Narratives in Formation

The past four weeks have seen an unprecedented flurry of wolverine-related press. I’m waiting to discuss the Colorado reintroduction proposal until we have a few more iterations of the back-and-forth between people who are in support of the idea, and people who are opposed. For anyone interested in following the press coverage so far, here are some links and a few thoughts on how the press creates narratives about species conservation:

The Colorado Division of Wildlife’s (CDOW) website has for several months featured a wolverine page that references the reintroduction proposal. This is pretty low-key and wasn’t picked up by the press; it simply makes a statement that CDOW is considering reintroducing the species.

In September, shortly after the lynx reintroduction was declared a success, an article in the Vancouver Sun reported that Canada might serve as a source for wolverines for a Colorado reintroduction. Unfortunately this article is no longer online, but it highlighted Canada’s role as a source population for many of the US’ high-profile reintroduction efforts and suggested that Gulo gulo could be next.

The Christian Science Monitor’s article announcing the proposed reintroduction officially broke the news to the public on the same day that the wolverine was declared warranted but precluded for protection under the ESA. The article summarizes the proposal, emphasizing that CDOW sees some remaining hurdles to overcome before it can proceed; concerns included funding, and stakeholder support.

For a few days, the proposed reintroduction was lost amid the discussions of what the listing decision meant – including a blistering editorial alleging that the decision was based on politics and not science, and several (here and here) refuting that idea.

On December 17th, however, the reactions to Colorado’s news began, with a brief piece in the Huffington Post suggesting that we should all happily embrace sports teams with wolverine mascots, while repudiating the animal itself.

Next, on the 21st, came an article in the Denver Post highlighting the concerns of the ski industry over wolverine reintroduction to areas that overlap with ski resorts.  The article also discussed CDOW’s commitment to making sure that all stakeholders’ concerns were addressed before reintroduction proceeds – a reminder that the way one chooses to title one’s article (why “Colorado ski group wary of potential reintroduction of wolverines with protected status” rather than, say, “Proposed wolverine reintroduction offers low potential for conflict, a new precedent for carnivore conservation”?) has a big influence on how a story is read and processed.

Sure enough, on December 27th an article in the Vancouver Sun appeared bearing the title “Politics gums up wolverine project,” and in some places the narrative had become “Potential endangered status threatens US effort to bring back the wolverine.” Way to make a triumph (finally getting the wolverine in line for listing due to climate change) into a defeat (listing them as threatened threatens them even more.) Admittedly, these are Canadian papers, so perhaps they have more stake in portraying their southern neighbors as disorderly. I hope that won’t influence their decision to share their wolverines if things do go forward.

So that’s the state of the press coverage right now. I have a lot of thoughts about how we discuss conservation, and particularly how (and why) that discussion occurs predominantly through the press, but I’d love to know other people’s thoughts about this if you feel like sharing.

Finally, I’ll leave you with an article that is, refreshingly, not about contention – just fun science. Here’s a piece from the Wenatchee World on camera trapping. The article features pictures of Xena, a wolverine in the North Cascades who has eluded the log-box trap but happily allowed herself to be photographed. (She’s quite a cute wolverine.) Biologist Audry Magoun discovered that wolverines have unique chest patches that allow us to identify individuals, and I’m hoping to use this as one of a suite of non-invasive techniques to study wolverines in Mongolia in coming years. It’s great to see that it’s working so well in the Cascades.

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