One thing I’ve noticed about wolverine biologists: they all tend to be introverts. It takes a certain temperament to be willing to spend most of your time roaming alone in the wilderness, and the rest of it in front of a computer, pondering the complexities of habitat models. Not once have I met a wolverine biologist who seems overly eager to spend time in a crowd of people. This is not to say that they are socially awkward; just that in large gatherings, gracious and communicative as they always are, they generally have an underlying air of being half someplace else, as if, in spirit, they are actually out in the wilderness about which they’re telling stories, rather than being 100% present in front of you. Their love of the big, wild landscapes in which they work shines through, inspiring and envy-inducing.
Such was the case last night, when the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wolverine project director, Bob Inman, gave a presentation to a crowd of about 80 at the Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson. Bob, who I last encountered over an unconscious wolverine in Montana, was invited by the Museum to give a talk about WCS’ program. WCS has a particular relationship with Jackson, and for several years they monitored the wolverine population in the Tetons. The Teton project has been dormant for a few years while WCS has focused its wolverine work on Montana, but is slated to begin again next winter.
Aside from the amazing photos and videos of wolverines, gathered over the course of nearly a decade of work, the most interesting part of the presentation for me was the detailed account of M56’s trip to Colorado last year. After his capture off Togwotee Pass in December of 2008, M56 traveled down the spine of the Wind River Range and then out onto the flat sagebrush desert of central Wyoming. Our project had monitored M56 via flight and made a few attempts to track him on skis, but when we lost him, WCS sent their pilot and field director Mark Packila to look for him. He vanished from the Winds shortly after they picked him up, and would have perhaps remained lost if an oil field worker hadn’t called Wyoming Game and Fish to report having seen a wolverine in the sagebrush. Asked by skeptical officials if the animal had been wearing a collar, the worker replied that if it had, the collar was white. This matched the description of M56’s collar, and WCS went to the place where the wolverine had been reported and found tracks. WCS picked him up again via plane, and spotted him on ranch land, where he’d found the carcass of a cow and, in wolverine fashion, was contentedly chewing on it. The day that the plane spotted him happened to be branding day on the ranch and, worried that the ranchers would see the plane circling and think that wildlife officials were tracking a wolf, Bob and Mark landed, explained what they were doing, and invited the ranchers out to see if they could catch a glimpse of M56.
“I wish I had a movie of those ranchers when they saw him,” Bob said, ” They looked at each other like, are you kidding me? Are we actually looking at a wolverine?”
From the ranch, M56 headed further south. “We thought about trying to retrieve the collar, because we could see that he was still wearing it.” By now, the collar had died, and even though it was scheduled to release, the release mechanism had somehow failed. The collar contained valuable information about how M56 was moving across the landscape, and getting those data was important. “But we could see the mountains of Colorado from where we were standing, and we decided not to interfere.”
From the plane, Mark Packila watched M56 approach the interstate, watched him watch several cars and a motorcycle go by, and watched him turn around and head over a low range of hills. No one actually saw him cross the road, but the next day they picked him up 20 miles south of the Colorado border. Since then, the Colorado department of wildlife has been monitoring him; he’s traveled through much of the mountainous part of the state, and he disappeared for several weeks, during which time he could have easily, as Bob said, “toured most of southern Colorado” as well. Bob expressed interest in the same question that I’ve been considering: will a male wolverine stick in a place where there are no females, or, now that breeding season in approaching, will he head onward (or even travel back north) in search of a mate?