A Little Wolverine Music

If you want to brighten your day with a wolverine-themed kids’ song from a fun Montana group, check out the Whizpops’ new music video, “Gulo gulo.”

I’m especially fond of this piece because it’s pretty scientifically accurate (I’m not sure that wolverines have ever literally scared the hair off a grizzly bear, but I’ll let that go…), and it uses footage from Swan Valley Connections’ wolverine cameras, deployed as part of the multi-year, multi-partner Southwest Crown of the Continent Carnivore Monitoring Project. This project is one of the most overlooked projects within the wolverine world, but if gulo fans knew half of what the project partners were up to, they’d be ecstatic. I worked with the SWCC project last year and hope to give some more attention to their program in coming months, because they have amazing data and even better field stories. This video nicely illustrates their fun approach to getting the word out about wolverines, and also highlights some of the great video footage that they’ve obtained. Enjoy!

Burning down the ecosystem

By now, it should be obvious to everyone that we have a problem with the discourse around facts and science in the United States.

Over the years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve sometimes felt sheepish about picking apart wolverine articles and coverage in the popular press, harping on nuances of language, word choice, and representation of the science. It felt like overkill, sometimes. But it also felt like the conversation around the facts and the science and the narrative was becoming more and more skewed as time went on, and it seemed important to try to counteract that.

Of course, anyone who even remotely dabbled in climate-related research knew that there was a concerted campaign to discredit climate scientists, and anyone who paid attention to politics and the media environment knew that this campaign widened into a broader anti-science stance by the right. But reality-based Americans understood which media sources were factually accurate and which outlets were propaganda-slingers. Correcting inaccurate reporting on wolverines involved assuming that someone from a reputable media outlet had, in good faith, made a mistake, and that the media ecosystem itself would value correction in the interest of its mission to accurately report the news. Still, the inaccuracies and errors seemed to get worse over the years, and that left me more and more perplexed as time went on.

If the span between 2009 and 2015 was spent contemplating the specifics of the wolverine situation, 2016 was like looking up from a single blade of burning grass and discovering that the entire forest was a raging inferno. For seven years I’d been asking, “Why is this piece of grass on fire?” but as it turns out, the whole ecosystem was going up in flames. In the space of a couple of months, my personal fixation on accurate representation of wolverine science became laughably quaint in the face of much larger concerns about facts and bias in the media.

I’d be lying if I claimed that this was anything less than wildly depressing, to the point of being incapacitating; every time I tried to write a post, I’d give up in frustration, because it seemed necessary to situate it within a larger framework of inaccurate messaging, propaganda, and outright self-serving lies that were being perpetuated across media platforms. Doing that seemed impossibly complicated. There have always been intense politics around wildlife conservation, but those politics have been relatively systematic and fairly easy to grasp. 2016 pushed the broader political discourse into the realm of the deranged, revealing a disorder and a breakdown that appeared impossible to make sense of, let alone surmount. It’s very obvious that this problem is not going away any time soon.

The wider media ecosystem is full of would-be firefighters ready to jump in with analysis and advice and off-the-cuff prescriptions for how to remedy the collapse of media sanity. It’s also full of ninja arsonists who gleefully throw fuel on the fire at the least provocation. And to make matters more complicated, sometimes the wannabe firefighters are actually serving the role of accidental ninja arsonists. This made me even more cautious about weighing in. Maybe it’s the anthropological background, but I felt the need to sit and watch for a while, to try to make sense of what I was seeing before becoming another voice claiming some kind of authority that I don’t actually possess.

More than that, though, I needed to answer questions for myself: Is it still worth it to write about wolverines? Is it worth it in light of the fact that the wolverine discussion is deeply embedded in these larger problems? And beyond that, do I still have anything useful to say on a topic I’ve been writing about for nearly ten years? Can an author write usefully from a place that has become, primarily and nearly purely, angry and grief-ridden? At one time this blog was a love letter to the species, to its landscapes. Now it feels like a requiem. And while things written from places of grief, depression, and anger can be cathartic, hand-wringing is seldom of much literary value. So again: Is it worth it to continue?

That question is still under assessment.

In the absence of a decisive answer, I will keep writing for now, but I want to make this more complicated context explicit for whoever is reading this. I’ve always aimed to make this blog clear and upfront about biases and standpoint, in hopes of encouraging the reader to consider their own, and to understand the point at which claims, assertions, and interpretation of the science become subjective and value-laden. I also believe that facts and science are real things, and that truth (with a small t) can be at least agreed upon, even if it can’t established in an absolute sense. The past year has been disruptive to many of my core beliefs – especially to my ever-tenuous but previously-persistent faith in the human capacity for enlightened thinking. (If people aren’t capable of logic and reason, if they do not love the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, then what are we all doing here anyway?) Nevertheless, I’ll keep putting forth my meagre attempts to clarify the wolverine science, because putting out one small fire probably makes some sort of contribution. But I hope the rest of you are out there putting on your fire-fighting gear, because we have a big, big job ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Support the Wolverine Foundation through Give Big Gallatin Valley

Wolverine enthusiasts, please consider supporting the Wolverine Foundation during the 24-hour Give Big Gallatin Valley fundraising event. It starts tonight, May 4th, at 6 pm and ends tomorrow, May 5th, at 6 pm. All donations made through TWF’s Give Big donation page during the event will be partially matched by the Bozeman Area Community Foundation, increasing the impact of your support for wolverine research and conservation.

The Wolverine Foundation has been integral to the advance of wolverine science and management over the past 20 years. The organization supports research projects with small grants, conducts education and outreach through talks at community organizations and schools, and supports researchers and students through dialogue, mentorship, and organization of workshops and other events.

Thank you!

 

Two new wolverines at ZooMontana

For those who haven’t been fortunate enough to see a wolverine in the wild, you’ll soon have a chance to view a gulo in a more accessible location – if you’re in Montana, anyway. ZooMontana, in Billings, will open a new wolverine exhibit featuring two Scandinavian wolverines, Sid and Ahmari. Sid is Swedish, Ahmari is from Finland, and you can read more about them, and check out a video, here. There’s additional information here. The opening date of the new wolverine enclosure is not yet certain, but it should occur by the beginning of May.

The Billings Zoo previously had a wolverine, but he passed away in 2012. The new wolverine program is significant because ZooMontana will be participating in an attempt to breed wolverines in captivity – notoriously difficult to do. Will we have the very rare opportunity to observe wolverine kits up close in a few years? Stay tuned. And drop by to say hello to Ahmari and Sid if you’re in Billings.

Wolverines in “Wild Hope”

Last year, author Colleen Morton Busch contacted me to report a possible wolverine sighting in the Sierra Nevada near Tahoe, California. She knew that her sighting, lacking the evidence of photographs or DNA, wouldn’t be conclusive, but her descriptions of the animal she’d briefly spotted sounded distinctly gulo, and we suspected that Buddy, the California wolverine, was still somewhere in the area. We’re always conservative in assessing these sorts of reports, so I had to tell her that I couldn’t consider it a definite sighting, but I felt that it was probable that she’d seen a wolverine.

As we continued to email, the conversation evolved into a meditation on broader themes in conservation, and how those themes tied to Buddhism, with which both Colleen and I have some background. She wanted to write an article about her wolverine encounter that dealt with some of these themes, which made an intriguing divergence from the usual reporter inquiries about species biology and the policy situation around listing. Our ongoing email conversation was a highlight of last spring, particularly as she asked questions about the toll that immersion in the climate change scene takes on researchers. These are questions that people don’t usually ask, and that touch on the weights that we all carry; depression is common among climate researchers and people in affiliated fields. So it was wonderful to talk with someone who was aware of the dynamic between loving what you do, and constantly searching for some small hope – or, failing that, at least the equanimity to continue to love, and to accept impermanence, in the absence of hope.

Appropriately, then, Colleen’s article appears in the most recent volume of Wild Hope, a magazine that celebrates biodiversity and relates well-written stories of species accompanied by lush photography. There is no digital link to this article, but I’d encourage people to buy a copy if you want to read a great reflection on what wolverines mean to the people who are lucky enough to catch even a quick glimpse of one. As scientists, the emotional or psychological meaning of nature and wildlife is a topic that we’re wary of engaging with, but if we’re being honest, most of us would have to admit that we’re in this field in part because of our own dependence on the wild for some form of sustenance, and that we believe that protecting that source of inspiration is important for humanity. So it’s nice to read an account of how much a single, fleeting encounter meant to one person. As Colleen writes, “One wolverine sighting is likely all I’ll get in this life, so I’m grateful to have crossed paths ever so briefly. But seeing the wolverine lit a fire in me. It led to my education. And now I’m telling you, who may or may not live in a state where wolverines can be seen, but who are likely concerned about the changes we humans have wrought on our planet, about any threat of extinction, because the loss of the wolverine is connected to our shared future. Because there’s a glimmer of hope in an encounter between two beings – one wild and the other, a lover of wild things – even if it’s undocumented and unverified.”

A single wolverine encounter changed my life, so I understand this sentiment. There’s something uniquely compelling about this species, something that causes the mind to open in particular ways. Colleen’s captured that in her article, and that’s a great thing. Check it out.

 

 

Wolverine Talk in Colville, WA, Friday, March 31st

This Friday, March 31st, I’ll be giving a talk for the Friends of the Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge in Colville, Washington. I’m excited for this opportunity – they’ve been fantastic in the planning stages of the event, so I anticipate a good venue and a great crowd. I’ll be talking primarily about wolverines and wolverine research in the US – it’s a talk for a scientifically-literate lay audience, complete with some hand-drawn illustrations, and photos and video from cameras in Montana.

I’ve never been to this park of the world before, so I’m also looking forward to seeing a part of wolverine country that I haven’t yet visited.

The talk will be held at the Colville Community College theater, 986 S. Elm St. Doors open at 6:00 and admission is free. You’ll also have a chance to win wolverine-related door prizes, which is unique in my experience of giving talks. Details are here. If you happen to be in the area, I hope to see you there. Bring your sense of curiosity and some good questions.

Ongnika

It’s always nice to have a posse keeping an eye out for stray information on your pet topic of fascination. So it was with great delight that I recently opened an email message from Marissa Smith, a friend of mine who has reliably given moral support and often physical backup for wolverine work in Mongolia, to find a 400+ page Manchu-to-English dictionary and a rundown of all the mustelid words she’d found in perusing that dictionary. Her detective work bridged a gap that I’ve been trying to fill for the past several years, ever since a discussion with a historian working on the dynamics of the fur trade during the Qing Dynasty in China. The Qing, who ruled China (and Mongolia) from 1636 to 1911 and were notably interested in cultural and environmental conservation, were Manchu, and many of their records were kept in Manchu, which makes the language relevant to understanding wildlife management and environmental protection during that era. I asked this scholar whether he’d run across any accounts of wolverine pelts in his research, or whether he could even tell me the Manchu word for wolverine. He had no idea. The best he could do was offer the fact that there were two descriptors of otters: a relatively well behaved “river otter,” and a “mountain otter” that had a reputation for being crazy and aggressive. At the time, I speculated that maybe the mountain otters were actually wolverines (he was not impressed with this hypothesis).

Finally, after several years of wondering about this – and remaining attached to my mountain otter idea – I can report, thanks to Marissa, that the Manchu word for wolverine is ongnika. The stem ong- appears to relate to being rude, which appears to be related to being from the countryside, since ong– is the root of a word that means pasture. This is in keeping with many other terms for wolverine which reference some idea of being rude, boorish, or uncultured.

Ongnika and related words, from “A Comprehensive Manchu-English Dictionary,” Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 85, by Jerry Norman, 2013

The –nika portion of the word is more obscure. Both ni and ka are, according to a Manchu grammar from the 19th century, grammatical suffixes, but ni is used to form the genitive noun case, and ka seems to be used as part of a compound verb form indicating recent past tense. It’s unlikely that these two suffixes would be used together. The other option is to take nika as a whole, in which case, according to this particular dictionary, it means “Chinese.” This leaves us with the perplexing possibility that the Manchu word for wolverine refers to a rude or rural Chinese person. I really hope not, because while it would open some very interesting perspectives on perceptions of wolverines, I’d prefer not to have my species embroiled in some kind of stereotype-slinging feud between the Manchus and the Chinese. There may be another explanation, and my exposure to Manchu grammar is about a week old at this point, so this is all off-the-cuff. If anyone has any greater expertise, please weigh in.

At some point I’d like to compile a list of all the terms for wolverine from Siberian languages, as I tried to do for North American languages some years ago, so if anyone has any information on this from any of the other Siberian/Turkic/Tungusic languages, let me know.

In the meantime, though, as I searched around for information on Manchu grammar, I was surprised to learn that Manchu has only about ten living native speakers. It’s one of those languages that we consider highly endangered. On the long list of things that are at risk in this world, languages get consideration by only a limited number of people, most of them either speakers of those languages, or linguists. I’d like to make a quick case here that you too, as someone concerned about wildlife, should care about the loss of indigenous languages. As was apparent as I pored over the dictionary, a language contains in its structure and vocabulary a wealth of knowledge and understanding about the environment, about how to survive in that environment, and about how people were supposed to orient towards and interact with that environment. Below are some examples of terms specific to life in the wolverine’s habitat, which I found as I looked up the words for “mountain,” “snow,” and “ski.” They tell us something about the specificity of Manchu environmental knowledge (a term just for the forests that grow on north-facing slopes, for example, or the multitude of terms for types of snow and snow crust, or the wealth of mustelid terms), technologies that they created for exploring and navigating that environment (hiking boots, crampons, skis, snowshoes), approaches that people should take to environmental conditions (a special term for an adept skier, or the fact that “risking one’s life” is synonymous with “going out in a snowstorm”), and some insights on worldview (the fact that the word for “male otter” is the same as the word for fame, or the fact that the death of an emperor was referred to, literally, as a mountain collapsing).

The large number of words related to mustelids, and specifically to sable, illustrates the importance of fur within the Manchu world, an importance which extended to the management of the empire, since tribute was frequently paid in sable pelts. I didn’t find any clarification on the river otter vs. mountain otter distinction, but there were a charming number of terms for different age classes of both otters and badgers, as well as a number of terms related to hunting and trapping techniques, the handling of pelts, and the ways mustelid fur was used on garments. The only other animal with the same degree of related terminology as mustelids, in this dictionary anyway, is the tiger. The fact that a bunch of weasels assume the same linguistic status as the mighty tiger is a testament to the role of mustelids within the Manchu world.

Words related to wolverine habitat (plus a caution on how not to behave around sleeping tigers….):

kulkuri suru: a white horse good in mountain terrain

olongdo: long boots used for mountain climbing

sa: 1. silk gauze, tulle; cf. cece; 2. a dense forest on the north side of a mountain;

saban: a piece of leather with an attached iron cleat (tied to boots or shoes to assist in mountain climbing or walking on ice)

senggin: 1. forehead; 2. the place where the foot of a mountain and a river meet;

urimbi: (-he) 1. to collapse (said of a mountain or hill); 2. to die (said of the Emperor)

alin: mountain

farsambi: to risk one’s life, to act carelessly, to brave (rain, snow)

kordon: a person good on skis or snowshoes

mere nimanggi: snow that has frozen into small beads the size of a grain of buckwheat

nimanggi: snow

nimari yanggaJi: a small bird with snow-white feathers – when it sings it is supposed to snow

sulhumbi: to become soft and mushy, to be soft (said of earth or snow)

suntaha: snowshoe, ski

undan: spring snow that has frozen on the surface and for which snowshoes are required

undaSambi: to hunt on frozen spring snow

ungkan: frozen snow on the top of grass

hujimbi: 1. to rouse a recumbent tiger by shouting

Mustelid terms:

algin: 1. fame; 2. the male otter

haihūn: a name for the otter

haihū: 1. soft; 2. staggering, weaving from side to side

imseke: the young of the otter

lekerhi: 1. Latax lutris: sea otter; 2. otter skin

mederi dorgon: sea otter; cf. lekerhi [author’s note: lit. “sea badger.”]

uki: a female otter

aihii: female sable

baltaha: the hair under the chin of a sable

cakiri: 1. half-cooked, half-done; 2. sable or fox pelts speckled with white hair

desihi: a kind of trap attached to a tree over a stream, used to catch sable and various other small animals

gathiiwa: a jacket made of weasel or sable fur

gina: 1. a trap for sable and squirrels, a deadfall; 2. sheepskin decorated with gold leaf

hara: 1. a short autumn coat of sable or lynx;

hayahan dahii: a court garment trimmed with sable, lynx, or black fox

kiyamnan mahatun: an ancient-style hat adorned with golden cicadas and sable tails

lunggu: a male sable

muhi: 1. a sable (or other animal’s) tail attached to the front of a fur jacket below the lapel

sahalca: pelt of a black sable

seke: 1. Martes zibellina: sable; 2. sable pelt seke furdehe: sable jacket

ufuhu wehe: pumice: a very porous stone found in streams and that can be used for dressing sable hides

ulbimbi: to jump from branch to branch (said of squirrels, sable, etc.)

abadan: an old badger

dorgon: Meles meles: badger

huren: 1. the ridge of the nose; 2. a hole on a stove near the cooking pot where a light (hiyabun) is placed; 3. a badger trap

indahfin manggisu: a name for the badger

manggisu: badger

nanggu: a trap for badger and raccoon-dogs

ulgiyan manggisu: a name for the badger

yandaci: a young badger

sanggiyan ulhu: ermine

sanyan ulhu: Mustela erminea: ermine, stoat

ulhu: 1. squirrel, ermine; 2. ermine pelt

ulhu alban: tax on ermine pelts

ayan jelken: a species of weasel

jelken: Mustela sibirica: Siberian weasel

kurene: weasel

silihi: a name for the weasel

solohi: Mustela sibirica: weasel

suwayan solobi: weasel [author’s note: “suwayan” means “yellow”]

ayan barsa: beech marten

harsa: Martes fiavigula: yellow-throated marten