The day might start off in any of several normal ways: you drive to work and, because your coworkers aren’t in yet, check for a new episode of The Daily Show online while making a cup of hot chocolate against the chill morning air, mentally composing checklists of grant applications to be completed, emails to be written, monstrous books on statistics to be struggled with.
Or you get a call from the day care center telling you that you need to come pick up your three year old son because he is sick, necessitating a change in the day’s schedule, a day of work from home.
It’s all routine, and then the phone rings, a Montana number, from the head of the field crew that runs the wolverine research traps. A call at 9:00 a.m. almost inevitably means one thing: a wolverine in one of the traps.
Jason was on his way out the office door on Tuesday morning, files and computer tucked under his arm, en route back home to attend to his sick son (I was surreptitiously hiding my web browser, sound on mute, so that he wouldn’t realize I’d been watching Jon Stewart before he arrived) when the call came. The shift from routine to excitement was instantaneous, as if a shot of electricity had been injected into the office and its inhabitants. The discussion was quick – which animal was in the trap? M57! Was he still wearing a collar? They couldn’t tell, it was too dark in the trap and the field crew didn’t have a flashlight. But everyone would be surprised if M57 was still carrying a collar nearly a year after his original capture; wolverines are notorious for shrugging out of collars within days – weeks, at most – of being instrumented. And even if he was still wearing a collar, we’d need to take off the old one and put on a new one. As he talked, Jason was already pulling the wolverine capture kit, two big tupperware containers, out of its corner and into the center of the floor.
By noon, Jason’s wife Kate had made it back from a bison survey to take care of their son, and we were en route to Montana. The drive was a six-hour review of how to calculate drug dosages, what would happen once the animal was down, and speculation about M57 himself. He’s a mystery wolverine, caught in a bobcat trap just outside of Menan, Idaho, in February of 2009, 40 miles from the Sawtooths, 50 miles from the Tetons. Which way was he headed, where was he coming from, and what was he doing in a potato field in the first place? Checking his trap that day, the trapper must have been shocked to find the animal; I imagine him pushing aside sagebrush, expecting maybe a bobcat, maybe nothing, and seeing a pile of dark fur, and then that pile of fur coming alive, rounding on him with that thundery wolverine growl, and the trapper shaken out of a sense of what was within the realm of expectation and possibility. I have no idea if it happened that way, it’s simply what I imagine. But the trapper irrefutably did the right thing; he got in touch with state wildlife biologists, who called the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) wolverine project, which took the young wolverine to a veterinary clinic in Driggs, Idaho, to check him over and to make sure he hadn’t suffered from his experience in the trap. The wolverine had been caught by his right front foot, a toe was dislocated, but he seemed fine otherwise. He had a distinctive white sock on his left forefoot, and a crescent white marking on his right forefoot, uncommon but not unheard of, particularly in Sawtooth wolverines. M57 was instrumented at the clinic and then taken to Montana to be released.
Ten minutes outside of Jackson, Jason realized he’d forgotten to grab the antibiotic out of the fridge for the drug kit, and we stopped at the same veterinary clinic where M57 had had his check up to see if we could buy some. All they had was a 250 ml bottle, which was large but would have to do. The woman who helped us was professional and pleasant, but despite my giddy excitement and less-than-subtle attempts to get her to tell us about the several wolverines that had been through the clinic, she seemed blandly unimpressed at the fact that we were off to collar an emblem of the untamed wilderness. I experienced an uncomfortable moment of recognition that not everyone shares the conviction that wolverines are a reason for getting out of bed in the morning and continuing to be amazed at life. Under the circumstances, it was a moment of recognition that I chose to ignore.
We followed M57’s route north to the Centennials, where he had been released just over a year ago. He’d spent a few weeks in those mountains before heading east, crossing Yellowstone National Park, and eventually settling in the Absarokas. By the time the Absaroka peaks loomed into our view through the windshield of Jason’s truck, it was already dusk, and it was pitch dark when we finally got on snowmobiles to head up to the trap. There were ten of us altogether; five field crew members, who had spent the day watching the trap and making sure that M57 was okay; a visiting intern from the Netherlands; the Wildlife Conservation Society’s lead wolverine biologist, Bob Inman, and their field director, Mark Packila; and Jason and me.
The collection of participants jolting through the night by way of snowmobile emphasized the way in which jurisdiction loses meaning when you deal with an animal like a wolverine. M57 had been caught in Idaho, instrumented by WCS, a non-profit research outfit, and released into the territory that WCS monitors, but he had then moved into the territory of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wolverine Project (ABWP), which was a cooperative effort that involved Yellowstone Park, the Gallatin National Forest, and a second research non-profit, NRCC. The ABWP officially ended at the end of 2009, but NRCC and the Gallatin are cooperating to maintain the research operation. Technically, this was a Gallatin-NRCC capture because it involved our trap, our crew, and a new GPS collar that we were supplying, but WCS had a claim to M57 and was a vital part of the effort as well. And the state of Montana also had an interest, since M57 is now a Montana wolverine, although at the last minute the state’s representative was unable to make it to the capture. The presence of so many people from so many different agencies illustrates one of the unique challenges of wolverine conservation: there is no way to study or manage these animals without cooperation across boundaries. The scales at which wolverines live and move will require us to rethink what it means to maintain effective connectivity, how we define the boundaries of an ecosystem, and how we manage populations that are integrated across massive scales. (Although, happily, the Dutch intern was simply a coincidence; international relations are not a component of wolverine population management. Yet.)
The night was warm for a wolverine capture, hovering around 30° F, with fat snowflakes drifting through the forest. Halfway up the trail we drew even with the distinctive three-by tracks of a wolverine moving uphill, and these continued for some time, occasionally shifting into a two-by gait in deeper snow. The snowmobiles roared to a stop and we clambered off into the now-quiet darkness. There was something evocative of ancient religious ritual as we moved in procession through the snow-covered trees, with our headlamps for light, bearing boxes of equipment like offerings. Then we were at the trap.
(part 2 will follow later this week)