Last week I walked in to find a box sitting on my desk, spilling foam peanuts and pink bubble wrap across my workspace. The box contained three smooth plastic cylinders, wrapped in more bubble wrap and then in plastic bags marked with numbers. Taped to each cylinder was a smooth silver magnet. The cylinders were a new shipment of telemetry implants for this season of wolverine research. The numbers on the bags indicated the frequency of each transmitter, and the magnets kept the devices turned off until they might be needed. Next to the box on my desk, a pamphlet had been folded back, a section on ethylene dioxide sterilization highlighted. My task for the day was to find a place, as close to Jackson as possible, where we could get the implants sterilized and sealed so that they would be ready for use. The live traps in Montana had opened, and if a wolverine went in, we would need the implants immediately. So it was an urgent matter. As of the last time the project had tried to sterilize equipment this way, there was no way to have it done in Jackson. And the nearest option outside of Jackson was Idaho Falls, 70 miles away, and if that failed, the best bet was likely to be Bozeman, Montana, five hours away. The situation was urgent enough that it would require driving to wherever the implants needed to go; Jason didn’t want to risk them being lost in the mail. The implants are essential to wolverine research.
Implants? you are probably asking. I thought wildlife scientists relied on radio collars.
This is a delicate topic in the world of wildlife research. We like the animals we study, and we want to be as minimally intrusive as possible. Balanced against that desire is the difficult issue of gaining enough information to know how to protect the population into the future. When wolverine research was in its infancy, researchers used telemetry collars similar to those that had worked so well in tracking bears, wolves, and dozens of other species. But there was a problem: wolverines are built like football players – broad shoulders, small heads. They don’t retain collars that well. In fact, they tend to simply shrug them off. So eventually the wildlife vets and researchers decided to try implanting a telemetry device inside the wolverine’s abdomen. This had two advantages: you could keep track of the wolverine reliably for several years (as long as it didn’t take off for, say, California), and you could also put a short-term GPS collar on the animal, schedule the GPS collar to fall off after a couple of months, and have a nice, usable dataset for a contained period.
When I first heard about the implants, I quailed. It sounded so unnecessarily brutal. But Jason has worked on wolverine projects in Glacier National Park as well as the current Absaroka Beartooth Project, and neither project has ever lost a wolverine. The projects go through rigorous licensing procedures, including intense animal welfare permitting. If there was even a hint of danger to the animals, the license would be revoked.
Unfortunately, using sensitive electronics for surgical procedures means that you can’t just toss them in a heat-based sterilization system, for obvious reasons.
“We don’t have a gas sterilization system,” the woman at St. John’s Medical Center, Jackson’s hospital, told me, “But we could steam them.”
“Well, no, that wouldn’t work, because they have these radio transmitters…”
“What did you say these things are again?”
“Um…they’re radio transmitters that we put inside our research animals. Is there any chance you know of any place that might have a gas sterilization machine?”
The woman thought for a minute and then said, “You could try Spring Creek Veterinary Clinic. I think they might be able to do it.”
“And they’re in Jackson?”
“Yes, right on Broadway.”
This was unexpectedly good news, and the next morning, box in hand, trailing biodegradable pink starch peanuts into the frigid wind, I dashed from my car into the clinic. It was -20 F outside and my lips were numb, which made it more complicated than usual to explain why I was there, what our project did, and what I wanted. The receptionist waited while I unwrapped each transmitter, removed the magnets, and handed them over; she took them gingerly, as if fearful that they might embody some aspect of the animal for which they were destined. The transmitters would sit in the sterilization machine for 14 hours and emerge in sealed packets, to be picked up the next day. And then, if we were lucky enough to catch an unknown wolverine, they’d be ready to go.