Happy Wolverine Birthday 2023!



Territories, sociality, calories, and kin: When do wolverines party together and when do they party on their own?

Last week I offered some considerations to take into account when assessing a wolverine sighting report. Since the specific sighting report under discussion involves an alleged gathering of 12 or 13 wolverines, I’m going to review what we know about wolverine social behavior, and discuss previous circumstances under which we’ve seen more than two wolverines in one place.

Both male and female wolverines are territorial. This means that adults exclude other adults of the same sex from their own territories. They patrol the boundaries of their territories, and scent mark to keep other same sex adults away. Territories tend to be pretty large, although they probably vary in size with food availability. The boundaries appear to be pretty inflexible – collar data from the landmark study in Glacier National Park shows very little overlap between two adult females with contiguous territories. There is data from a scat and track survey in Sweden that does show some apparent flexibility in some territorial boundaries for adult females, particularly during denning season, when the boundaries regularly patrolled by the female shrink. But there has been no study to date that has shown social behavior among unrelated adult wolverines of the same sex.

Later in the year, after the kits have left the den, camera traps regularly pick up adults traveling with kits. If a female had four kits, that would account for up to five wolverines together. If the male joined them, six wolverines might be traveling together. This is probably the maximum family size, and would be pretty unusual to see. Female wolverines have a system of delayed implantation for fertilized eggs, and they only become pregnant if they have adequate body condition to carry the pregnancy and nurse the kits. A pregnancy with four kits would require a very healthy wolverine, and since lactation is more costly to fitness even than pregnancy, successfully nursing four kits would be a pretty big feat. Typically we see two kits every other year; even seeing three kits is significant and not terribly common. These sorts of numbers indicate a very robust set of food resources. There’s a relatively high rate of kit mortality within the first year, too.

Kits typically remain in their parents’ territories for up to 18 months before dispersing to establish their own territories. We don’t know exactly what is going on during this time, but we do know that the kits appear to spend time alternately with their mother, their father, and their siblings, as well as exploring on their own. This kind of extended care in mammals is relatively rare and if I had several million dollars and more time, this is probably what I’d study. Regardless, we do know that there might be up to six wolverines sharing a territory at once – territorial female, territorial male, and, at most, four kits.

There is also occasionally the potential for overlap of kits of one adult female into the territory of another adult female who is not the mother; this happens if the two adult females are sharing their territories with a single male. The kits may travel in the portion of their father’s territory that overlaps with the adult female who is not the mother, but at least in the collar data I’ve seen, they don’t venture into any part of that adult female’s territory that is not also part of the father’s territory. So if you imagine the four kits of one female traveling into the territory of another female, and running into that female and her four kits, and then the male who is the father of both litters being around at the same time, you might have the potential for ten wolverines in one spot, without violating the rules of territoriality as we currently understand them.

Would this be a particularly tranquil gathering? I doubt it. But is it possible? Yes. Especially if there were a very abundant source of food nearby.

An abundant food source is in fact the one thing that will draw in larger numbers of wolverines. The most notable, and only naturally occurring, instance of this that I’m aware of was in 2008 in Kamchatka, Russia, when photographer Igor Shpilenok found a dead bear and photographed the scavengers who showed up. He documented six wolverines on this carcass – again, that number is within the limits of a kin group. (Google translate is now good enough to use on these pages with coherent results, but I also did a summary of these materials a few years ago with the invaluable help of my Russian-speaking friend Marissa Smith.) Some of the body language in these photos looks less than friendly, and Shpilenok relates stories of them fighting, so maybe they weren’t related. A carcass close to the border of a territory would be enough to lure an unrelated wolverine over, especially if it were hungry enough.

The other famous (in wolverine circles) instance of multiple wolverines on a food source comes from a video taken at a dump at a mine in Chukotka, in northern Siberia. In this video – watch it with the sound on, the music adds a particular flair – twenty-five or thirty wolverines scatter from a dump as a truck drives up. I thought this video was fake the first time I saw it, it simply seemed so unreal. But there were other videos around social media, posted by the miners, of workers feeding wolverines and foxes sausages and other foods from the mine cafeteria, as well as wolverines hanging out at night while heavy equipment was being operated. These are obviously highly food-conditioned animals and there is an abundant supply of calories; effectively, the availability of food is so great at sites like this that it removes the animal’s need to defend a territory to stay fed. This is true also of captive wolverines, who can live together in shared space fairly harmoniously as long as there’s enough food.

Which brings us to the hypotheticals – if there really were a dozen or so wolverines up at that site in the Teton Wilderness, what were they doing there and why were they tolerating each other? Food is the obvious answer, and of the potential food sources, moths are the most interesting possibility. Grizzly bears are known to feed on army cutworm moths at high elevation talus sites between July and September, and the August 8th date would be squarely within this range. Army cutworm moths contain more fat for their weight than butter, and large numbers of bears often gather at these sites to put on pounds. At least in Glacier, there’s some speculation that the females take their cubs up high not only for the food, but also to avoid adult males, who tend to stay lower and who are, of course, a danger to cubs. The mothing behavior of bears is much better known in Glacier than it is in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, but there are current studies looking at sites in the GYE.

We’ve often wondered whether wolverines might also take advantage of army cutworm moths as a food source. It’s never been documented before, but wolverines are opportunistic and in a good moth year they could certainly be feeding up there.

Other insects also migrate over or congregate on snowfields; I’ve seen feeding frenzies of birds on snowfields during butterfly migrations. And there’s always a possibility that there was an ungulate carcass or even several carcasses that had melted out of the snow up there. So there are other possibilities for a food source that might have drawn animals in. Particularly if this location is at the intersection of a number of wolverine territories, it’s possible that adequate food could serve as a flag of truce for a larger number of wolverines. Incidentally, bears on moth sites also tend to be comparatively peaceful and far more interested in the food source than in anything else, including other bears, so it’s also possible that they wouldn’t be bothered by a bunch of other animals being there at the same time.

The other, more remote possibility is some kind of cooling behavior. Summer in this ecosystem was sweltering this year; a friend and I went backpacking in early September and it was about 80 F at 10,000 feet, and much hotter lower down. It was the most unbearable outdoor experience I’ve ever had; if there had been any snowfields in the vicinity, I would have lain down on one and not moved, even if there had been four grizzlies and 13 wolverines on the snowfield with me. Wolverines have a pretty temperature-constrained global distribution and they don’t seem to tolerate anything over 70 F very well. Maybe if it gets hot enough, a cool location might also be a coveted enough resource to break down territorial barriers. It would be interesting to know what the temperature was at the sighting location on August 8th.

Those are my best guesses at what might have been going on at this site if all of those animals actually were wolverines. Again, I’m not offering any kind of final verdict at the moment. But I am underlining again that large numbers of female bears with young cubs are known to gather at high elevation mothing sites in both Glacier and the GYE. Grizzlies also hang out on snowfields to cool off and sometimes just to play. And from a long distance, and in blurry photos, bears and wolverines share similar profiles, postures, and gaits. Again, things like this could have been sorted out with an immediate site visit, so it’s too bad that it took such a long time to report the sighting.

(And yes, the title of this post is an affectionate parody of the titles of various ethnographies that I’ve enjoyed recently – not meant to be taken seriously or to imply that wolverines actually party.)

Herds of Wolverines?

There’s a story circulating about a sighting of “12 or 13 wolverines” allegedly “chasing grizzlies” off a snowfield in the Teton Wilderness in Wyoming in August of 2022. The report comes from a tour company that had a verified wolverine sighting in Yellowstone National Park in March 2022; the August sighting report was posted in some detail, along with photos, on the company’s facebook page on October 2nd.

Without weighing in on whether I think this is an accurate report, I do want to use this opportunity to talk about what happens when a sighting report comes in, and remind folks what to do if you think you’ve seen a wolverine – and this goes double if you think you’ve seen all the wolverines in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem having their first post-pandemic in-person wolverine conference on the slopes of a wilderness mountain.

First off, documentation is key. The several participants in the hike took photos, from a distance, of a number of animals scattering across the snowfields. This is great. But as we often lament in these situations, photos of putative wolverines at a distance are generally of poor quality and are frequently inconclusive. When assessing a sighting report – and this, by the way, is just my own personal process; other biologists may have a different approach – I always ask if there’s anything else that this animal could possibly be, based on the reported behavior, habitat, and evidence provided. If the answer is “yes,” then I cannot conclude that it’s a wolverine. I can conclude that it might be a wolverine, but not that it is a wolverine.

In this instance, because the photos were taken from such a distance, it would have been best if, safety considerations permitting, the hikers had gone to the snowfield to document tracks and look for scat or hair. There are all kinds of reasons why this might not have been feasible, and that’s fine, but again – the evidence that is presented makes it difficult to conclude that these were definitely wolverines.

The terrain, the desire to reach their hiking goal, or the risk of running into a grizzly could all have prevented the hikers from making a closer examination of the site itself. This is why timely reporting to the nearest responsible management agencies is key – especially in the absence of conclusive evidence. This sighting took place on August 8th, but was first publicized in a social media post on October 2nd. The post was written by someone who was not present at the actual sighting, although it did include descriptions written by one of the hikers. As far as I know, there was no report to either the Forest Service or Wyoming Game and Fish in the immediate aftermath of the sighting. This is too bad, because either of those agencies would probably have the resources – and the motivation – to go in to the site and investigate such a significant report. It was also not reported at the time to non-profits like the Wolverine Foundation which, in the event of a sighting this interesting, would also have had an incentive to immediately visit the site. The hikers said that they were concerned about “a rush of tourists” to the site, and that kind of caution is important. But the individuals who would have visited from these organizations would have been few in number and have spent a lot of time thinking about and practicing non-invasive methods of wildlife assessment.

Finally, there’s the issue of ethical communication – and this bit is directed primarily to the media. We all know by now that we live in an age of out-of-control information, and that even things shared with the best of intentions can end up going feral and contributing to inaccurate perceptions of a situation. In this case, the social media post was picked up by media outlets, and reported on as a verified sighting that took descriptions of the putative wolverines’ behavior at face value – both in terms of congregating in large groups, and “chasing” grizzlies. It’s worth noting that the original post did not exactly state that the wolverines were “chasing” the bears, but much of the press used the most sensationalized headline possible.

Don’t use headlines like this (accessed October 12 2022 from Field and Stream website)

The media should have verified events with the hikers who were present at the sighting, to make sure that the hikers’ perceptions were in alignment with the description. Reporters should have reached out to biologists for comment, too. It’s especially incumbent on media outlets to do this when there are issues around public perceptions of an animal’s behavior and numbers. Comments on the tour company’s facebook post expressed both fear of the alleged aggressive behavior, and also relief and confidence that the population was, in the words of one commenter, “thriving.” These commenters are people who already have some interest in wildlife and this ecosystem; when stories like this end up in national news, the audience is less well educated on the topic and even more prone to misperception.

These sorts of impressions tend to stick with the public and pop up in discourse later on. It isn’t helpful to have people worrying about being attacked by packs of aggressive wolverines. I say this as the person who, at multiple public lectures and in private conversations each year, has to field questions about whether people should be worried about dangerous wolverines coming after them.

And unverified claims that three or four females are having three or four kits apiece in an area this small can start to permeate public perceptions of the status of the population, and potentially undermine conservation actions when, for example, the public is invited to comment on listing proposals or other management efforts. In a worst-case scenario, reports like this could serve as justification to advocate to reopen the trapping season in Montana, up the trapping limits, and/or pursue more aggressive development and recreation within wolverine habitat. If there truly are this many females with this level of reproductive success, then managers could in fact make persuasive arguments for any and all of those actions. If there’s any sort of error in the report, but people assume it’s true and argue for management actions on that basis, a tenuous population is dealt a pretty big blow. This is why evidence and verification are essential in these situations, and responsible journalistic standards are critical.

Again, none of this is to issue any kind of ruling on the sighting itself. But the way it was reported in the press has thus far been irresponsible, and I hope to see better reporting forthcoming. The best article on this event to date is in the Cowboy Daily, whose reporters did contact state wildlife officials for comment and provided background on wolverine behavior and population status in the state. Kudos to the local news operations with the local contacts and the local expertise. This is the approach we like to see.

Finally, a word about credibility. Friends have asked me whether I think this is a credible report. A lot of people making wolverine sighting reports want consideration for their own expertise and emphasize their outdoor skills and wildlife experience, and the individuals who made this report do have a lot of outdoor background. But assessing a report is never about the credibility of the individual – it’s about the credibility of the evidence. The most expert outdoorspeople I’ve dealt with know this and when they make reports, they present the information, present the evidence, offer their interpretation, and then we discuss it. The evidence is the key. If it’s conclusively a wolverine or conclusively something else, we have an answer. A conclusive yes requires clearly identifiable and geographically locatable visuals, DNA evidence, and/or a carcass (in the case of roadkill, for example). With anything less definite, in the absence of a site visit, we can only say what it might have been, regardless of how much experience the individual has with wildlife.

This standard may seem harsh, and ego can flare up pretty quickly in these situations, but there are good reasons for focusing on the evidence and not the individual making the report. A very basic one: we’ve had people who have a fair amount of expertise make intentionally false reports in the past. Those sorts of experiences highlight the necessity of starting at neutral with every report.

A more scientific reason for assessing evidence over expertise: if we enter the report and the evidence into some kind of database and someone is looking at it in a few decades or centuries to assess, say, historical reports of wolverine sightings, they may have no access to the individual who made the report, and no way to know anything about the person’s wildlife knowledge. This is why the evidence itself has to stand on its own as conclusive if we are going to count a sighting as verified. Someone else, someone we never have a chance to speak to, many years down the line, should also be able to look at that evidence and say yes, this truly was a wolverine.

I think often about Thoreau’s alleged sighting of a wolverine in Maine in the 1850s. He has a lot of credibility as an individual concerned with the outdoors, but because Maine would have been marginal wolverine habitat, because the word wolverine was sometimes used to refer to lynx at that time in New England, and because there is no evidence beyond his claim, we don’t know what he actually saw. And we never will.

And on a more personal note, I know I’ve made initial mistakes in ID in the field, due to exhaustion, brevity of sighting, or wishful thinking. I once spent 15 minutes pretty convinced that a small animal scaling a cliff face across from my remote campsite in Glacier National Park was a wolverine, until the friend who had been using my binoculars to watch some kestrels returned and I got a closer look and realized it was a marmot. We’d had a big day, I was tired, I really wanted to see a wolverine in Glacier, and I wanted my friend to see one too. I also hadn’t realized that marmots were such adept cliff-climbers, or that they could look so sinuous going up rock faces. I later went up the cliff and found the marmot scat, just to be absolutely certain. Stuff like this happens. We laughed about it. I have an increased respect for marmots as rock-climbers. And since neither I nor my friend have yet seen a wolverine in Glacier, we have an excuse to go back and keep looking.

That’s the run down on what happens in wolverine sighting report assessments – even my own. And again, this is just my own process. I know that wildlife sightings can happen quickly and that sometimes getting reliable evidence isn’t easy. There are some reports that are destined to remain uncertain, but even those are useful and interesting. To the greatest extent possible, though, document the evidence, report it quickly, and think carefully about how you communicate about the sighting.

I will post something on here separately about previous verified records of larger gatherings of wolverines, what we know about social behavior in wolverines, and what causes wolverines to congregate. I may also offer a bit of analysis of the information and images in that facebook post. Meanwhile, here’s a guide to documenting wolverine sign – always a good thing to review as we head into the winter ski season and tracks become much easier to find.

Return of the Wolverines (and the blog)

It’s been a pretty big week for wolverine sightings in the US Rockies. A wolverine was spotted in Yellowstone National Park last week, and another in Lewistown, Montana a few days ago. These are both considered rare occurrences, although it’s worth thinking about why they’re considered rare.

In Yellowstone, there’s a long record of wildlife sightings that includes very few wolverines, despite the fact that the park fits certain habitat parameters and hosts an abundance of ungulates that could serve as prey and/or carrion. Yellowstone is high in elevation, cold, and surrounded on three sides by ranges known to at least periodically host reproductive wolverines (the Absarokas to the north, the Gallatins and Madisons to the north and west, and the Tetons and parts of the Absaroka range to the south). But the Absaroka-Beartooth Project, a five year study that ended in 2009, documented very few wolverines in the park itself or in the rugged mountains to the east of the park. Wolverines collared by the WCS wolverine study in the early 2000s were recorded crossing the park from ranges in the west to the ranges south-east of the park, but no one found wolverines living inside the park or using it heavily. This correlated with the dearth of sightings by tourists and rangers.

Of course, most tourists in Yellowstone stay on the roads, and most wolverines probably do not, especially in the summer when the tourists are most abundant, so there’s a potential disconnect between the habitat use of observers and the species of interest. Sure enough, this most recent sighting was on a road. So there is likely some bias in the wildlife sighting data.

But collar and research data – admittedly somewhat out of date at this point – also suggest that wolverines are just not inside the park in even the low-density numbers typical of wolverines. So are they selecting against Yellowstone, or is something else going on?

It’s worth remembering here that wolverines were extirpated from the US Rockies in the early 20th century and have been re-inhabiting former range since then. So Yellowstone may not be a bad place for wolverines, but it may be less desirable than surrounding mountains for various reasons – the high densities of competitors such as wolves and bears, the seasonally high density of people, the comparatively flat landscape that allows for less escape cover, or other factors that might make it more marginal. As long as the overall wolverine population remains low, wolverines will likely be less frequent in these livable but marginal habitats. As the population grows and becomes more dense on the landscape, wolverines are likely to travel through or even set up house in some of these regions.

Yellowstone may not even actually be that marginal – it might be great for wolverines. But Montana maintained a trapping season until a decade ago, which regularly took both dispersing juveniles and resident adults off the landscape and left holes in occupied habitat. So there simply may not have been enough wolverines to occupy Yellowstone; juveniles may have filled in the empty territories of trapped adults without dispersing further. With the closure of the Montana trapping season, more wolverines seem to be showing up in more places, many of them fairly far-flung. Correlation is not causation, but if we really want a fully connected and robust wolverine population with a chance of surviving the coming climate change onslaught, keeping the trapping season closed is, I hypothesize, a good idea.

As for the Lewistown wolverine, that sighting is considered rare because the animal was spotted in a place that is not wolverine habitat even in the absence of human occupation. The sighting seems especially strange to a lot of people because it was in town. But for all their reputation as emblems of wilderness, wolverines are seen in proximity to human settlements fairly regularly further to the north, where the populations are more evenly spread across the landscape and where attractants like garbage, pets, or interesting noises and smells might catch the interest of an exploring juvenile. In both Canada and Russia, wolverines show up in towns or at mine sites with regularity, if not with great frequency. The Lewistown animal was likely a younger wolverine looking for a new territory and bouncing among mountain ranges as it tried to figure out where to go.

Regardless, the excitement of people about these sightings was energizing to watch. It’s a good reminder of how wildlife can play an important role in creating connections between individuals and nature, as well as among individuals who share an interest.

A third video was made and shared last week by the crew at Swan Valley Connections, who have monitored wolverines and other rare carnivores for years. This sighting is less surprising from a habitat perspective – there are (again, comparatively) a lot of wolverines in this part of Montana – but it’s still a rare and exciting occurrence for a field crew to actually see a wolverine.

It’s been a big week for wolverine sightings in this part of the world. I was also pleased to manage to get some info about Mongolian wolverines into a CNN article about the Yellowstone sighting. This may seem like a minor thing, or even vaguely boastful, but when you’ve worked for 14 years to develop a project, with almost no help, no money, and no support from anyone, it feels like a small victory to see those two words – “Mongolia” and “wolverine” – together in a major news source.

Speaking of rare occurrences and appearances….this is the first post over here in over two years. I have a forthcoming post about why, about what a return to writing about wolverines looks like, and about what happens when labors of love become entangled with systemic problems and failures like bullying, exploitative behavior, and various forms of societal collapse. Fun times for all! The good news is that there will be an opt-out for people who still just want to hear about wolverines, because I’m really not interested in traumatizing anyone whose innocence is valuable to their peace of mind.

Finally, a big thanks to everyone who got in touch with me about these various sightings. That was another sign that wolverine enthusiasm remains high, and it was great to be in discussion with everyone who sent article or video links or just messages. You all are great.

Anyway, happy Week of the Wolverines, and stay tuned.

Wolverine Lawsuits 2020

Nearly four years after a Montana judge ordered the US Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its decision not to list wolverines as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act, environmental advocacy groups have filed suit against the agency to push for a decision. The April 2016 court ruling overturning the USFWS decision found that the listing process had ignored the best available science and been corrupted by political dealing between the states and the USFWS behind the scenes; a new decision was originally anticipated by the end of that year. Since then, there’s been silence, at least as far as communication to the public, on the status of the review and a potential timeline for the decision.

The lack of movement on what the judge described as an urgent situation for wolverines hasn’t been the only instance of the USFWS failing to take action on ESA decisions, however. Hundreds of species linger in similar limbo. In response, in early December of 2019, a coalition of wildlife advocacy groups filed a notice of intent to sue the USFWS if it didn’t release findings on these species within 60 days (article here.) Then, in mid-January 2020, advocacy groups announced their intent to sue over the failure of action on wolverines specifically (press release here).

As usual, it’s been interesting to track the way media outlets are covering this. Headlines for an article in the Missoulian and a piece from Wyoming Public Radio state that advocacy groups are “threatening to sue.” In a Lewiston Tribune article, groups “demand protection.” The advocacy group press releases characterize their actions as “seeking protection” for the species. The Wildlife Society’s piece, meanwhile, characterizes the legal action itself rather than the players, stating “Listing delay leading to lawsuit.” All of the newspaper articles have been reasonably fair in their content, regardless of how they’re characterizing the situation, but it’s interesting to consider how things are presented and the subliminal messages that headlines send about situations. In any case, we’re bound to see more press coverage as the lawsuit and the decision process move forward, so it’s a good idea to break out one’s critical literacy skills.

Beyond these articles and notices about lawsuits, information is fairly sparse right now, but a few other things are worth mentioning. Earlier in 2019, the Trump administration weakened the Endangered Species Act through significant rule changes. Among other things, these changes allow the USFWS to arbitrarily define what is meant by “the foreseeable future,” effectively ignoring climate change if the agency decides that those effects aren’t “foreseeable.” The rules changes also remove the highest protections from species listed as threatened (previously, threatened species were granted the same protections as endangered species, including a prohibition on killing individuals; threatened species will now be granted those protections only on a case-by-case basis) and allow the agency to integrate economic impact considerations into decisions about status (which fundamentally undermines the purpose of the ESA in using science to protect our commonly-shared wildlife over the interests of private profit-making). A number of states and advocacy groups are suing the administration over these changes, but, if they remain in place, they give the agency further license to ignore climate-driven threats to wildlife.

These rule changes, along with the general ecocidal disregard that this administration shows for wildlife and the planet, point towards an upcoming decision not to list the wolverine. Let’s be clear: the Obama administration didn’t list wolverines, either. So this isn’t just about Trump and his cronies. But it does highlight an attitude of breathtaking irresponsibility in this administration towards both wildlife and future generations of Americans (and everyone else), who deserve a livable planet and the joy, inspiration, and recreational opportunities that wildlife provide.

Beyond national politics, however – if anything can be said to be beyond national politics right now – the debate over wolverine listing comes down to questions of science, openness, and whether decision makers are operating in the common interest. Is the science good? Is the process open? Is the common interest being served?

Those are the questions. Keep your eye on the coverage, and the claims from the different players, and put on those critical thinking caps. I suspect I know the answer to all of those questions already, but we’ll see what happens over the course of 2020.

Type Two, Round Two

Back in March of 2013, five Americans got on a plane in Montana and flew to Mongolia to undertake a massive ski transect through the mountains that surround the Darhad Valley. We got scolded for our loud enthusiasm as we pored over maps on the 6:00 am flight out of Bozeman – apparently the hour was too early for our fellow fliers to deal with people talking about skiing for weeks in search of wolverines. We were pretty excited, and that excitement was audible.

Over the course of the ensuing month, we slogged through 230 miles of unconsolidated snow, often knee-to-thigh-deep. We were constantly hungry, and often uncomfortably cold. We dealt with some major group dynamic issues. I struggled for the first week with the weight of the pack, fell down a lot, and even cried once or twice. I got frostbite on my foot, my entire face peeled off (probably also some kind of frostbite, but who knows), and changed clothes only twice in 23 days. My friend lost about thirty pounds and spent much of the expedition gazing longingly at a single pack of fritos that he’d brought along and managed not to indulge in until our final day in the field. We all fell through the ice crossing a river as we emerged from the mountains, and were only saved from more misery and frostbite by the fact that we crawled out next to the ger of a local doctor, who promptly took us in and warmed us up.

In the midst of the trip, I had a half hour of abject terror trying to connect with my family, almost all of whom had been at the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off. I spent much of the rest of the trip in a haze of anger over an attack on my hometown and on an event that was closely tied to my family and an extended group of friends. The trip was physically and emotionally taxing at levels I’d never dealt with before. I got back to Ulaanbaatar and didn’t leave the guest house for days, except to go out and buy a bottle of vodka, which my friend and I consumed in one sitting as we decompressed. I don’t even drink, most of the time. That’s how bad it was.

Six weeks after we emerged from the field, I was busy planning the next trip. It would have to be a few years out, part of a long-term monitoring program, and, in fact, it would be most helpful and useful to wolverine research if I could replicate this insane expedition once every three to five years until I died. Those were my thoughts on the matter c. June of 2013, as I mapped out fundraising plans for future expeditions. I knew it would happen; it was only a matter of when. And whether or not I could trick a few more people into coming with me on the pretense of an exciting trip.

The ski trip, my students informed me last summer, was what is known as “type two fun” – the kind of fun that is only fun in retrospect, and mostly taxing while happening. Most of the fun I’ve had in my life has been, I’m pretty sure, type two fun. Type two fun is probably the hallmark of wolverine research, in fact, and getting into and out of a type two situation is one of the big initiation rituals of the aspiring wolverine biologist. Those with a particularly scientific turn of mind might hypothesize that everyone involved in wolverine field research has at least a slight masochistic streak.

Regardless, I’m now in Ulaanbaatar with a team of four friends, about to embark on the second wolverine ski transect through the Darhad – round two of type two fun for all. We’re starting in a better place in several respects – no bad group dynamics, I’ve done the trip before and know what to expect, and I’ve spent a lot more time in the region in the ensuing years. On the other hand, this year the snowpack is rumored to be much shallower, and Tumursukh Jal, the director of the three parks where we’ll be skiing, is concerned that we’ll be hiking a lot of the way. Our border permit, due to a typo at the border office, was issued for a soum several hundred kilometers to the east, and can’t be fixed until we arrive in Murun, so that’s another point of anxiety. And my pack feels like it weighs 70 pounds, because our first hitch, through Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area, is nine days – which is a pretty brutal way to start, especially if you were counting on the first week as a gentle aid to training because your last month in the US was so crazy and so frigid that you barely got outside, let alone engaged in anything that might really count as getting in shape. So that’s yet another note of concern.

But after several days of 50 F weather (which, for the record, was approximately 70 degrees warmer than the weather in Montana the week before I left….) the temperature in Ulaanbaatar dropped again last night, and tonight the Bogd Khan Uul, the mountains to the south of the city, were brushed with snow. So things are looking up.

Tomorrow we leave for Murun, and thence to the Darhad to begin the trip. It’s going to be great to be back out there on the trail of Mongolian wolverines once again.





Ms. Wolverine’s Relationship Advice Column – Seeking Your Questions

For several years, I’ve collaborated with and translated for my colleague Ms. Wolverine to create a Valentine’s Day/Wolverine Birthday post offering relationship and life advice from a wolverine perspective. Several people have mentioned that these posts are now a favorite part of the holiday – and despite my ambitions to entirely transform Wolverine Birthday into a holiday where people think exclusively about wolverines, Ms. Wolverine takes seriously her role as an investigator and interpreter of our species’ peculiar social behaviors. I spend a lot of time explaining wolverines to you; she sees it as her job to explain you to yourselves. She would like to continue to offer her assistance to those seeking to understand and address their problems like a wolverine.

Initially, Ms. Wolverine and I may have, on occasion, created some alternatively factual situations in order to better illustrate certain points about wolverine sociality and behavior. But there are a lot of perplexing situations out there, and a lot of heartbreak and confusion, and so we would like to open the advice column to real questions.

Note that Ms. Wolverine is a wolverine. If you have a very difficult question that’s dear to you or potentially painful, you might want to seek a human advice columnist, because she will address problems as a wolverine would. She’s generally compassionate and kind, and she will take your questions seriously, but of course, there are some things that she may find difficult to understand. If you have enough of a sense of humor (or curiosity) about your issue to see it reinterpreted through a weasel lens, then please be in touch.

You may leave your questions in the comments below, submit them to gulo (at) wolverinefoundation (dot) org, or message them to us via the Wolverine Foundation facebook page.




There were supposed to be pictures in this post…

It’s been a while.

I’m writing from a ger in the remote backcountry of Mongolia, on an internet connection contrived by Nyamka, our camp cook and all-around Renaissance woman of the Darhad Valley. Only Nyamka could stroll into the base camp ger one afternoon after four months of complete isolation from anything beyond the Horidol Saridag Strictly Protected Area and, with total nonchalance, hook up a device that links us via satellite and Mongolia’s countryside phone networks to the rest of the world. It’s been nearly a month since I last bathed in anything other than a frigid river or a basin of melted snow, and yet I’m able to update my Instagram with ease. The world of wolverine research never fails to make one appreciate the little pleasures and ironies of life in the field.

It’s been a wolverine-filled six months in the Horidol Saridag – from (alleged) wolverine latrines discovered during the summer to a wild abundance of tracks once the snow started to fall in early September. A multi-species camera grid deployed across the protected area yielded a number of wolverine photos, along with lynx, wolves, moose, elk, ibex, musk deer, and other denizens of the taiga, In addition to wolverines, I’ve finally managed to get a long-term climate-change monitoring program off the ground, with the guidance of the park administration, and the help of 16 enthusiastic students from the Round River Conservation Studies’ inaugural Mongolia study-abroad program. We’ve surveyed for talus-dwelling and Daurian pikas, censused the little-known vansemberuu plant across a swath of its distribution in the park, counted more than 12,000 waterbirds on the lakes and rivers of the Darhad Valley, and put together an herbarium of more than 250 species growing within the park.

The adventures have, of course, abounded, from getting cliffed out in a canyon that wasn’t on the map, to subzero nights fording rivers to get back to base camp after overly-ambitious days retrieving camera cards. There’s too much to narrate succinctly in a single post. I wanted to post some pictures to tide everyone over until I’m back in Ulaanbaatar and/or the States, but as it turns out, the internet connection in the middle of nowhere isn’t adequate to upload a bunch of pictures – so those too will have to wait. See you in a couple of weeks!









A Territory of One’s Own

I made my way into the wolverine world by following a young female wolverine from the Absaroka-Beartooth project. Her ID was F3, and she enchanted me for years by being exactly the kind of animal I wanted to be: solitary and self-sufficient, commanding vast swaths of mountainous terrain, and – forgive the anthropomorphism – apparently unconcerned about whether she had a mate or ever produced offspring. She patrolled a huge territory in the Absaroka range, drove us crazy by raiding our traps without triggering them, and inspired a couple of expeditions into heartbreakingly spectacular country, where we were occasionally fortunate enough to find the scant scraps of an elk or a mountain goat that she had devoured. Every February, we watched her signals to see if she denned, and for years she didn’t. She just went right on patrolling her mountains, living her life in the high wild country on the borders of Yellowstone.

As a scientist, you’re not supposed to get attached to or project human qualities onto animals that you’re researching. But I was just a lowly volunteer on that project, not a scientist, and I figured I could give myself license to be inspired and awed. I had a lot of bad days back in those years, the legacy of working with torture and genocide survivors as a student and young professional. Thinking about F3 out there in the mountains prevented those bad days from being a whole lot worse. She was 18 pounds of trickster and pure momentum. She said to me, “You too can be on the landscape like this, and it will help you, too, survive.” I loved her. I owed her a debt. She gave me a template for how to find my way back into the world in front of me.

The remains of a mountain goat F3 had consumed. We retrieved the jawbone from a ledge on a cliff, almost exactly on top of a set of points where F3 had spent several days over the course of late winter and early spring, 2008

Eventually a male arrived in F3’s territory. He was captured accidentally in a bobcat trap in Menan, Idaho, and released by the Wildlife Conservation Society into the Centennial Range on the Montana-Idaho border. His ID was M57, and he promptly traveled directly to the Absarokas, where we watched his locations track F3’s through the summer breeding season and into the fall and winter.  F3 did eventually den, and gave birth to at least one male kit in early 2011. Shortly thereafter, the project ran out of funding to track them. Saying farewell to her was hard, but in a cowardly way I was glad to do it while she was still alive. In the interest of science, it would have been better to continue monitoring her, but it would have been a harder, harsher farewell to know, as we inevitably would if we kept watching her, that she was dead. I was far too attached to this wolverine, I’d imbued her with a significance and an identity that were purely constructs in my own mind, but those constructs propelled me in very real ways into very real opportunities.

Ultimately, it was because of F3 that I received an email in summer of 2017 seeking my expert review of a forthcoming children’s book on wolverines. I’m always happy to review wolverine publications, so I accepted. When I opened the file, I was first baffled, and then angered by a text that presented a deeply inaccurate picture of wolverine life history. The misrepresentation revolved around claims that male wolverines were territorial while females were not, and stated that wolverine social life involved – in language somewhat more appropriate for young children – strict control of sexual access to females by aggressive males. Females were portrayed as having undefended “home ranges” while males were territorial with the aim of mating with as many females as possible. In fact, the only reason for territoriality in wolverines, the text suggested, was male sexual control. The entire narrative centered the story of male wolverines, mentioning females only in terms of reproduction. Males dispersed. Males scent marked and defended territories. Males hunted. Males chased other male wolverines away and aggressively attacked predators without provocation, like some fantastical projection of berserker warriors. Females were there for males to mate with and to produce offspring for these males.

It was my encounter with this book draft that prompted an earlier lit review post about territoriality in female wolverines, because the author seemed genuinely surprised when I pointed out how wrong they’d gotten the story. They said they all available sources backed up their account. At first I was floored by this claim. Female wolverines are obviously territorial; this is demonstrated by study after study. I couldn’t understand how anyone who had looked at the science could possibly maintain the idea that male wolverines were territorial but females weren’t. It’s screamingly evident in the literature that female habitat requirements largely determine wolverine distribution, and that the availability of sufficient habitat for female territories will be the determining factor for wolverine persistence in any given landscape. The contention that males alone were territorial was therefore not only inaccurate, but also shifted the focus away from important aspects of the conservation debate, which revolves around female denning habitat and connectivity for dispersal by both sexes.

And yet I shouldn’t have been surprised by this writer’s insistence that there were a lot of sources out there to reinforce the inaccurate picture of female territoriality. There are. I’ve encountered them repeatedly over the years. The author was working primarily from popular press pieces, and there’s a substantial disconnect between the scientific literature and the popular literature – even the popular literature that paints itself as scientifically grounded – when it comes to the behavior and requirements of male and female wolverines.

Take, for example, National Geographic’s website entries on wolverines. They have one site for adults, and one for kids. In both, male wolverines are centered and the claim that male wolverines are territorial while females are not is perpetuated. Here is what they say about wolverines on their page for adults:

Males scent-mark their territories, but they share them with several females and are believed to be polygamous. Females den in the snow or under similar cover to give birth to two or three young each late winter or early spring. Kits sometimes live with their mother until they reach their own reproductive age—about two years old.

Here’s what they say on their page for kids:

Males mark their territories with their scent, but they allow several female wolverines to live there.

It’s interesting to note not only the basic inaccuracy of these statements, but also the way the language grants agency and personality to the male wolverine, while keeping the female in a secondary role as an object rather than a subject.

A little grammar lesson for those who need a reminder – subjects do things, objects have things done to them.

In National Geographic’s story, a male “shares” his territory, or “allows” several females to live there. The preferences of the male are assumed – and conveyed – to be the key consideration. The male is a character. He does things. He makes decisions. He shares resources. The female has his babies and then takes care of them (nowhere, of course, does National Geographic mention that males share kit-rearing duties for the year or two that juvenile kits remain in the parental territories). In fact, linguistically the female isn’t even granted this much of a role as a subject; she never does anything except dig a den and give birth. The kits (the subjects) remain with her (the object) for up to two years, then they leave. She never does anything beyond her instinctual reproductive act.

This narrative of male activity, agency, and territoriality was recently reiterated in another popular piece on wolverines, this time in the Yukon news:

Males have large territories which overlap those of two to three females, all of which he mates with. This sort of sexual courtship and selection by proximity is not uncommon — the tough-yet-cuddly pika employs a similar strategy — but what makes the male wolverine unusual is that his interest does not end after mating season. Instead, males will continue visiting their mates and the resulting litters in a kind of paternal timeshare arrangement, investing considerable energy in their offspring, which are called kits, Jung says.

“They’re actually very social, with good family tendencies,” he says. “They spend time just teaching young wolverines how to be wolverines…. It’s a bit unexpected.”

Males have well established ranges, and, due to their low population density, rarely encounter each other, making male-on-male aggression relatively low for such a powerful and territorial animal.

“They have their territories and other males respect that,” says Jung.

Great, but what are the females up to? Where do their preferences come in? How do they control their territories, and why are they controlling territories in the first place? This piece does implicitly acknowledge female territoriality and also male parental investment (a characteristic often associated with some degree of female sexual selection for prosocial behavior), but still assumes that the male is the active agent in the story.

Even in pieces for the popular press and social media by competent wolverine researchers, even in pieces where the territoriality of females is acknowledged, this kind of male-centered language persists. I’m not going to pick on individual researchers here, but well before the children’s book debacle, I had to put in place a policy on not publicizing any piece of writing or media that used sexist language – in particular, pieces describing “a male and his females.” This kind of language came across my desk, from within the research community, often enough that it required an internal rule for what I would share on my blog and on social media. The decision was about accuracy – a description of “a male and his females” is an anthropomorphic device that belongs to the era of heated Victorian Orientalist fantasies of the harem, not to science writing. But it was also about insuring that no subliminal messages were conveyed to men who might experience the sad tendency to use their anthropomorphic perceptions of the social order of wildlife to excuse behavior in their own labs or extended communities. The issue of men harassing women is as real in the scientific community as it is elsewhere, and who knew what sort of subconscious permission such descriptions might convey?

Those deluded men aside, I don’t want to suggest that all of these examples are necessarily the result of conscious sexism on the part of the writers of this material. In fact, some of the authors I’ve referred to are women. But it’s precisely the fact that this language is probably not conscious that I want to consider in more detail.

Here’s another paragraph:

Female wolverines disperse and establish territories at around two years of age. A female may travel widely before she finds a suitable location, but once she does, she defends and scent-marks her territory against other females. She may permit a male to remain, and she may share him with other females who tolerate his presence in their territories. She mates with her male in the summer, but holds the fertilized eggs in suspension until the winter. If she is in good condition, she will become pregnant sometime in December, and give birth to her young in early February. Her male will visit her den and may bring her food. Once the kits are weaned, they may travel with either parent for a year or two before dispersing to establish their own territories. Male wolverines may indicate their suitability as a mate to females by diligently participating in kit-rearing activities, allowing a female to select for reproduction that is less costly to her and therefore in her own best interests.

I wrote it, of course. This paragraph is no less accurate than anything that’s been written about wolverines in the popular literature, and yet in rearranging the subject and object, in centering the female and her actions, I’m guessing that it probably strikes some readers as wrong or off. To suggest that female wolverines are sharing a male or possessing a male is a linguistic device, but it’s neither more nor less true than suggesting that a male wolverine controls and mates with “his” females and then supervises their production of his kits. Why then do we often see references in popular wildlife writing to “a male and his females,” and never (to my knowledge, although I will send a wolverine sticker to anyone who can give me an example of this in a piece on mammals) to females sharing a male, or to a female and “her” male?

Most scientists are assiduous about avoiding anthropomorphic language when it attributes motivations, emotions, or human-like thoughts or behaviors to animals. And yet linguistically, when we discuss wildlife biology, we reproduce human (and largely Western patriarchal monotheist) gender roles despite ourselves. This is something that is so deeply embedded in our language and our culture that it would take real and constant work to avoid it. Most scientists and science writers think that they are capable of objectivity without that level of attention to language. I’d like to suggest that they aren’t capable, which explains why even otherwise decent, conscientious people casually use the language of male territorial dominance and sexual aggression without any evidence that this is the actual dynamic at play in animal lives.

Or in short: perhaps popular science writing about wolverines neglects female territoriality because it’s culturally antithetical, and therefore linguistically awkward, to talk about females possessing, controlling, hunting, attacking, selecting, creating, deciding, dominating.

When I initially started working on this post this past summer, I went to the public library and checked out, at random, 14 children’s books on wildlife. I wanted to see how pervasive such gendered wildlife storytelling was in books for young children. I had two main concerns at that point. One was the way in which subconscious gender bias limits the questions that scientists may ask – and indeed, the things that scientists may be capable of observing –  when it comes to wildlife (more on that, and its potential repercussions for conservation, below). The other concern was how this sort of language depicts ostensibly objective, “scientific” and “natural” sex roles to children who are too young to have any awareness of the cultural constructedness of gender. The effects of exposure to such purported truths about the natural behaviors of male and female animals might, I thought, be negative for both boys and girls, cis-gender and trans alike.

I worked on the post fitfully over the next few weeks, delving into literature about different attitudes towards wildlife among women and men, girls and boys, and digging up two old anthropology articles that, back in college, had first raised my interest in the ways that academic experts express unintentional bias through language choice (in this case, the two articles were about marriage customs, one dealing with polygynous marriages in Africa, in which “men have multiple wives,” another dealing with polyandry in the Garwhal Himalaya, in which “men share a wife.” Where, I wondered, reading these articles at age 19, are the women sharing a husband, the women having multiple husbands?) My intent was to show how this morass of literature, from children’s books to academic articles, conveyed both information about the wider world to various types of student, and also, through choices about how to describe that information, purveyed and reinforced particular cultural assumptions about sex, gender, relationships, and power. I had plans to talk in that original post about the newfound veneration of the “natural” among the current child-rearing generation, and how that veneration has led to things as various as the rise of organic food, the dangerous anti-vaccination movement, the silly “paleo” diet, stressful dynamics around natural childbirth and breastfeeding, and other claims about living a better life through an imagined pre-industrial, pre-agricultural authenticity. In light of this, any story that told young children that being male involved a “natural” tendency to control the sexuality and reproduction of females, and that being female involved being a passive object to be fought over and possessed without any active choice in the matter, seemed doubly perilous.

This was a pet project at the time. It was personally relevant because I had been sensitive to these kinds of narratives about sex and gender as a child. I knew by age five that following the life course that was socially gendered as female – namely, taking a male mate and producing a family –  was not in my future, and throughout my childhood I wanted, more than anything else, to find a model for being an autonomous, self-directed, independent female person active in the public world. Stories and animals were both important guideposts in that process. So the topic of human gender roles in animal stories was highly personal. But I didn’t think that there would be much broader relevance to a piece about how depictions in children’s books of male sexual aggression and territoriality among wild mammals might reflect something about the way men and women behave in America. Given the sexual predator occupying the White House, it hardly seemed like there would be a receptive audience for subtle and elaborate arguments about how we use wildlife stories to indoctrinate our children to believe that it’s natural for a female to accept, without question, the sexual advances of whatever bombastic male shows up in her vicinity, let alone the even more subtle and elaborate argument that overlooking the territoriality of female animals conveys a message to young children that establishing territories (or, analogously, having ambitions, staking a claim to a field, defending their own visions, setting out into the world and adventuring and making a life for themselves on their own) is not something that females “naturally” do.

Then the Harvey Weinstein story broke.

Like many other women who have suffered harassment and bullying in professional situations (and that’s all of us, isn’t it?), I found myself mesmerized and nearly paralyzed by the pageant of courage and slime that simultaneously poured forth as the #metoo movement gained momentum. Part of the paralysis was the way the stories pushed many women back into the dark spaces of past private horrors – if you were fortunate enough to have escaped having been the target of physical violence yourself, chances were that you were supporting friends who hadn’t been so lucky, while also trying to fit your own less violent but still disturbing experiences into this bigger and suddenly very visible narrative. We were forced to relive and mourn the opportunities lost when our high school grades imploded after we walked out of the classroom of a high school teacher who harassed us, or the way our work suffered when we suddenly had to manage a sketchy boss whose inappropriate interest required the expenditure of extra energy and effort to remain professional, or the stress and collapse of motivation that followed having to deal with a narcissistic, bullying man claiming credit for our work and screaming abuse at us when we challenged him. Just to pull a few random examples out of, say, my own past.

Beyond that, there were so few news stories examining the causes of harassment or inappropriate advances, so few stories calling for men to be self-reflective about their role in these situations. The message was, “Women, step up! Put yourself through the mental and emotional agony of making these accusations because right at this moment, we’re willing to listen to you!” The message was not, “Hey, men who are in a position of power relative to the women in your professional lives, think carefully about whether you REALLY need to proposition a woman whose career is entangled with yours – do you think that might possibly put her in an awkward situation? Yes? Well then sit down and keep your mouth shut and your pants zipped.” Predatory men were scared and squirming, no doubt. But not one of the men taken down in this series of scandals has had the courage to step up and say, preemptively, “I know I’ve done wrong, I’ve treated people this way in the past and I regret it, I apologize, and I resign.” Not that victims stepping up is a bad thing, but the ultimate message was that misbehaving men, on the whole, are incapable of holding themselves to any standard of behavior, because this sort of aggression is “natural,” and that survivors (male or female) must, on top of everything else, undertake the task of making them accountable. And even when held accountable, the perpetrators appear incapable of any actual growth as human beings; the apologies offered so far have been, without exception, lacking in self-reflection or true remorse.

To me, though, the most depressing thing was thinking about all of the art that never got made, the science that never got done, the brilliant business ideas never enacted, the potential never realized, the many women who struggled to support their families on less than they should have, because these barriers were put up, time and again, to equal participation in the workforce and public life. Sex is a subsidiary part of this exclusionary process, a locus of denigration in relationships where power is contested, but there is a much bigger issue at play than parsing the definitions of which body parts in which proximity with which degree of consent constitute “inappropriate sexual behavior.” What we are looking at now is a deep cultural reckoning, and most of the babble in the media is about the wrong topic. The predictable accusations of puritanism and sex-panic, of the overreach of the sexual revolution, of the lack of character of women who just needed to stand up for themselves and not be victims, were hurled from sources near and far, highlighting America’s eternal, tiresome, prurient obsession with the psychic danger of sex, the risk of pollution (in the anthropological sense) that sex poses to public institutions and public figures and the workplace itself. But very few people or media outlets have talked about the real underlying gender issue, which is our country’s equally tiresome discomfort with female participation, ambition, and vision. This is a nation that cannot decide whether it wants women in heretofore exclusively male public territories like the arts, politics, and business. Masturbating into a potted plant in front of a woman who is hoping to make it in the entertainment industry is not about sex; it’s about reinforcing to the woman that she is in a male territory and that the perpetrator of said potted-plant-masturbation wants it to remain male territory.

In short, the question is not, “What, exactly, constitutes sexual assault?” The question is, “What behavior interferes with an individual’s ability to work to her potential?” Whether that potential involves raising a family or rising to genius in the arts or sciences, having to deal with a man making insinuating comments, groping and assaulting you, or simply being verbally abusive or belittling in a nonsexual way, is an obstacle to thinking of a professional territory as your own.

Back into this mess loped the F3 of my imagination, and she showed up with questions: When, if ever, do we contemplate what a solitary female animal does with her time and her energy when they are her own, unimpeded, directed exclusively by her own will? What does she do with her talents when there’s no one to push her around or get in her way? How does she establish and demarcate her territory, and how do we discuss what she’s creating and defending? What is the “natural” state and behavior of the independent female animal?

As it turns out, of those 14 children’s books, only one contained the kind of biased language I was worried about. It was about deer, and it did indeed refer to “a male and his females,” but it was also a very old book. Newer books were far more gender neutral. There was an excellent series of books on wildlife research featuring both male and female scientists and great storytelling about their work and their species of interest. Things were not as dire as I’d assumed they would be (although my 14-book survey was hardly exhaustive, either).

Is this progress?

I don’t know. I do know that animals have served as analogies and symbols for humans for as long as we’ve recorded our visions of the world. When we celebrate or even highlight qualities or characteristics of a species, we usually find something resonant for ourselves in those qualities. Even scientists tend to slip through the veil of ostensible objectivity when they talk or write in lay terms about their species. I certainly do it, and I’ve hung out with other scientists for long enough to have seen and heard them do it too. We speak with authority, and that makes these slips interesting, because they convey values and worldview under the guise of authoritative objective fact. It’s something to think about, something to be aware of, and something to combat, especially when it affects the lives – and the work – of half of the world’s human population.

It’s also something to think about and combat because it’s scientifically problematic. This is a topic that deserves a post of its own, but in short, if you’re looking primarily at male animals and their needs, if you’re seeing them as the center of the story, you may be blind to important dynamics that are scientifically intriguing and also have implications for management. We see what we are trained and habituated to see, and that constrains our ability to observe and to imagine. It also constrains our ability to implement effective conservation measures. If, for example, some degree of female sexual selection is operating in the case of wolverines – if a female wolverine is picky about her partner, if she chases off males she doesn’t like, if she simply refuses to mate with or bear or raise the kits of a male she dislikes (infanticide happens…), if, in a worst case scenario, a female wolverine leaves her territory and sets up a new one when she dislikes a resident male  – then it would have implications for everything from trapping (removing any adult animal is likely to be catastrophic to reproductive success of a given population node) to reintroductions (randomly paired animals are less likely to successfully establish a reproductive population) to connectivity (the landscape must be fully connected not only to insure successful dispersal but also in order to allow a suitable supply of males for the female to select one who meets her preferences). A scientist wedded to the idea of male sexual dominance and male sexual selection through competition and territoriality would be functionally intellectually impotent in the face of such dynamics.

I mention this only as a “what if,” not to make a statement that female sexual selection is at play among wolverines. But I will add a final note on F3, my female wolverine from the Absarokas: her kit was not fathered by M57, the male who followed her for months and who regularly visited her den while she was nursing the kit. The kit’s DNA excluded M57 from its lineage, which means either that F3 was sharing her territory with two males, or that she mated with a disperser who was passing through. M57 was observed in close proximity to the den site, both via telemetry and in person by the crew that skied in to locate the den site. Maybe he knew F3 had chosen another male and was trying to kill the kit or kits (the crew retrieved DNA from only a single kit), or maybe he was helping to raise it because the social bond he shared with F3 – winning her favor and approval by demonstrating his parenting skills and his acquiescence to her needs – was ultimately more important to his long-term evolutionary success than passing on his genes in a single year.

Maybe in her territory, her rules govern. It’s a hypothesis to explore in wolverine research, and – perhaps more importantly – it’s a rule to live by in the human world.

F3’s den site in late summer 2011. The chambers were beneath the downed trees. Note human for scale, and pink tape in tree overhead. The tape marks the approximate depth of the snow in May, when the crew skied in and observed M57’s tracks (verified by collar location) in the area.

Kit scat under a log, about 0.4 miles from the den site.

Of necessity, this piece focuses mostly on the male-female dynamics of workplace harassment, since that relates most closely to the gender-essentialist narratives conveyed in wildlife writing. But any time power is used to humiliate or drive out any innocent individual and thereby limit their potential, it’s wrong, whether that individual is female or male. This piece also deals largely with cis-gender heteronormative definitions of sex and gender, male and female. This too is something that I consider problematic in the way that wildlife writing conveys a “biology is destiny” story, even when we know that this isn’t true for some animals (you all will enjoy reading about the wide variety of same-sex mating and partnering in the animal kingdom here, and about various birds in same-sex partnerships here, here, and here). I cannot address these dynamics fully without making this piece unreadably long, but I am 100% supportive of complicating the gender narrative as much as possible and am also 100% supportive of all trans and LGBTQIA folks as we broaden the possibilities of lives lived to full potential.