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.