You Study X-Men?

Go out into public and, if you are feeling bold, ask the first ten people you meet what they know about wolverines. The answers will range from “Huh?” to “Isn’t that a comic book character?” (or, alternatively – and this is where things get either frightening or intensely comical, depending on your perspective – “Oh my god, I love Wolverine, and I have this set of metal claws that I designed and made myself in metal shop class and that I sometimes wear around to feel, you know, powerful.”) to “I know they’re out there, I see their tracks sometimes. Can’t they, like, rip your face off if you look at them wrong? I totally had a friend who was out on a snowmobile and got chased by one last winter.” Occasionally you’ll meet someone who will insist that hordes of wolverines gallivant around Michigan, lending spiritual energy to University sports teams and inspiring events such as the annual Mr. Wolverine Contest. Once in a great while someone will be able to tell you that the wolverine is a weasel, and that in the Lower 48 they are found in remote, high-altitude areas. Within the past year or so, a number of articles in niche environmental publications have sought to paint the wolverine as the patron saint, the guiding spirit, of extreme outdoor sports. People who know what a wolverine is know they’re rugged, know they’re fierce, and seem to cherish the idea that they might be dangerous.

I’m not a wolverine elitist; in fact, until summer of 2006, I would have fallen into the group of people who vaguely knew what a wolverine was but couldn’t have told you what their tracks looked like, or where they lived, or what they ate, or how many kits they had – or even that their babies were called “kits.” I came to Wyoming that summer to do research on wolves for my master’s degree, but was rapidly disillusioned by the realization that wolf research is 10% about wolves, and 90% about dealing with two opposing groups of people who hate each other. I’d come to environmental work from humanitarian aid work with refugees, primarily genocide and torture survivors, and I’d had about enough of dealing with opposing groups of people who hated each other.

It would have been a depressing summer, except for the fact that I was working with a small organization, the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, whose executive director, Jason Wilmot, happened to also be the field director for the Absaroka-Beartooth Wolverine Project. In early August, I asked to tag along on an expedition into the remote Absarokas in search of a collared wolverine. Jason cautioned that seeing a wolverine was unlikely and that we might trek the entire 21 miles to the cluster of telemetry points and find nothing at the site, and then have to hike 21 miles back out. We went anyway.

At our first camp, 13 miles from the cluster of points and 11,000 feet high, beneath sweeping snowfields and towering sedimentary cliffs at the crest of the Continental Divide, a wolverine bounded into our camp and circled us for eighteen minutes in the deepening dusk. He ran up the ridge, disappeared over the top, and then popped back over to stare at us again. He jumped onto a rock for a better vantage; he ran across the ridge to peer at us from a different angle. He wasn’t aggressive; apparently he was curious. It’s not fashionable in academic circles to admit that you feel a connection to what you study; emotion muddies the clear waters of scientific objectivity. Nevertheless, in those eighteen minutes and in the trek that followed the next day, some deeper connection developed, a relationship with the landscape and the species that live there, a sense of appropriate orientation to the world. And with this came a lasting interest and obligation.

The wolverine left several hairs in his footprints on the snowfields, and we collected these the next morning. Two years later – the lab, unconcerned with our curiosity, moved at a creeping pace entirely contrary to the leaping, bounding gait of the animal in question – we learned that this wolverine was not the one we’d gone in search of, but a younger male, known as M4. In March of 2007, seven months after he circled our camp, M4 was caught in one of the Absaroka-Beartooth Project’s live-traps in Montana, more than eighty miles from where we’d seen him the previous summer. He was medicated, instrumented, and released; during that procedure, the researchers took hair and blood samples that allowed us to match his DNA with the samples we’d collected in August. M4 was picked up once on a telemetry flight a week after he was captured, before disappearing. Wolverines, especially young males, move fast over huge distances, and M4 could have been in Glacier National Park, or Canada, or Idaho, while the Absaroka-Beartooth Project flew his frequency in the Greater Yellowstone. When a wolverine was sighted in California in spring of 2008, the Absaroka-Beartooth Project requested that the California pilots try M4’s frequency; it wasn’t him, but it’s not outside the bounds of possibility that a wolverine born in Wyoming could end up in the Sierras.

And this – the boundless energy, the capacity to move rapidly over tremendous swaths of impossibly rugged terrain, the gravitational pull towards the highest of high mountains – is one of the reasons that most people know almost nothing about the animal. This includes the people who study it for a living; insight comes in brief fragments, and there are still huge gaps in basic ecological and demographic knowledge.

Which brings me, finally and circuitously, to the point of this post. The next time someone approaches you on the street and asks, “What do you know about wolverines?” here are a few facts with which you can impress your interviewer. Further posts will elaborate on these facts, but for now, this should be enough to wow even the most devout gulophile.

– Scientific name: Gulo gulo (Latin for, roughly, “glutton of all gluttons.”)

– The wolverine is the largest terrestrial member of the mustelidae family, which includes all weasels.

– Wolverines are chocolate brown with a cream colored stripe along their sides, and a matching facial mask. These markings vary in shade and prominence. Wolverines also have a white chest patch, usually lighter than the stripe and mask. Females can weigh up to 30 pounds, males up to 40. They don’t get much bigger than this, but they’re furry and they have huge feet, which sometimes leads to reports of 60 or 70 pound wolverines.

– Wolverines are circumboreal. Their current distribution includes Scandinavia, Canada, the United States, Siberia, and Mongolia. In the U.S, they are found in the northern Rockies; the southern extent of their confirmed distribution (breeding population) is Wyoming, although anecdotal reports exist from other states.  In Eurasia, the southern extent of wolverine distribution is Mongolia.

–  Wolverine in the U.S. are primarily scavengers, although they are capable of hunting rodents and ungulates – particularly ungulates weakened by winter conditions. In Sweden, they regularly kill domestic reindeer. In Mongolia, anecdotal reports of wolverine chasing argali sheep exist.

– Female wolverines reach breeding age at around three years, and give birth to two kits in early spring. Kits are born white, and spend the first few months of their lives in snow dens. Wolverines are only found in areas that have persistent spring snowpack – deep snow through mid-May – for seven out of eight years.

– Wolverines are territorial. An adult female wolverine will not overlap with another adult female wolverine, and an adult male will not overlap with another adult male. A male wolverine may overlap with one or more female wolverines. Territories may be extremely large, and the size of a territory might be regulated by the amount of available food.

– The best place in the U.S. to see a wolverine is Glacier National Park in Montana, where there are roads and trails in wolverine territory and where there is a comparatively dense population of wolverines. The second best place to see one is Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, a narrow and contained range that is saturated (ie, all available territories are occupied) with wolverines. Anyplace else – good luck.

For those of you who cannot wait for more on wolverines, please visit the Wolverine Foundation’s website, which maintains a substantial amount of reference material and is an excellent, reliable source of information on the animal.

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