The wolverine climate change narrative heats up

The Vancouver Sun picked up the story about wolverines and climate change, which BBC ran yesterday. See comments on this story in yesterday’s post, below.

My concern is that advocates will latch onto this without due consideration of potential weaknesses in the study, leaving all of us who are concerned about wolverine conservation open to criticism of the science behind our claims. I just want to highlight a comment in the Vancouver Sun article that further confuses me:

‘”Unfortunately, we don’t actually know what the populations are like,” said Brodie. “It’s quite difficult to get good numbers on a rare and elusive species like a wolverine.”‘

It seems impossible, to me, to draw a connection between wolverine population and snowpack if you don’t actually know anything about the population trends. How does this work? This simply reinforces my perception that using trapping records as an indicator of overall demographic dynamics is inadequate. And I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I design a study to assess Mongolian wolverine populations; much of our data will, of necessity, rely on hunters’ information, and we came to the conclusion that there are very few ways to use this information to make reliable inferences about the state of the overall wolverine population.

Hopefully I’ll get a copy of the study shortly and will then be able to comment with a better understanding of the researchers’ methodology.

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2 thoughts on “The wolverine climate change narrative heats up

  1. The Huffington Post pulled my response to the BBC Wolverine BBC article

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/04/canadas-wolverine-populat_n_447577.html#comments

    I thought men & women of science are supposed to be open minded and objective. This article and numerous others are quick to tie any hypothetical abnormally in nature to global warming. Simply taking the difference between the trapping takes from one period and comparing it to another period is hardly what I would consider science. Even if the wolverine populations are in decline, there could be numerous other factors, such as the increasing wolf populations, or diseases, increased poaching, or other factors not yet uncovered. To simply say the wolverine population is in decline, and it must be attributed to man caused global warming. This is absurd, and only creates more skepticism.

    If you are interested in taking a look at the other side of the climate change debate, information can be found at petitionproject.org.

    • As far as I’m concerned, there is no ‘other side’ to the global warming debate. I’m not getting drawn into an argument about this, but for anyone who does visit the ‘petitionproject.org’ site mentioned in the comment, I ask you – in the interest of open-minded objectivity – to also visit Grist and view this exposee of the project: http://www.grist.org/article/32000-scientists-dispute-global-warming. I don’t have any respect for people who resort to dishonesty to manipulate others, regardless of context, and that is basically what the petition project is.

      That said, I think the error in the case of this study lies with the media taking a correlative study and feeding it into a causal narrative, rather than with the lack of open-mindedness of men and women of science. I don’t believe that it was the intention of the study’s authors to cover anything up or to claim that there was a cause-and-effect relationship, simply that there appeared to be a relationship of some kind and that that relationship could be due to global warming. There are certainly many, many aspects of wolverine population dynamics that remain to be studied, and disease, other predator interactions, and social dimensions such as poaching are among them. Thank you for recognizing that. Wolverine research is time, energy, and resource intensive, and if you do take an interest in having these questions answered, please consider donating some funds to the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative’s wolverine research program so that we can start finding those answers. There’s a link to NRCC’s page to the right.

      So the media is partially to blame for its inability to tell a nuanced story – but the public is also somewhat to blame for not asking for or being capable of paying attention to a more nuanced narrative. My plea is for media and public alike to take an interest in more sophisticated narratives, because otherwise we’re going to get pulled into these pointless, polarized debates time and time again.

      Regardless of the many challenges of using trapping records for data, there is still a very simple equation out there: Wolverines are dependent on snowpack to den. Snowpack is declining. A decline in snowpack results in decreased denning success of female wolverines. Decreased denning success results in reduced kit survivorship. Reduced kit survivorship reduces wolverine population. Wolverines at the southern extent of their range exist in population structures in which every single individual is potentially important. Wolverines are therefore threatened by climate change. Simple and straightforward.

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