Handling wolverines is amazing, but the down side of trapping is the fact that the animal is not in its natural environment, so you don’t get to observe it doing wolverine things. It’s knocked out cold for 80% of the interaction, and scared and hostile for the other 20%. You know that the process of instrumenting an animal will lead to all kinds of important knowledge about how wolverines do behave when they’re out in the wild, and holding a wild wolverine is an indescribably awe-inspiring experience.
But for those of us who come to wildlife work with a love of animals – a love of seeing what they do, how they move, and how they construct their own personal worlds in interaction with their environments – a capture is not the same as seeing an animal in the unmediated wild. The intelligence of animals is best exhibited while they are conscious, and this is why, on wolverine captures, it’s generally been another animal that’s provided the sense of animation and consciousness that make the environment seem doubly alive. This animal is the wolverine’s smaller cousin, the marten (Martes americana), whose relatives worldwide include the fisher (M. pennanti) and the sable (M. zibellina) – the latter a creature that single-pawedly structured Russian imperial ventures in Siberia for many centuries because of the demand for its fur. Apparently ‘martes’ derives from a Germanic word for the animal in question, but for a long time I believed that it came from Mars, the god of war – which, given the fearlessness of the species, seemed appropriate. They are aggressive raiders of wolverine trapping operations and are frequently unintentionally caught in the traps. When confronted with the humans who come to release them, they are just as vocal and ferocious as their larger mustelid relatives . The caloric payoff also seems to outweigh the cost of the stress of being caught, because they return again and again. Wolverine traps and the attendant hanging bait lures appear to be the equivalent of drive-through fast-food stations for any marten lucky enough to be in the vicinity of a research operation.
On both M57’s and F3’s captures, martens appeared as we were waiting for the wolverines to come out of the drugs, after the commotion of the collaring died down. On M56’s capture, in the dead of night, the two pairs of marten eyes glinting green, blinking in and out of sight, one second up a tree to the left, the next on the ground to the right, were eerie and delightful. Like their larger relatives, martens exhibit an endearing combination of curiosity and fearlessness. During F3’s captures, these characteristics were even more vividly on display as a marten intent on getting to the trap’s bait circled us for nearly an hour. As it bounded through the snow, circled the trap and assessed whether or not it might be able to get inside, climbed trees, and leapt from branch to branch in a bright arc, I realized why Mongolians refer to their martens as Ойн Солонго (oin solongo), which literally translates as “the rainbow in the forest.”
Just as I was sorting through my marten photos from the F3 capture in preparation for uploading some to this blog, High Country News published an article on the joys of marten-gazing during wolverine trapping operations. I’m delighted to learn that I am not the only one who sees the fun in these personable animals, and this simply reconfirms that HCN is a great publication.
Here’s our marten from F3’s capture; my camera kept freezing (literally) and I was shivering, so the pictures aren’t as good as they should be, but they give you an idea.