenk brothers, exercising the prerogative of the hunters who had discovered her, forbade it; instead, they called the Michigan DNR, resulting in confirmation of the animal’s identity, and an immediate order protecting her. Ethical hunters with an interest in protecting rare wildlife are too often ignored in environmentalist circles, which tend to focus on poachers and unethical hunters. The Shenk brothers deserve recognition and credit for their role in this story.

Wolverine biologist Audrey Magoun and Wolverine Foundation director Judy Long also play important roles in the story, Long through her role as facilitator of contacts and information transfer, and Magoun through her open-mindedness to the potential contributions of an enthusiastic novice (full disclosure: I have communicated extensively with Judy Long and the Wolverine Foundation, and worked for three weeks in 2011 with Audrey Magoun as an apprentice to her camera-trapping study in Oregon, so I too have been in the role of enthusiastic novice in relation to these individuals.) Although all of these relationships experienced moments of stress – circumspectly referenced – they touch on the heart of an unarticulated but important theme of the book: the interface of citizen and professional science. If not for Ford’s initiative, the pretty gulo girl of the Michigan Thumb would remain nothing more than a confirmed wolverine outside of known range, with no DNA samples gathered, no information on her sex or age, and substantially less knowledge about wolverine biology and ecology among the Michiganders who followed Ford’s work. Despite some issues around scientific protocol – which probably seem arcane to outsiders but are absolutely critical within the profession – his contribution stands. And if citizen scientists like Jeff Ford are capable of making valuable contributions to work on rare and elusive species, the book pushes scientists and outdoorsmen to build a better process for navigating the interface of enthusiasm, methodological rigor, and communication with the public. Ford and the wolverine community were all in unexplored territory, but the glitches and the successes of their collaboration should help generate discussion of how to build on shared interests and passions.

The wolverine herself is, of course, the most important character in the book – next to Ford – and in true gulo character, she tantalizes us with brief glimpses and trickster antics. With a home range of barely 6500 acres, she survived in a tiny area in comparison to wolverines further north. Supplemental feeding probably helped keep her within the confines of the protected area, but she still disappeared several times, for days or weeks, before reappearing again at the camera site. She and Ford engaged in an intellectual tug-of-war as Ford sought ways to anchor the bait, test her ingenuity, and make it harder for her to vanish with her prize. She quickly solved each challenge, whether it involved freeing the bait from a cable or moving a 100-pound log to dig up venison buried beneath. Her obsession with caching food is evidence of a gulo survival strategy that relies on keeping meat cool and protected from other scavengers. Ford also caught on video a series of interactions with a local tribe of raccoons that were plundering the bait until the wolverine pinned one to the ground to demonstrate who was in charge. After that, the raccoons either hung back, or, dominance issues sorted out, occasionally fed side-by-side with her. Once in a while, she was videoed tossing an old bone or two around for fun. Wherever she came from, she was getting along pretty well in the woods, echoing Ford’s own love of being outdoors. After her death, an autopsy confirmed that she had never borne kits, and suggested that she was about nine years old when she died. Her cause of death was the same heart condition for which Ford himself had had surgery a year before, adding a spooky resonance to a description of Ford’s relationship with the animal: “They were the same.”

As a record of an anomalous, intriguing event in the annals of wolverine research, the book is valuable and fascinating. As an account of a unique relationship between a man and a wild animal, the tale is inspiring, providing an emotional core to a story that might otherwise succumb to occasional stylistic issues. As a narrative of the contributions of committed citizen scientists, the volume could serve as a ‘how-to’ manual, and as an implicit exploration of the relationship between citizen scientists and professional scientists, the book prompts us to think more broadly about the potential research role of interested and skilled constituencies. For wolverine enthusiasts, the book is well worth the read as an accessible window into the life of a single wolverine and the man who dedicated six years of his life to documenting her existence, and will undoubtedly become an important work in the limited canon of popular books about the species.

 

The Lone Wolverine Guy: An Interview With Jeff Ford

The Michigan wolverine. Photo copyright Jeff Ford.

Jeff Ford, co-author with Elizabeth Phillips Shaw of the newly released The Lone Wolverine, was kind enough to answer a few questions, over email, about his book and his work. The book details Jeff’s quest to document a wolverine who showed up in Michigan in 2004; he photographed and videoed her faithfully for six years before her death in early 2010. During this time, he also worked full-time as a high school science teacher, and became an advocate for wolverines among his students and the wider outdoor community.  Here are some of Jeff’s perspectives on becoming Michigan’s primary spokesman for wolverines.

RW: In your science classes, how did students respond to your interest in the wolverine and to its inclusion in lessons? I guess I’m wondering how it fit into the curriculum, and if any of the students caught the “gulo bug.”

JF: The response from my science classes on my “Gulo” lessons were incredibly positive. I think the positive response I had was a combination of the passion they sensed as I presented my videos, pics, and facts, and the fact that the wolverine was living 20 minutes from the very classroom that I was presenting the lesson. Certainly, the wolverine living right where they all lived contributed to their interest with this real life wildlife detective story. And as I traveled and presented at other schools students were completely “into it”.

One of the Michigan Junior High Benchmarks stated “Students will have a better understanding and appreciation for the natural world,” which opened the door for my gulo incorporated lessons. Also, there was a benchmark relating to inaccurate information that exists on the web, and this also opened the door for me to implement a lesson where students are awarded for researching the internet and compiling a list of wolverine facts, then further researching in scientific studies, books, etc. to confirm or refute that particular fact.

There is actually one inaccurate (or should I say unproven) fact in my book that somehow mysteriously “slipped in”. Did you catch that?

RW: I didn’t. I’ll have to go back and read it again – If any blog readers catch it, let me know.

I was struck by the lengths that you went to to gather information on this one wolverine. Without your efforts, no one would have known anything other than the fact that there was a (gender and origin undetermined) wolverine sighted in Michigan in 2004. One of the things we struggle with as professional scientists is figuring out an effective way to partner with citizen scientists. Do you think that citizen scientists have a role to play in helping us learn more about wolverines across their range, and if so, what are your recommendations for both citizen and professional scientists as we work together?

 JF: That’s a very interesting question and yes, I do believe the professional scientists could effectively utilize citizens to help with Gulo research, and it is technology that has allowed this to happen. With the invention and improvement of game trail cameras utilizing “heat in motion” technology and digital capabilities, it is now possible for an “average Joe” like me to become an effective monitor of his/her area for wolverine activity given the motivation and time. I believe professionals could recruit college students, outdoorsman, etc to monitor their particular area if they are provided with the proper procedures and equipment to do so. This would also benefit the college student who is trying to log “in the field” hours for classes or simply to boost their resume status. From my perspective, I would like to see citizens recruited all across the northern tier of the Upper Peninsula from the far west to the far east. By placing game cameras over bait in January-March when wolverines are nutritionally stressed and the ice bridges are available for dispersal, it would be possible to monitor ongoing dispersal rates from Ontario into Michigan, or to establish that this type of progression simply isn’t occurring.

RW: Now that your pretty girl is gone, what do you see as your role in on-going wolverine education, research, and conservation?

JF: Over the years working with [wolverine researcher] Audrey [Magoun] and [the Wolverine Foundation's] Judy [Long] I slowly made the conscious shift from just being the protector of this one lone wolverine to the conservation and sustenance of all wolverines throughout North America. I started realizing that the research I was doing may help get the gulo word out and help people to appreciate these fascinating mammals. Now that the book is completed, as I tour the state with “the pretty girl”, I feel obligated to try to pique as many people’s interest in wolverine’s as I can, with the thought in mind of what Judy Long said “Interest in this lone wolverine equates to interest in the wolverine species in general and equates to money for research-regardless of how she arrived in Michigan”.  My sister and I have pieced together a very nice power point of my best 100 pictures and video footage, and I am going to take advantage of this opportunity on my road trip to develop some more people into “Gulo lovers”.

RW: And of course, the big question….what is it about these animals that catches people and hooks them so thoroughly? Everyone who gets involved at all ends up really involved. The Blackfeet even have a legend about how, if you encounter a wolverine in the wild, you will never be the same again, never be able to peacefully return to the life you were living before. The species seems to generate a peculiar sort of obsession. Why? And why with certain people?

JF: I certainly think the Blackfeet were on to something, because my obsession with “the pretty girl” was strong, deep, and lasting and I will never forget her, never get over her death, and always feel a strong connection to her…I remember vividly the first time I followed her tracks in the mud in 2004 down a deer run deep in the swamp, and the goose bumps I had on my neck and arms, and the incredible feeling of elation I felt as I followed along behind this animal. This was well before my 1st picture and video so the deep rooted passion for this animal was already evident very early on. I can’t completely explain it- it seemed as though a mystic force had taken over my body and was driving me to study this animal regardless of the obstacles or challenges that lie before me.

I do know the rarity of these animals contributed, her beauty and grace as she seemed to glide through terrain a man or woman would have to navigate on all 4’s grunting and struggling, her strength, athletic ability, agility, perseverance, determination, “never say die” attitude when trying to remove my ratchet strapped carcass, her keen awareness of her environment as she moved throughout the research site, and her intelligence and problem solving skills when presented with a challenge, their legendary reputation as being fearless even when facing seemingly insurmountable odds, their beautiful, powerful front legs, large pads and claws, huge bushy tail that was so beautiful in just  the right sunlight, her incredible endurance the day of “the chase” [when she was first spotted by coyote hunters in 2004] covering 30-40 miles in mere hours, her ability to remain unseen in a human populated area (she could never be more than 2 miles from a human at any given time), a wolverine’s refusal to harm humans. My god, there are so many reasons I love this species and in particular especially this beautiful female, the pretty girl. I miss following her, I miss the excitement of getting new video and pictures of her, I miss walking through these woods knowing she was alive and well, and utilizing the same habitat that I was as I pursued the whitetail deer with bow in hand, I miss everything about her!!!!!

More information on Jeff Ford’s work can be found at his website.

Gulos East

Authors Elizabeth Philips Shaw and Jeff Ford in front of a run pole used in wolverine camera trap set-ups.

Last month, the University of Michigan Press released The Lone Wolverine, by Elizabeth Philips Shaw and Jeff Ford. The book follows the peculiar story of a female wolverine who showed up in the Michigan Thumb in 2004, and who was subsequently tracked and documented by Ford, a high school science teacher who became intrigued by and eventually deeply devoted to the animal. The wolverine died of natural causes in 2010, but by that time Ford had obtained several DNA samples that sparked on-going controversy about the animal’s origins. I just finished reading the book yesterday and will review it here shortly.

In the meantime, Jeff Ford’s “Pretty Gal” continues to inspire Michiganders as she goes on tour throughout Michigan, in conjunction with Ford and Shaw’s book tour. Two articles  – here and here – give some details about the upcoming tour, while Ford’s book continues to generate buzz – including a poll by one Michigan news outlet, querying whether or not Michigan should consider reintroducing wolverines to the state. The results of the poll will be out on Friday, so weigh in while you can.

The origin of the Michigan wolverine remains contested. Either hypothesis – captive release or dispersal from Ontario – seems plausible, but ultimately her origin doesn’t matter.  The story of Ford’s relationship with this particular wolverine doesn’t depend on her birthplace to make its point, and regardless of where she came from, the Michigan Thumb is unlikely to ever support a breeding population of gulos. Tangentially related to this discussion, however, people are seeing and trapping wolverines (a previous post here and another incident reported here highlight two cases of male wolverines trapped this spring) in areas of southern Ontario where the species hasn’t been documented before, and that are well within wolverine travel distance of the Great Lakes. The Canadian Ministry of Natural Resources is asking people to report all wolverine sightings in the region. Wolverines are a protected species in Ontario (at least one of the trapping incidents was accidental.) If you do see one of these animals or sign in Ontario, document the evidence if you can, leave the animal alone, and let someone know.

Doug Chadwick in British Columbia

Author Doug Chadwick will be speaking in British Columbia on Monday, October 17th, at an event hosted by the local Sierra Club. The talk starts at 7 pm at the Comox Presbyterian Church, 725 Aspen Rd in Comox. Doug’s a great speaker and this is a chance for wolverine enthusiasts from Canada to hear him spin his captivating tales and get a shot of gulo inspiration. Enjoy!

 

Gretel Ehrlich on the Arctic

Author Gretel Ehrlich spoke at the GYC meeting about her travels in Greenland with the Inuit. This is a delayed update on that speech for anyone who is following the GYC posts.

A slide show of gorgeous ice, dawn skies reflected in open waters sweeping back to buttresses of frozen blue, an Inuit man in polar bear pants flicking a whip towards his pack of sled dogs. These are the images which Gretel Ehrlich places before us -  though, as she explains, all of these pictures contain stories deeper than one first suspects. The ice, so awe-inspiring, is melting; the reflection of the sky in the open water is likewise a reflection of a catastrophe for the Inuit way of life, for it is impossible to travel to hunting grounds by dogsled over open water; and the whip, Ehrlich stresses, is only ever used as a gentle reminder to the dogs, who are the Inuit’s partners in survival and who are never actually beaten.

Ehrlich’s speech is a powerful reminder of what we are losing as climate change progresses, and she makes powerful, eloquent statements. On her more-than-a-decade association with the Greenland Inuit and her observations of their existence on the ice, she says, “The extinction of tradition goes hand in hand with the extinction of animals” and “Gone is a way of knowing the world.” Our willingness to stand by and let this happen, she says, is “the moral equivalent of suicide.”

I agree, and her speech, like her writing, is moving and skillful. Yet I was left with an increasingly familiar sense of dissatisfaction at the end of the talk. Several years ago I was in the audience at the Yale School of Forestry while William Cronon, the renowned environmental historian, spoke of the environmental community’s “addiction to apocalyptic narratives,” and the damage that this addiction does to our credibility and appeal. He argued that the constant stories of overwhelming crisis that worked so well in the early days of the environmental movement have now become simply overwhelming rather than inspiring. He also argued – a more subtle argument, but one with which I agree – that narratives of apocalypse inherently come with narratives of ‘final solutions’ (his words, and he acknowledged that he was using them, “in full knowledge of the associated obscenity.”) These solution narratives suggest that we still believe in the static, linear nature of systems – that once we fix this one big thing, everything will be fine. This obviously disappoints expectations (the task of protecting the environment will never be finished, a thought that sometimes makes me want to jump off a cliff, but oh well….) and the underlying assumption reflects a massive flaw in our cultural capacity to deal with complexity.

Clearly, none of this is Gretel Ehrlich’s fault, and of course the suffering of indigenous groups, the loss of knowledge, livelihood, and relationship with the environment, must be acknowledged and mourned. But writers have to figure out a way to push the narrative beyond the grief and the loss. The human capacity to go out onto the Arctic ice and figure out how to make a living there in the first place reflects a tremendous adaptability and creativity, and it is to that sense that writers and storytellers must now appeal. And by ‘storytellers’ I mean not just writers, but the environmental advocacy community that was present at the meeting and that, through their framing of issues to their constituency, plays a powerful role in steering the course of perceptions and, by extension, the political events and social currents that surround environmental issues.

At the very end of the question session, Ehrlich acknowledged that we must begin to make changes “with creativity…” This doesn’t mean that we ignore the tragedies, but it does mean that we move towards looking honestly at the future and the choices that are involved. And it means that we move this narrative to the center of our storytelling efforts. Only by acknowledging that we do have these choices – that we can stand by and let wildlife and ways of life go extinct and that to do so is a choice for which we have responsibility – do we fully understand that our willingness to do so is, indeed, the moral equivalent of suicide.

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.

 

Blogging Live from the GYC Meeting!

I’ve always wished – a dorky wish, to be sure – that things like really cool wildlife could garner as much attention as dippy pop stars and/or demented political candidates making asinine statements. Sadly, it seems that Sarah Palin’s enduring ability to behave stupidly, for example, or Hollywood’s most recent fashion choices at various awards ceremonies, always garner more tweets and live blogging activity than, say, the annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology. Why is this? Surely it’s a sign of a society with its priorities in the wrong place….

In an attempt to set American culture back on the right track, I am going to blog live from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition meeting here in Jackson Hole today. This year’s meeting focuses on climate sensitive wildlife, and Doug Chadwick, long-term volunteer with the Glacier National Park wolverine project and author of The Wolverine Way, will be the keynote speaker. He has recently spent time in the Gobi working with the mazaalai, the Gobi bear, another species under intense threat due to climate shifts, so I anticipate a great speech. In addition, we will also be hearing from Dr. Charlie Love on glaciers in the Rockies, Dr. Bob Greswell on the effects of climate change on cutthroat trout, Dr. Healy Hamilton on using biodiversity informatics for conservation, and author Gretel Ehrlich on how you sum all of these issues up in a compelling piece of literature that will move people to love and care for the places that they live. The who’s-who of the Yellowstone conservation world will certainly be here as well, so it promises to be a thrilling day.

By the way, I don’t think I’ve actually ever followed a live blog before, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to spoof appropriately. But I will be sure to let you all know what everyone is wearing. (Yvon Chouinard and his team are, rumor has it, the designers of choice for this event.) Blogging activity will be interrupted mid-day during a fire ecology field trip (I do not have a smart phone, and carrying my computer into a burn is probably unwise) but will resume in the evening.

Okay. So where do I start?

“Sunrise over pristine and gorgeous mountains emphasizing need to conserve inspiring natural places. About to head down to breakfast to get some coffee so that blog posts become more coherent.”

Stay tuned.

 

“No Greedier Rascal”

I was visiting my parents in Massachusetts around Thanksgiving and happened to drop by a neighborhood party, an affair which brought my childhood briefly back to life. The party was hosted by a woman who is a puppeteer and whose sense of creativity and storytelling – and commitment to conservation – were an influence on me from a young age. Her award-winning  work focuses on animal tales, and she is a fan of Thornton Burgess, whose writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created a host of animal characters that fostered a public sense of empathy for wildlife at a crucial time in conservation history.

A copy of Mother West Wind “Where” Stories, Burgess’ first book, happened to be on the coffee table at the party, and I happened to pick it up, and it happened to flip open to a story entitled “Where Glutton the Wolverine Got His Name.” After I got over being dumbfounded by a what-are-the-odds sense of coincidence at wolverine information falling into my lap yet again, I found myself smiling as I read the story. It so perfectly reiterates all the old stereotypes about the anti-social, mean-spirited, voracious animal of legend. And yet within the story lurks a grudging respect for the creature’s intelligence and independence, not to mention a fair amount of accurate detail about where wolverines fit into the animal kingdom. The link above leads back to the story, although it can be pretty much summed up by Burgess’ conclusion: “…there is no more cunning thief, no greedier rascal, and no one with a meaner disposition in all the Great Woods of the Far North than Glutton the Wolverine.”

I was struck that Burgess, who lived his life in Massachusetts and mostly wrote about creatures of the New England agricultural landscape, thought to include a story of a wolverine, even if it is told by way of rumor, a myth from a far-off northern land. He wasn’t the only New Englander to hear tales of the Glutton. Henry David Thoreau also gave wolverines (or, as he writes, “wolverenes”) some thought, referring to them as among the “nobler animals” (Thank you, Thoreau, for being probably the first human being to acknowledge the nobility of the wolverine!) and lamenting their passing. Sadly, I became aware of Thoreau’s thoughts in conjunction with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement that they consider the eastern cougar extinct, as of last Wednesday. I’m not sure this is true, but I leave that to discussion on someone’s mountain lion blog. For now, suffice to say that it’s easy to share Thoreau’s broader sentiment that without these species among us, we would be living in a sadly diminished world: “I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.”

Staying on the topic of rumors of wolverines in New England, a number of people end up on this blog looking for information on wolverines in New Hampshire, Maine, or Massachusetts. New England is not currently considered part of the wolverine’s range, and, Thoreau notwithstanding, we’re unsure that wolverines were in New England at any time after the Pleistocene. Ice age wolverine fossils have been found as far south as Maryland and Pennsylvania, but evidence for gulos south of eastern Canada in historic times, even during the colonial period, is scant. We get periodic reports of wolverines in New England, some of which are probably actually fishers, the smaller but similarly badass cousin of the wolverine (Fishers specialize in killing porcupines. Enough said.)  We do know that New England no longer has the necessary habitat requirements for wolverines – that is, deep snow through late spring – and so there is no possibility that the region hosts a breeding population. Released captives are another possible explanation for anyone who thinks they’ve seen a wolverine in New England. But let us know – or check out the the Wolverine Foundation’s wolverine ID page and then drop them a line – if you think you’ve seen one, and especially if you have photographic evidence.

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.