More Wolverine News

I find myself newly (and happily) initiated into the world of wolverine camera-trapping – more about that later, but in the meantime, check out Yale Environment360‘s recent article on camera-traps as conservation tools. The piece provides an overview of how camera traps are used worldwide to learn about species as diverse as pygmy hippos, African golden cats, and giant muntjacs. Wolverines also get a brief mention.

Equally exciting, a new article in the Journal of Wildlife Management summarizes the findings of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s multi-year Yellowstone Ecosystem wolverine project. I haven’t had a chance to read more than the abstract, but the findings are explored (albeit briefly) in articles in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and at Mongabay.  I’m looking forward to reading the article itself, especially since it brings some attention to habitat requirements at the southern edge of wolverine range – which has implications for work on the species in Mongolia. I’m also in the middle of reading through a new thesis about wolverine-lynx interactions in Sweden and Norway, which offers another set of insights into gulo requirements in a very different habitat. So it should make for an interesting comparison.

Finally, I try to avoid politics on this blog, but Dan Rather recently stated that, “Newt Gingrich on the move politically is as dangerous as a wounded wolverine.” I have to take issue with this.  Newt doesn’t deserve the compliment, and wolverines don’t deserve the insult. Please, Mr. Rather, let’s start a trend of speaking more respectfully of our wolverine compatriots if we’re going to bring them into politically symbolic public discourse. At the very least, no one should be compared to a wolverine if they don’t look like they could actually climb a mountain.

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.

 

Dr. Healy Hamilton on Temperature and Precipitation Changes in the GYE

This talk is going to be harder to summarize without the visuals used during the presentation. I’m googling to see if I can find an online copy of some of the graphs and maps that Dr. Hamilton used to illustrate her work – it looks like they are not immediately available. But in summary, GYC and Dr. Hamilton have partnered to look in detail at the GYE to try to develop some idea of what is actually going on with climate, based on weather station data from the past century. Using USDA information on temperature and precipitation, they’ve constructed a historical timeline of average temperature and precipitation from 1900-1970, and then looked at places where, over the past thirty years, temperature or precipitation have varied by more than two standard deviations from the 1900-1970 averages. For people without a background in statistics, two standard deviations from average is significant because about 98% of variation in any situation should fall within the boundaries of two standard deviations from whatever the average of the data is. So if you see something that is more than two standard deviations from the average, you can be pretty sure that something out of the ordinary is occurring.

The standard narrative of climate change around the world is that temperature is rising, which is true, but how this plays out a local scale can be extremely varied. This is why there’s still so much room to sow doubt and confusion over the climate science.

Dr. Hamilton’s data suggest that average minimum temperatures are increasing, particularly in late winter and early spring, but that average maximum temperatures are not increasing. This means that, as Dr. Hamilton puts it, “we are losing climate space” on the colder end of the spectrum, but not necessarily gaining it on the warmer end. Precipitation seems to be decreasing in July, but by October it’s increasing; by December, it’s leveled out and remains approximately the same as it has been since 1900. A few places seemed resistant to the general loss of minimum temperatures, among them the northwestern edge of the Wind River Range.

So what does all of this mean for the future of the ecosystem? Difficult to say for sure, but this is certainly the next step in the climate change narrative – boring down into local trends and trying to create scenarios that will allow planning for adaptation.

Three things in the presentation were particularly striking. The first was Dr. Hamilton’s opening statement, in which she briefly addressed the politics of climate change and then said she didn’t want to talk about it.  Who does? I sympathize with her. But whether we want to talk about it or not, the gridlock over climate change policy is the problem with which we really need to be wrestling. Falling back on science and scientific management, generating more data and more maps, isn’t going to convince people who already believe that researchers like Dr. Hamilton are being paid off to do the work they do. (They aren’t. Just because the right wing pays its ‘scientists’ to generate data doesn’t mean that real researchers lack integrity.)

The second was the predominance of maps in the presentation. Some colleagues of mine have an old joke that asserts that when environmentalists are in doubt about what to do, they fall back on producing maps. Sure enough, in the face of climate change policy gridlock, we are indeed producing more maps. The maps are beautiful, fascinating, informative, and represent great research. Hopefully they will make an important contribution to conservation planning in the GYE. But maps aren’t solutions, and to put these maps to good use, we need something more.

The third thing, which I found hopeful and which partially addresses the concern above, was the suggestion that the GYE would be the test case for how to use tools like these maps, because the region  has such a broad conservation constituency. Let’s hope that the support for conservation values does translate to some form of planning for ecosystem resilience at a broad scale. But the challenges are still manifold, and those problems aren’t scientific problems – they’re people problems, and they’re governance problems.

 

Meltdown

Okay. Now I understand why live blogging about scientific presentations is a little more challenging than commenting on political or entertainment events. While it may be easy to come to a snap judgement on Angelina Jolie’s latest dress or Rick Perry’s lack of implementable policy ideas, it’s a bit harder to summarize 45,000 years of glacial history, or delve into the meaning of two standard deviations from average minimum climate variation in the Yellowstone region over the past century. Dr. Charlie Love and Dr. Healy Hamilton have given their presentations, of which a more detailed analysis will follow later today. Dr. Greswell is currently speaking about the way in which climate change is amplifying threats to native cutthroat trout. More on that in a while, too.

Just chatted with Jodi Hilty, WCS North America director, about WCS’ plans to look at how to move from science to planning for climate adaptation, with John Kerr about another wolverine sighting in the Lamar Valley this past summer, and with Doug Chadwick about his recent trip to Mongolia. I did promise to tell my audience what people were wearing, but that was before I recalled that I actually have zero ability to recognize design (except for Patagonia….) So let’s just say that everyone is dressed, mostly in jeans and button-down shirts, with a fair number of Western accessories (fancy embroidered cowboy jackets, silver-and-turquoise jewelry, etc….) and plenty of puffy jackets and vests. It’s definitely Wyoming. I love it.

Back to the trout. More to follow shortly.

 

Opening Remarks at GYC Meeting

Doug Chadwick has been spotted signing copies of the The Wolverine Way at a table in the south corner of the main meeting room!

Across the breakfast table, I met a lady who says she saw a wolverine in Colorado 20 years ago. This goes further towards proving my hypothesis that everyone (or probably about 30% of the population, anyway….) has a wolverine story.

Opening remarks are under way, with a framing of the issues beginning with a retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark as a metaphor for the need to protect wildlife. Since the book of Genesis has so frequently been used to justify rampant exploitation of natural resources, it’s wonderful to hear a different take on the relationships among humans, nature, and the divine – namely, that we need to take responsibility for protecting the species that God (or evolution) put so much work into creating.

(As an aside, I’m finding it difficult to compose and listen at the same time. This is harder than I thought.)

GYC director Mike Clark is speaking about the history of GYC, about concerns over wolves and grizzlies that gave rise to the organization 28 years ago. He’s summarizing some of the successes of the organization over the years, including the increase in grizzly population, and regulations that have led to fewer, cleaner snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. He’s spoke briefly about a new initiative to protect the eastern front of Yellowstone, the Absaroke-Beartooth region, and is now talking about climate change issues, which he says are now the central and defining focus of the GYC’s work. It would be great to have a large organization taking leadership on organizing the conservation advocacy community on a coherent strategy to address climate change, so I’m looking forward to hearing more about this focus.

Dr. Charlie’s Love’s presentation on glaciers is next!

(By the way, I just realized that for those of you who are subscribed to this blog, a whole pile of posts in your inbox might not be welcome. I apologize if it’s an inconvenience. Feel free to delete at will.)

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.

 

Climate change meeting in Jackson

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an advocacy group based in Bozeman, Montana, will feature Doug Chadwick as the keynote speaker at its annual meeting in Jackson, Wyoming, on September 30th. The meeting will address climate change in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, a theme of obvious importance to wolverines in the region. With Chadwick as the keynote speaker, gulos will certainly feature in the discussions at the event, but wolverines aren’t the only creatures at risk – whitebark pine, bears, Clark’s nutcrackers, and a host of other iconic and less-well-known species are at risk. It’s a topic worth discussion and, hopefully, action. If you’ll be in the area, you can register for the conference here.

Further afield, one of the four wolverines that have allegedly killed a number of cats in Kitimat, British Columbia, was captured today. At nine kilograms and less than a meter long, hopefully the animal will help ease the fears of residents who worry that the marauding wolverines are capable of hunting down humans. In the photo attached to the article, the gulo looks small and bewildered. The glob of drool hanging from its jaw is fairly characteristic of wolverines in traps, lest rumors start that the animal is rabid – our wolverine frequently foam at the mouth when stressed. The captured wolverine will apparently be relocated, although this isn’t confirmed. In the meantime, if you are in the area – or if your pets share habitat with any wildlife capable of doing them harm – remember to keep your cats indoors, especially at night, and your dogs on a leash.

The Den

Last week, a small crew on skis set out into the high mountains of the Montana wilderness. They were headed into wolverine country, their objective a series of scattered points close to treeline. The points had been obtained during telemetry flights in April, and they indicated that F3, a five year old female wolverine, was restricting her movements to a small portion of her usual range. Under normal conditions, F3 might be found anywhere within an approximate 300 km² sweep of rugged country. Over the past several weeks, however, she had limited herself to a few drainages in close proximity to each other. Her behavior unleashed a wave of excitement among the wolverine crew who had been tracking her since 2007; restricted movement is the classic indication that a female wolverine is in a den with kits.

Determining F3′s reproductive status has become an annual springtime ritual at the Absaroka-Beartooth project, fraught with trepidation, surges of hope, and, inevitably, disappointed resignation to the fact that, once again, the project’s sole instrumented female wolverine has failed to produce kits. We’ve been engaging in this ritual since F3 was first captured in 2007. For the first two years, she was young, and, as far as we knew, there was no male in her territory, so the absence of a den in 2008 and 2009 wasn’t such a surprise.

F3 in 2008, captured by an automatic camera at one of the project's live traps.

Then, in spring of 2009, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wolverine project took charge of a young male that had been accidentally caught in a bobcat trap in Idaho. WCS released the wolverine, M57, in Montana, and he promptly headed for F3′s territory. We knew that F3 and this male – notable for his white paws and his unprecedentedly relaxed attitude when captured by the project’s live traps – were traveling together throughout 2009, and the tension over F3′s status in spring of 2010 was palpable. For the first time, we had real grounds to hope for babies.

The question was especially urgent for the project because the work done so far had provided no evidence of reproduction in Yellowstone or the ranges immediately to the north, south, and east. In fact, those ranges seemed strangely vacant; the habitat appeared good, but the wolverine population was sparse even for a rare carnivore. Over the course of five years, the project had documented two immigrants to the study area – M57 and a female, F133, who was born in the Gallatins and who traveled across Yellowstone to take up residence south of the park. But there had been no births. This suggests that, at least in Yellowstone and its immediate surroundings, the wolverine population currently depends on dispersing wolverines from further to the north and west. With only a single den documented in Wyoming – in the Tetons – the data also suggest that Wyoming’s population might rely on input from populations in Montana. And with talk of reintroduction following M56′s trip from Wyoming to Colorado, the need for a healthy region-wide meta-population, with as many interconnected nodes of reproducing wolverines as possible, became even more urgent. Any further understanding of reproductive dynamics and denning characteristics – not to mention the sheer and simple fact of more wolverines on the landscape – would be invaluable.

In 2010, a series of telemetry flights eventually indicated that F3 wasn’t denning. We caught her in March of 2010 and were finally able to determine that she was not nursing, although she and M57 were still traveling together. Disappointed, we held out hopes for 2011, but by now the project was officially over and finding resources to keep it going was becoming more and more challenging.

This season, F3 went into the trap early, in January, and the crew noted that her teats were enlarged –  a real reason for hope. The weather remained ferocious throughout the spring, making flights difficult, but when a series of telemetry points finally came in after flights in April, F3′s apparent localization added further evidence to the argument for kits. Finding proof, however, was necessary, and the mission was urgent: wolverine kits leave the den in early May, and the dens themselves, dug in the snow, are ephemeral and nearly impossible to identify once the snow is gone. From the time the points came in, the crew had approximately two weeks to get to the area and figure out what was going on.

The trip in took three hours of skiing, over a steep pass and through heavy snow. At the outset Jason Wilmot, who was leading the trip, listened for F3 and M57 and picked up M57′s signal to the south. There was no indication that F3 was anywhere nearby, and the first point that the crew reached yielded nothing. Jason and the crew pressed on to the next point.

Here, at the pass, they picked up tracks, and then more tracks, and then an explosion of tracks. This, too, was strong indication of a den, and sure enough, backtracking the prints, they found a hole. And then another one. And another. Altogether, the crew discovered six holes in the snow, some apparently linked beneath the surface. The tracks were melted out and the crew were unable to determine whether they came from multiple animals, let alone animals of different sizes. But the evidence for a den and kits was strong.

The crew had already made the decision not to instrument the kits – without the funds for flights to monitor them, it would have placed unnecessary stress on the animals – so they didn’t dig to see if the babies were underground. Instead, they collected DNA samples from the tracks and the entrances to the holes. They listened for F3, but she was still absent. If there were indeed kits, the family might have already left the den permanently, but F3 might just as easily have been out on a foraging run, and the kits could have been curled up in a chamber in the snow beneath the crew’s feet, pondering the strange vibrations of skis and human voices.

Before they left the site, Jason listened again for M57. The signal came in, and it was loud – M57 was somewhere nearby. Employing a trick that wildlife biologists use to determine exactly how close an instrumented animal is, Jason removed the antenna from the receiver and held out the cord with its metal end. If an animal’s signal still comes in without the antenna, the animal is really close. M57′s signal continued to boom in. He was right on top of the crew, probably watching them from somewhere in the trees. As Jason and the remainder of the crew skied out, they crossed M57′s tracks coming into the basin; the wolverine tracks were overlaid on the ski tracks of crew members who had already skied out. From his position far to the south earlier in the day, M57 had traveled directly to the den site. This was further circumstantial evidence that this was indeed a reproductive den, and that M57 was coming to check in on his mate and offspring – a pattern detected on numerous occasions by the Glacier Park and WCS projects.

Without having seen the kits, we can’t confirm that F3 and M57 reproduced. But the evidence is good. From here, we’ll use genetic analysis to try to determine if there are kits and if so, how many. We’ll return to the den site in the summer to gather more DNA samples. If there are kits and if they survive the summer, they are likely to remain within their parents’ territories for the next year, and F3 and M57 are likely to show them all the good foraging spots – including the project’s live traps. We may have the opportunity to capture and examine the kits this winter, to at least determine sex. If we find the funds, we may be able to instrument them and monitor them as they approach dispersal age. This could provide crucial information about connectivity among the different populations, and the extent to which southern populations really are dependent on dispersers from Montana. Overall, it’s exciting and hopeful news for the project and for wolverines at the edge of their range.

The Absaroka Beartooth Project: Captures

The Absaroka-Beartooth Project report was published two weeks ago, the culmination of a five year project to investigate the status of wolverines in and around Yellowstone National Park. The report could be summarized in a straightforward  way, but as I read it, I realized that a laundry list of statistics wouldn’t do justice to the project’s many facets. I’ve been involved with this project, off and on, since 2006, and I thought it would be more interesting to provide a narrative for each segment of the project. I’m starting with the very basic story of the wolverines that were captured over the course of five years, and what those captures tell us about the status of wolverines in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park is the wellspring of the idea of sacred wilderness in modern American consciousness. Our first national park, correctly or incorrectly, is perceived as a pristine stronghold of our most spectacular and intriguing species, which are supposedly free to function in the absence of human interference, and there to teach us what unfettered nature looks like. So it made sense, following the success of the Glacier National Park wolverine study, that the  investigation of wolverine status in Yellowstone was the next priority for a creature emblematic of the wild.  No one knew anything about wolverines in  Yellowstone; aside from sporadic sighting reports, data on the species was non-existent. The park and its surrounding ranges – hypothetically ideal habitat – were expected to provide one more piece in the puzzle of wolverine status in the US Rockies.

In 2003, the wolverine had been turned down for listing, for the second time, due to lack of data. The Glacier project began that same year,  aiming to fill some of the gaps that prevented the US Fish and Wildlife Service from determining  the wolverine’s situation. By 2005, the Glacier Project was yielding solid information and environmental groups were suing the government to reconsider the 2003 decision. The Absaroka-Beartooth Project began that winter with an initial season of live-trapping. The park was the core of the investigation, but the project extended beyond the park boundaries to encompass the Absaroka mountains and the Beartooth plateau to the east, northeast, and southeast. Complimenting on-going work by the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Montana ranges west of Yellowstone, the project established live-traps for wolverines in locations across the park and its eastern borders.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wolverine Project encompassed ranges in and to the east, northeast, and southeast of Yellowstone.

In March of 2006, I arrived in Sunlight Basin, a spectacular valley in the eastern Absarokas, to meet with Jason Wilmot and his wife Kate, who were stationed there to monitor traps through the winter and spring.  I’d come to discuss my upcoming summer research on wolves in Wyoming, but the conversation quickly turned to wolverines. Within 12 hours of meeting the Wilmots, I was traipsing up a steep slope, knee-deep in snow, carrying a duffel bag containing a skinned frozen beaver, and listening to Jason as he talked about all the things that made wolverines the most awesome animals on earth. Key among its attributes, for me, was the coincidental information that there was an unstudied population in Mongolia, where – it so happened – I had spent two years as a Peace Corps environmental volunteer. We reached a log-box trap buried in snow, and while I examined a small plaque that stated that the trap and its contents were part of a research project and should be respectfully left in peace, Jason attached the beaver carcass to the back of the trap in hopes that a wolverine would soon remove it.

He and Kate waited through the entire spring, but the beavers in all of the Sunlight traps remained untouched by gulo-kind. While the thought of Mongolian wolverines lodged at the back of my mind and began to germinate into what would become, three years later, a full-fledged project of its own, the Absaroka-Beartooth Project captured wolverines north of the park, and south of the park, but the rugged mountains within the park boundaries and just to the east seemed strangely devoid of the West’s most notorious mountaineer.

By summer of 2006, when I returned to Wyoming to begin my summer research on wolves, the Absaroka Beartooth Project was monitoring two male wolverines, M1 and M2. M1 made his home north of the park; he’d been captured twice over the course of the winter. M2 was captured, once,  in the southern part of the park. Researchers refer to ‘trap nights’ as the number of nights a single trap is open and baited.  The three captures of M1 and M2 represented the fruit of 1831 trap nights in 2006, for an average of one capture every 610 trap nights. In contrast, the Glacier project in its first year captured six wolverines – three males and three females – with an average of one capture every 12 trap nights.

If these numbers fazed him, Jason didn’t give any indication of concern over the course of my wolf research in summer 2006; he continued to talk about wolverines with so much enthusiasm that I became more and more intrigued. In August of 2006, tired of the squabbling over wolves and hoping for a chance to appreciate a species free of the weight of centuries of symbolic feuding, I joined an Absaroka Beartooth project expedition to investigate a cluster of GPS points from M2′s collar. By now, M2 was hanging out south of the park, in some of the most inaccessible territory in the lower 48, and it took two days to reach the site. At dusk on the first night out, a wolverine came into our camp. It wasn’t an instrumented animal, which meant that it was an entirely new wolverine. We were able to extract a viable hair from a snowfield, which later matched DNA from male M4, captured by the project months later in March of 2007. The project instrumented him and located him once in a flight following the capture, but he subsequently disappeared. We still don’t know if his transmitter failed, if he took off for Colorado or Utah, or if he died.

A month before M4 was captured, M1, the project’s first male, was legally killed by a Montana trapper. Then, the week before M4 was captured, the project caught a small juvenile female in the Absarokas north of the park, within M1′s territory. This wolverine was tagged F3, and she is probably M1′s daughter. A female wolverine was legally killed in the same region at the same time; this was possibly F3′s mother, and her death meant that F3 could take over the now-vacant territory. F3 became the center of the project’s hope and attention, a young female just coming into her reproductive years. These four wolverines – three males, one dead and one vanished, and one young female who, despite our hopes, remained stubbornly single and kit-less – were the entire captured population of the project’s five years. Over the course of the project, they were caught seven times – M1 was caught twice, F3 three times. All told, the average capture rate was one wolverine every 750 trap nights.

The enormous effort required to document such a scant population suggested something unexpected: Yellowstone National Park and its eastern borders – huge, rugged country that should have been ideal habitat – lacked a substantial population of wolverines. They simply weren’t there. Yellowstone, the great emblem of all things wild, was apparently missing the wildest creature of all.

Absaroka Beartooth Report

The Absaroka Beartooth Wolverine Project report is now available, documenting the methods and results for the 2005-2009 project in and around Yellowstone National Park. This is the project that initially captured and instrumented F3 and M57, and our on-going work is an outgrowth of those captures.

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet (I am enough of a dork that I will indeed sit down and read 68 pages about a project with which I was involved on a daily basis, and I am even more of a dork in that I will enjoy doing so…) but I wanted to let the wolverine-interested public know.

I’ll write up a synopsis and analysis sometime in the next week or so, for those of you who are not dorks and have other things to do with your time. But to end on a dorky note, please note the beautiful three-by tracks captured in the cover photo, and the clear transition between a walking and a loping gait as the wolverine dipped down into the hollow between slopes. Fantastic!