Sweden Incidents in Wolverine Research

I’m the first to admit that I give Scandinavian wolverine research less attention than it deserves. I’ve never been there, I don’t know the researchers or the research or the policy situation as well as I know the North American and Mongolian situations, and it’s easy to put aside detailed write-ups when I can’t draw on background expertise to pull together a quick post. Things that take more background work on my part tend to get written about less, because writing this blog is uncompensated intellectual labor (or escapist fun; it varies by the day) and the greater the investment, the less likely something is to get written.

Something apparently happened recently in Sweden, however, and no one can figure out quite what the so-called “Sweden Incident” entailed. Since the question remains open, the Sweden Incident may or may not involve wolverines. So I thought this would be a good chance to run down a few of the Swedish wolverine resources, to remind all you wolverine-interested people that there is, in fact, some pretty cool stuff happening in Sweden. And this stuff is verifiably and objectively true. So enjoy.

Scandlynx is a joint project with participation by both Sweden and Norway. They monitor lynx and wolverine and put out some interesting research. The website is available in Swedish, Norwegian, and English.

The Swedish Wolverine Project has its own page, where you can learn more about the specifics of wolverine research, check out a good bibliography with links to research publications, and enjoy a brief synopses of wolverine ecology and life history.

In less savory news, Swedish wolverines regularly depredate on domestic reindeer. This creates a lot of conflict with the reindeer herders, but has resulted in some innovative experimental compensation schemes. Here in the US, of course, our biggest conflict is between livestock producers and wolves, and we tend to compensate after a wolf pack depredates. Ranchers aren’t keen on this way of doing things, because they have to prove that the depredation happened, and they claim that far more animals are killed by wolves than those that they can find and verify. Consequently, they claim, the rate of compensation is far too low to actually pay for their losses.

Sweden solved this problem by instituting a preemptive payment scheme for wolverine dens on Sami herder territories. Rather than compensating after a depredation happens, the Swedish government pays for “conservation performance” when a den is successful. While this compensation scheme seems to be better at addressing herder concerns, poaching remains a problem; as of 2009, at least, up to 60% of wolverine mortalities in Scandinavia were due to poaching. And there’s also evidence that national parks in northern Sweden, rather than serving as places of protection for wildlife, are actually the loci of greater illegal hunting. This may be due to the fact that these parks are large and remote, and therefore difficult to patrol.

The intensive monitoring program in Sweden allows researchers there to look at predator interactions in a way that is difficult elsewhere. Ecology as a field has spent a lot of time studying predator-prey dynamics, but less time understanding how suites of carnivores interact with each other. The Swedish wolverine project is able to monitor both lynx and wolverines on reindeer herding territories, and has produced some interesting work on how these two species share resources. It appears that the resource-sharing strategy in Sweden primarily involves avoidance; although wolverines scavenge off lynx kills, the two species don’t interact that often. The most detailed work on this topic is Jenny Mattisson’s 2011 dissertation. Follow-up work on wolverine-lynx interactions is also available.

Perhaps the most intriguing Sweden Incident in the wolverine world, however, is the recent establishment of a population in a previously uninhabited boreal forest region of southern Sweden. In a paper published last year, the authors contend that Sweden’s monitoring and management programs need to adapt to account for this new population, since most monitoring protocols and management objectives are related to populations in northern alpine herding regions. They also mention that the presence of this wolverine population in an area where the snow melts earlier in the spring is evidence that wolverines may not be as dependent on late spring snow as the Copeland et al 2010 snow model paper suggests. I have a lot of thoughts on that topic, but for now I’ll just confine myself to two points. First, the original snow model paper pointed out that north of 54 latitude, the relationship between spring snow and wolverine presence breaks down, and this site is substantially farther to the north, somewhere around 60 latitude. So in fact, the original snow model paper accurately predicted this exact situation. Second, the framing of questions about wolverine snow-dependency has becoming depressingly binary, because of the management implications for listing in the US, with a tendency towards papers that highlight apparent exceptions to very specific features of the model to make claims that apply to the particular US policy questions, without taking the larger picture into account. This population in southern Sweden, similar to populations north of 54 latitude in Canada, offers us a chance to ask a much bigger set of questions about wolverine habitat requirements and the relationship between cold climates and wolverine persistence. I’m looking forward to learning more about this.

Finally, though, if certain individuals are implying that there is a Swedish Incident or Incidents involving terrorizing of the good and upstanding people of Sweden, our best avenue of analysis would probably focus on moose. As documented here, rowdy drunken moose are apparently a perennial issue in Sweden, destroying property, breaking into stores, holding public orgies, and even occasionally killing people. The establishment of that southern wolverine population followed the implementation of a moose hunting season in the region where the wolverines have taken up residence – perhaps that season was instituted in response to aggressive moose issues? In any case, there’s a theory that gut piles left by moose hunters might actually be responsible for supplementing wolverines in that region and giving them a foothold in a place where they wouldn’t otherwise be able to persist, proving once again that ecosystems are complex, that humans are embedded within them, and that thinking about complexity, in complex and nuanced ways, is necessary to understanding the world we live in.

Here’s hoping that whatever the Sweden Incident actually was, it doesn’t impede the ability of Swedish wolverine researchers to keep up their good and interesting work on the species.








Weal and Wolverines

Weal is an old word. It goes way back, to the days when a bunch of European tribes were squabbling over Great Britain: Roman invaders building walls to keep wild Celts and Picts from the civilized environs of their empire, Germanic and Scandinavian and Norman French invaders crashing onto the shores of an island where immigrants weren’t necessarily welcome, mixing up their genes and their languages and their culture. Whatever the disagreements of these groups as they contested over the British Isles, words akin to weal are found across large swaths of northern Europe, all related to a single concept: collective well-being. This is the word that gives us “well,” “wealth,” and “welfare,” as well as “Commonwealth,” a political entity that foregrounds the idea of shared responsibility and shared prosperity. Words with similar meanings are found throughout the world, so this is hardly an exclusively European concept; something in the human psyche acknowledges that we are, at our core, a social species responsible for our fellow creatures.

Today we understand wealth as relating to capital, material goods, and private property, but at one time wealth inhered in this shared investment in one’s community. When Puritans overthrew the corrupt monarchy of England in 1649 and decapitated Charles I – a man whose inflated self-opinion and dictatorial policies eventually became untenable to the British public – the nation’s briefly monarch-free government was referred to as a Commonwealth (This is about the time that the first use of the word “wolverine” is recorded in the English language, in customs forms related to fur imports). When those same English Puritans landed on the shores of North America in the 17th century, bringing with them all the good of their anti-monarchial ideals and all the ills of their colonial and religiously intolerant agenda, the land that they colonized eventually became the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American Revolution. And if there has always been a struggle between oligarchy and democracy in this country, if there has always been a tension between Enlightenment ideals and terrible colonial realities, the country’s values are nevertheless rooted in an understanding that we come to our community, and to its governance, in a spirit of both individualism and shared investment in the well-being of our fellow citizens.

What does this have to do with wolverines?

Wolverines, like all wildlife, are a public good. They don’t belong to any single person or interest group in the US, which means that we are collectively responsible for them. They are part of the weal of this country, part of the wealth we share. When we discuss what we know about wolverines, when we discuss management of wolverines, we’re talking about how to negotiate within a common-interest space for common-interest outcomes. This process is essential to democracy as well as to conservation of wildlife and the preservation of other environmental values that involve shared resources.

This reality rests uneasily next to a narrative that has gained increasing power over the past few decades, however: the narrative of unfettered neoliberal capitalism. The neoliberal narrative is a study in the privileging of special interests over the well-being of the collective of citizens known as society. It’s a deliberate turning of our backs on the idea that there is a reciprocal relationship between the individual and the world in which that individual lives and makes a living. Neolilberalism privatizes all profit, while socializing the risks and costs of profit-making. It consolidates capital among those who already have it, and denies the idea of the common weal by allowing those with capital to horde it without giving back and without taking responsibility for the ways in which  they impose on the public good. It puts a price tag on everything, and dismisses things that cannot be assigned monetary value. How much is a wild wolverine population worth to the public? This is hard to quantify. Easier to quantify is the value of profit made by oil industry executives and shareholders. The oil industry, in a world that extolls the neoliberal narrative, wins out over public interest. Neoliberalism is a powerfully destructive ideology, insidious and pervasive, and it is this basic set of values that will end up driving wolverines – and other climate sensitive wildlife – to extinction. Unless, of course, we have a massive society-wide awakening, immediately.

To that end, for those of you who are wolverine fans, I’d like to ask you to take a moment to reflect on your values. What are your priorities? How do these priorities potentially have an impact on society? What do you expect or feel entitled to in life, and what do you consider to be your obligations to the wider world? How do you define that wider world, and do you think are there limits to your obligations? If so, where are these limits? Likewise, if you feel like you are entitled to certain things, where are the limits on those entitlements, and do you extend the same set of entitlements to others? If so, which others?

These may seem like large and abstract questions, but I suspect that most people who are concerned with the persistence of wildlife fall within certain parameters when these questions are considered on a spectrum. There’s a lot of work out there in the social sciences on values orientation, the psychology of concern for in-groups vs. out-groups, and where environmental folks tend to fall out on these tests. For now, I’ll provide a couple of graphics and a set of questions to help you situate yourself within this conversation, because this issue of common interest vs. special interest will feature in upcoming posts and you’ll probably find yourself having gut-level reactions to some of what I write. You should know where those reactions are coming from.

Wolverine Quiz: What’s your in-group? 

First, let’s look at in-groups and out-groups. There’s a theory that people subconsciously define other people and entities as being relatively closer or relatively farther from themselves, and care about those people or entities to a degree that is dictated by that distance.


Beings that are closer to the self get more care. Beings that are further get less. There are entities that are seen as being definitively outside of the scope of care; those beings are the out-group.

In a very restricted or self-centered worldview, the in-group and out-group might look something like this:


In a very generous worldview, everything might be part of the in-group:


Note that these graphics should actually contain another dimension, which is time – for example, I consider living and non-living future generations, up to a certain point, as part of my ‘in-group,’ but I don’t really think about non-living past generations as part of my responsibility since – unless we really take it to a science fiction level – my actions can’t affect them. These are very basic graphics and very general explanations, but you probably get the idea.

Most people will fall somewhere in between the restricted and generous versions of the in-group/out-group dynamics above. Where do you fall? Who or what is in your in-group? If wolverines are in your in-group, why? (If they aren’t, what brings you to this blog?)

That question of why certain entities are included or excluded from our circle of concern leads us back to values. And that will be the topic of an upcoming post.




















Monitoring vs. Snapshot

This winter, the states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington have teamed up to participate in a survey that will contribute to our understanding of wolverines in the US Rockies. This multi-state survey is a single season snapshot of wolverine distribution, using cameras and scent lures and some genetic analysis. Articles about this effort continue to pop up here and there; I haven’t highlighted them on the blog because most of the articles are rudimentary and don’t provide a lot of useful information. One trait that a lot of these pieces share, however, is a tendency to mischaracterize this effort as a “monitoring” program rather than a quick, single-season look at a highly dynamic population. Any effort to increase our understanding of wolverines is worthwhile, and the multi-state survey is no exception. It will potentially yield some interesting data. But the ongoing story about this being a monitoring effort that will result in “preserving” wolverines is misleading.

My personal obsession with clarifying all the minute nuances and details around wolverine science and the claims and counterclaims of competing interest groups has seemed, given the broader media landscape and socio-political trends, increasingly quaint and perhaps even Quixotic in recent months. Nevertheless, I’m going to carry on. So let’s take the latest iteration of the claim that the multi-state project is a monitoring project: a piece that appeared today on the KBZK Montana website. The headline states, “Wolverine Preservation Project Underway.” And then, in the space of a 265 word piece, the word “monitor” and variants are used four times. The words “conserve,” “preserve,” and variations thereon are used five times. At no point does the piece offer any substance with regards to what “conservation” or “preservation” entail, or how the survey connects to those objectives, or even what the source of threat is, with the exception of a quote in which Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks biologist Bob Inman talks about re-establishing populations in currently uninhabited former range.

Some earlier articles on this effort were more thorough and, in some cases, highlighted the snapshot nature of this winter’s survey. But even these articles tended to refer to it as a monitoring project, in both headlines and in the content of the articles, as in this piece. Monitoring, to be clear, involves the long-term observation of a process of interest to track trends or changes. A snapshot is a look at what’s going on with that process within a bounded period of time. A one-season survey is useful for offering insight into baseline conditions – but of course, we still have to keep in mind that the “baseline” is a fairly arbitrary moment, the significance of which hasn’t really been established. And with a highly mobile, sparsely distributed meta-population, in which habitat patches may move through cycles of occupancy and non-occupancy, we have to think critically about what the “baseline” information actually tells us about the population at large. The publicity around this project is interesting – the elisions in the narrative may just be the result of incomplete reporting, or they may represent intentional messaging, but either way, it’s a key example of a story being purveyed in the media in a way that doesn’t look closely enough at the scientific and policy contexts.

Again, any attempt to gain more information about wolverines is worthwhile and potentially valuable, and that’s true for the multi-state study, so my critique here isn’t necessarily of that effort (I’ll have more to say about that later, though). My concern is with the way media stories about wildlife science and policy create simplistic narratives about single studies leading to particular outcomes. Anyone reading these pieces should immediately ask whether the scope of the study matches the scale of the claims about the knowledge that will come out of it, and the level of protection and conservation that will be implemented as a result. Just something to consider as these stories continue to appear. I’ll be writing more on this topic in the future.

In the meantime, have a great weekend – hope it includes some good wolverine weather for all of you.


Wolverine Foundation Comments on Listing

I meant to put these up several months ago, but better late than never. Here are the Wolverine Foundation’s official comments on the listing proposal, submitted to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in November. These are already in the public record but I wanted to make them available here in case you don’t have time to sort through the Federal Register site in search of them.

The comments are in .pdf form and fairly extensive – I’ll be dealing with some of these topics piece by piece here on the blog in coming weeks, so if you don’t have time to read them all at once, stay tuned for more information. And as always, feel free to share your thoughts.



Keep Calm and Carrion


If today feels like the beginning of the Resistance to you too, Ms. Wolverine has some words for you to live by over the next few years, inspired by the posters that the British designed to remind people to go about their business and not to panic even as they faced a Nazi invasion. If it feels to you, too, as if we are fighting over the carcass of American democracy in the face of a fascist invasion, the time has come to be like a wolverine: grab the pieces you can, and go stash them someplace where they won’t decay, and where they’ll continue to nourish you until we’re out on the other side of all of this. Keep doing the work you do to make this world a better place, without falling into despair. Act out of love but make no compromises. Be tough. Be fierce. Be smart. Rise up. Resist.

Wolverine goes to school in Yellowknife

In the annals of things-that-only-happen-in-Canada, some lucky middle school students in the city of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, got to see a wolverine, shortly before the school administration placed the entire school on lockdown in fear of an encounter between students and the animal. Despite the sensationalist headlines, the decision was probably good for the well-being of the animal because, let’s face it, being chased around by a horde of middle schoolers is a more alarming experience by far than encountering a wolverine.

Sounding a resolute note of sanity, Fred Sangris, a local Dene trapper, shrugged the incident off, saying that wolverines are to be expected in wolverine habitat, and that the species is not a threat to humans, as attested by thousands of years of indigenous experience, which includes exactly zero incidents of wolverines attacking people. His interview is well worth listening to. The people at Vice, on the other hand, deserve a wolverine let loose to ransack their office, after publishing a silly story about how scared their staff are of “Satan’s lap dogs.” That’s a new one to add to the list of wolverine nicknames; thanks, Vice.

Meanwhile, officials in Yellowknife have set a live trap for the wolverine to remove it from the vicinity of the school. With humans continuing to keep pets and generate garbage and scraps in wolverine habitat, however, it’s likely that the animals will continue to visit the town in the future.