A small avalanche of articles on wolverines has appeared over the past two weeks. From an enthusiastic write-up of Doug Chadwick’s Canadian tour promoting The Wolverine Way, to two pleas (here, a piece in New West, and here, in National Parks Traveler) for wider protection of the species in the US, to a synopsis in High Country News of new climate change research that suggests that wolverines are facing harder times ahead, to a recap of the adventures of the lone Sierra male, wolverines are becoming more newsworthy day-by-day. Average daily visits to this blog are about twice what they were six months ago, and attendance at wolverine talks in Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming has been standing-room-only for the past ten months. All of this indicates an increased interest, which is gratifying to those of us who have long hoped that the wolverine would gain a more prominent place in our collective awareness.
Sometimes, wider attention can be two-edged, however. Over the past few years, as we’ve prepared to induct the wolverine into the ranks of conservation darlings, I’ve had a few moments of panic over the way in which good intentions could go awry. There’s a thin line between reasoned advocacy and blind enthusiasm, and it’s easy for the former to tip over into the latter. The wolverine needs a constituency, but it needs a constituency that advocates for smart things, in a smart way.
Immediately following the listing decision in December, the environmentalist reaction to the “warranted but precluded” designation was primarily one of disappointment and reproach. I was particularly taken aback by an editorial that lambasted the decision as “political” and called for immediate listing. I’ve struggled to articulate reasons for my reaction to this piece, because I too would have preferred to see the wolverine listed and offered endangered species protections, even while realizing that the ‘warranted but precluded’ status represents a huge step forward. But, after some reflection, after a lesser resurgence of frustration while reading some of last week’s articles, and partially in reaction to some recent discussions about Montana’s trapping season (about which more to come in later posts), I think it comes down to this:
The environmental movement gained its foothold in the midst of the crises of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and its narrative – its essential script – is always of crisis. Environmental advocates are caught in a perpetual reactive cycle that is fundamentally defensive, combative, and angry. And in order to be defensive and combative, one requires, of course, someone against whom to direct one’s anger – an enemy.
In reacting to the listing decision in December, some people chose to cast the federal government in the role of enemy. There have been murmurs within the environmental advocacy community and the growing wolverine fan base, seeking to assign that role to other groups – to snowmobilers, to trappers, to ranchers. It is to the credit of environmental advocates that none of these narratives of threat have blown up and taken off, but the risk is always there. And it is a risk, for two reasons. First, using any of these potent narratives against a specific identity-based group has the potential to evoke an anti-wolverine reaction from politically powerful people. Take a ten-second glance at the state of wolf conservation, and you will understand why this would be a disaster. Second, re-enacting the ritual battles of cultural identity that characterize environmental disputes in the West distracts us from the real issues surrounding wolverine conservation, which are climate change and habitat fragmentation.
This, then, is why calls for listing as a conservation solution for wolverines make my stomach flip. Listing has worked fantastically for a number of species, but it’s as if people have come to believe that putting an animal on the list is the equivalent of having conserved it. That’s not the case. The wolverine could be listed, and it would make little difference to its long-term prospects, because we lack the political and social will to tackle those big, looming issues, and the ESA, which doesn’t allow us to regulate for climate change, gives us no grounds to do so.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t list the wolverine, but that we need to stay focused on substantive as well as symbolic actions. We’ve become so accustomed to fighting for listing as the apotheosis of endangered species conservation that, in some ways, we’re floundering in confusion, and clinging to the comfort of those old successes, as we try to deal with the fact that wolverines – and polar bears, and other species threatened by climate change – call for something above and beyond the predictable strategies that have worked well in the past. We don’t yet know what those solutions will look like, but we know that they will have to be bigger and just as systemic as the problems that necessitate them.
And this brings me back to narratives of combat, crisis, and enemies. If we’re going to tackle these bigger issues, we need alliances, not battle lines. We need to use reasonable federal decisions as a jumping-off point instead of entrenching and employing limited resources to fight the government. We need better data on critical questions about reproduction, dispersal, and genetic exchange so that we know how to take effective action – which means that we need to fund research and monitoring. We need to guarantee every single wolverine a fighting chance to successfully disperse and reproduce, with as few potential sources of direct mortality as possible. We need instantaneous action on climate change, although – as Synte Peacock’s recent paper on climate modeling in wolverine habitat in the Rockies points out – it may be too late for that already. We need a push for a new conservation narrative, more complex, more sophisticated, and ultimately more successful, that can build alliances for action on those larger issues.
So keep the interest in wolverines high, and keep calling for listing, but let’s make sure that we’re also talking about what we’re going to do beyond that to ensure that the wolverine stays on the ground in the Rockies. There is a crisis, but it’s not a simple crisis with a single solution – it’s worldwide and culturally embedded, and its implications extend far beyond wolverines.
That was something of a rant, and I apologize for any sense of negativity. I deeply appreciate the increasing interest in wolverines and the sincerity behind people’s desire to see it protected. But I hope we can direct energy and resources in the most effective fashion, without getting distracted by protracted legal or media battles unless they are necessary.
To bring things down a notch, I’ll leave off with a series of camera-trap photos from Banff National Park in Canada, which includes some photos of a wolverine gnawing on a moose carcass, and a great action shot of a wolverine in mid-air, chasing a raven. Enjoy.