Last night my sister and I watched the PBS premiere of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom with a handful of friends who were involved with starting the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project. Seeing wolverines on national television was fantastic, especially with a crowd of people who recognized every mountain and were full of jokes, stories, and the deeper history behind every incident.
The show was the highest-rated of the PBS season, and in the 15 minutes following the end of the show, visits to this blog increased 300% over the previous all-time high. Many were searching for pictures of Jasper and Banff, the captive Alaskan wolverines featured in the documentary. Others expressed interest in learning more about wolverine ecology and biology, and some wanted to volunteer with wolverine research projects. Still others were looking for information on threats, and, alarmingly, a few had googled things like “how to adopt a baby wolverine.” (If it seems slightly Orwellian that I know all of this, all I can say is, writers are all gluttons – pun intended – for knowing who’s interested in our work, and WordPress stats are addictive.) After initial delight over the sudden surge of interest in wolverines, I returned to a much-discussed question among wolverine researchers: how do you channel the enthusiasm generated by a wonderful film into conservation benefits for the species you research, care about, and – yes, I admit it – identify with?
This seems like an opportune moment to address the big question of newly-minted wolverine enthusiasts: what can you do to help?
First of all, keep learning about the species. The more you know, the better for wolverines. The best source of wolverine information remains The Wolverine Foundation, which is run by a coalition of wolverine researchers, including Jeff Copeland and Audrey Magoun, whose projects were featured in the documentary.
Second, do not try to raise a wolverine as a pet. Jasper and Banff are extremely engaging, but they are still, as Steve Kroschel points out in the movie, wild animals. Wildlife rehabilitation and ambassador animals play an important role in conservation, but wolverines are not pets and most people don’t have what it takes to give one the kind of life it deserves and needs. If you want to adopt a wolverine, consider doing it by making a donation to a research project that monitors wolverines in the wild. Wolverine research projects are able to keep close track of each instrumented animal, and even via GPS collar, the unique personality of individual wolverines shines through. We also do a great job of keeping our donors informed about what “their” wolverines are up to, so it’s a nice way to have all the fun and adventure of having a wolverine in your life, without chewed-up furniture and potential puncture wounds.
Third, the biggest long-term need for wolverine conservation is better data. The wolverine has been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act three times since 1994; the first time, it was denied protection due to lack of data. The second time, in 2008, it was denied protection – arguably – because the evidence of threat was not convincing enough. The third decision is due out in December of 2010; Jeff Copeland’s snow model paper, published earlier this year, may provide compelling enough evidence of threat due to climate change that wolverines will be listed. Or it may not. In any case, if the wolverine is listed, it’s only the first step in figuring out how to protect it, and as the documentary illustrated, finding out anything about these animals is time consuming, expensive, and not for the faint of heart.
After the showing last night, my friends lamented the end of funding for the wolverine project in Glacier National Park. The five year study revolutionized our understanding of wolverine ecology and demographics. There’s a long way left to go, however, and understanding the meta-population dynamics of wolverines at the southern edge of their range could provide important information about how wolverines can survive in a warmer world. Wolverine research is critical to wolverine conservation. I don’t usually do this directly, but I’m going to do it now: if you are inspired by the film, by wolverines, by the researchers who push forward through every hardship to learn about these animals, then give directly to a research project. A quick breakdown of costs: $25 buys supplies for non-invasive DNA sampling. $60 analyzes a DNA sample. $150 buys immobilization drugs. $250 covers a flight to determine whether a female is denning. $3000 buys a GPS collar. Any amount – whether it’s $5 or $5000 – shows an interest in and commitment to the species, and we appreciate it.
I work for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, which maintains the Absaroka-Beartooth study, and if you donate to us, I’ll be thrilled (and if you want, I will personally send you updates about what the project wolverines are up to.) But there are several fantastic projects out there; you can find summaries of global research projects on the Wolverine Foundation site, to learn more about which one you want to contribute to. The Wolverine Foundation, as the organizing research body, is also in need of support.
Fourth, help out by becoming a citizen scientist if you live in wolverine territory. If you’re a backcountry skier, a snowmobiler, a hunter, a backpacker, a climber, or anyone else who spends time in the high country, let us know if you see a wolverine or tracks. You can find a pocket-sized card to download and take on your next trip here.
Finally, don’t panic. So many of our narratives about species conservation have been built around a sense of urgent threat that we default to that story whenever we are trying to figure out how to do something good for a newly-fascinating species. I’ll write more about this over the next couple of weeks, but the short story is this: there’s no single activity that’s directly threatening the survival of wolverines as a species, and there’s no single action – aside from reversing global warming – that will help them. Instead, it’s going to take innovation and creativity to create a new conservation model that will work for wolverines and for montane ecosystems as a whole.
Thanks to everyone who watched last night, and for those who missed it, you can see the entire documentary online at the PBS website. To writer/producer Gianna Savoie and her crew, many congratulations on a great film, and to Nature, thanks for continuing to fund and broadcast high quality work.