An article about a wolverine study on the Payette, Boise, and Sawtooth National Forests appeared in the Idaho Statesman last week. The article is a straightforward synopsis of a project that asks backcountry snowmobilers and skiers to carry a GPS unit while using the National Forests. There are questions about the extent to which snowmobilers and skiers might disturb denning female wolverines, and the researchers are interested in determining whether backcountry use really does present a threat. The question is made more urgent by the fact that the wolverine is up for consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and if that happens, land managers may have the latitude to make land use changes to remote backcountry in order to protect wolverines – if the researchers determine that human disturbance actually does result in den abandonment.
Snowmobilers, backcountry skiers, and advocacy groups all have a stake in the outcome of this study. The script of the traditional Western endangered species conflict calls for outraged recreationists to accuse environmental advocacy groups and the federal government of infringing on their rights, while environmental advocacy groups evoke wilderness and science to enforce their aims, and the researchers remain stuck in the limbo of trying to maintain objectivity while taking shots from all sides. Wolves and spotted owls are probably the best examples of this predictable drama, which serves – over and over again, ad nauseum – as a proxy for deeply rooted values conflicts.
Hidden in the article, however, is a line that suggests that the wolverine case could turn out differently: “The study about wolverines is co-sponsored by the Idaho Snowmobile Association.”
In 2009, the Idaho Snowmobile Association approached the Rocky Mountain Research Station and asked to partner to research the effects of backcountry recreation on wolverines. Over the past few years, major environmental advocacy groups have intimated that wolverine safety is a justification for restricting snowmobile access to the backcountry. The vigorous debate over snowmobiles in places like Yellowstone has a history dating back to a time before wolverines were of interest to anyone, and from a certain cynical perspective, it’s easy to suggest that environmental advocacy groups perceive the wolverine as just one more piece of ammunition – a particularly charismatic cannonball, perhaps – to be employed in a battle that ultimately has to do with aesthetics. It’s worth reiterating that to date, there is actually no scientific proof that backcountry use results in wolverine kit mortality, despite the fact that certain groups are using that claim to try to restrict snowmobile access. On the other hand, the lack of proof doesn’t mean that backcountry recreation doesn’t have an impact on wolverines. Neither hypothesis (effect vs. non-effect) has been proven. Scientific uncertainty over an issue in which two stakeholders with significantly different values have a stake in outcomes that are deeply tied to identity offers a recipe for contention. This is the point at which endangered species debates tend to get derailed into arguments over the accuracy of the science, rather than addressing those much more complicated underlying values conflicts.
This time, though, someone was smart enough to think ahead and at least narrow the margin of uncertainty around the science. Snowmobilers are willingly taking GPS dataloggers with them into the backcountry to map their use patterns, while wolverine biologists are tracking instrumented animals. The study may not ultimately quantify, with absolute certainty, the effects of human activity on wolverines, but it will perhaps allow less room for speculative claims. With the backing of well-known wolverine biologists and the participation of snowmobilers and skiers, everyone has a share in the research and, to a certain extent, everyone owns the outcome. Whether this will make everyone more amenable to resulting management decisions remains to be seen, but this departure from the same old script is also an experiment well worth conducting.