F3 has been trickster and holy grail; a young female just entering her reproductive years, an essentially elusive creature, and – by way of coincidence or by way of the chaos-inducing powers attributed to her species by cultures worldwide – a vortex around which comical and aggravating circumstances seem to swirl.
First captured and instrumented in 2007, F3’s original set of instruments failed, and the research team had to recapture and reinstrument her. In spring of 2008, she was captured again and we hoped to recollar her, but a blizzard swept in, the roads to the capture site were shut, and the field crew had to release her.
One of the cameramen for the PBS wolverine documentary accompanied us on a summer 2008 expedition to investigate GPS points obtained from F3’s 2007-2008 collar. He’d just returned from Pakistan, where he’d made a film on one of the world’s foremost mountaineers, and he had earlier served for ten years on search-and-rescue on Mt. Kenya while living in Africa. He was unable to complete the trek, stating that it was the most rigorous he’d experienced in his years of filmmaking.
On a second expedition that summer to investigate GPS points from F3’s collar, another accompanying participant developed blisters that were so bad she could hardly walk; we had to curtail that trip without reaching one of the sets of points we wanted to investigate. On that same trip I nearly fell off a cliff that I was scaling to try to get a view of a ridge along which F3 seemed to travel regularly.
Perhaps part of the point is an acknowledgment of the fact that 100+ pound bipeds should not attempt to act like 20-30 pound wolverines, because we are simply not designed to cover the same terrain in the same way. But the difficulties assumed a more superstitious import, as if this particular animal was one step ahead of us and laughing over her shoulder as she led us on. Last year she was photographed by the automatic cameras at the research traps on several occasions; we know that she ventured into the traps, but never actually pulled the trigger. Then, as now, we were eager to know whether she was denning, but later telemetry flights caught her ranging over 25 or 30 miles in the course of three days, indicating that she wasn’t tending babies. This year, the field crew trapped her in early March, but since we knew that M57 had been in her territory since the summer breeding period and we thought she might have kits, they let her go. Telemetry flights over the next few days showed that she was, again, all over the place.
First thing on Thursday morning, I got a call from the director of the field crew, letting me know that there were tracks circling the traps and that we should have the field kit ready to go. We were cutting things close; once the bears come out, we shut the traps, and boar grizzlies had already been sighted on the move in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. At best, we had 48 hours before we would have to close the research operation for the year. It would be in keeping with F3’s habits to circle the traps repeatedly a day or two before the end of the season, taunting us with the prospect of a capture, but never actually allowing us to collar her.
We had a collar on M57, which meant that we would be gaining all-important fine-scale data about how he was using the landscape. But understanding how females use their territory is important to determining what drives reproduction, and at this point, understanding reproduction is one of the most pressing research questions for wolverines in the Lower 48. Collaring F3 might allow us to gather some data on this question. When I left the office at 5:00 that afternoon, there was still no word.
At 8:30, my phone beeped and I pounced: a text message that F3 was in the trap. We were headed to Montana.