Where Wolverines Are Born

When I set out last week with the coordinates for F3’s den programmed into my GPS and the site marked on a series of paper maps, I couldn’t shake a feeling that approached sheer giddiness. The opportunity to examine a wolverine den site is akin to winning some kind of wildlife biology lottery; the dens are as inherently rare as the species, and the dens that are known to science are even fewer. Only around 15 have been documented in the Lower 48, leaving a huge gap in our knowledge of reproductive dynamics. For years, F3 had failed to den, and the instruments on our other female, F133, had died, so we had no way of knowing whether she had had kits. When F3 evidently did den this year, I was ecstatic, but I was also in Cambodia. I was starting to think that I would never have a chance to investigate a den site. When I made it back to the Rockies earlier than expected, in August, getting to F3’s den site was one of my priorities.

A crew visited the den in May, when the snow was still on the ground, and some of the same crew members had gone back once the snow melted, in July, to investigate the site and to see if they could find scat samples. The spring crew hadn’t seen the kits or verified their existence, so however strong the circumstantial evidence, we couldn’t be certain that the site was a den instead of a food cache, and we couldn’t say with confidence that F3 and M57 had reproduced. The July crew had looked for latrine sites, which are proof that a site was used as a den. And the crew found them in abundance, pulling out a number of scat samples for analysis. They hadn’t gone digging for the kits or attempted to instrument the babies in May because of funding constraints, so the scat samples, in addition to confirming that this was a den site, also offered a chance to identify new individuals and perhaps determine their sex.

The important work had already been done, and my own trip was half fun and half pilgrimage. I wanted to visit the place where F3 had – presumably – brought her first kits into the world, and I wanted, after nearly a year away, to be back in mountains that form some part of the mental and emotional landscape of home.

The route into that landscape followed a trail for a while, and then cut away from the trail and up gentle south facing slopes, warm with late summer sun and the scent of dust and pine. At the crest of a pass, the world dropped away, the slope plunging steep and precarious into a narrow pine-cloaked valley that swept back to intersect with the endless marching peaks of the high Absarokas. These north-facing slopes were utterly different from the warm hills I’d just left; I had to edge my way down, dancing between tree trunks for support, the force of gravity and the angle of the pitch propelling me towards freefall. The trees were thick, the shade dense, the temperature so much cooler that I paused to put on my jacket and hat.

Possible wolverine scat under a log, about 0.4 miles from the den site.

As I crouched to pull out my hat, I noticed a huge pile of scat under a log near my feet. I was still a half mile from the den site, but the scat was definitely carnivore and seemed mustelid. It was a bit small, but they were kits, after all. I hadn’t been expecting to collect samples but I did have two ziploc bags on hand, so I shoveled the scat and a large chunk of fur into the bags, GPSed the location, and continued to slide downhill through the dense, cold forest and small open meadows. These meadows were saturated – with streams, with flowers, with warmer patches of sunlight, and with the same breathless silence that hung over the trees. The quiet was ancient and deep and almost tangible, so that I felt like I was diving down and further down through a substance like water, into some other world.

Among all the trees, I wasn’t sure how I would ever find the actual den site, but as I crossed another meadow and stopped to look across the stream that drained it, a patch of pink fluttered from over the water. In May, the crew had tied flagging tape to the tree branches directly above the six entrances to the den. Now, in August, with the snow melted, the tape hung fifteen feet overhead. Beneath the tape, F3’s excavated snow tunnels had led down to cavities sheltered by fallen trees. I’d found the tape, and I’d found the den.

A wolverine's-eye view of part of the den site. The chambers were beneath the downed trees. Note human for scale, and pink tape in tree overhead. This marks the approximate depth of the snow in May.

The crew had already collected all the samples, and I spent a long time simply exploring the area and then sitting and basking in the vast silence. The multiple den entrances had sprawled across an area of approximately 120 m²; the tunnels were probably connected beneath the surface. Beneath the largest of the downed trees on the ground, a hollow against the root ball seemed to have served as one chamber, with two others located among the branches further up the trunk. Against another downed tree, another flattened area between branches suggested a chamber as well.

One of the hollows that was part of F3's den site.

I tried to imagine the family down under the snow in a world of compressed ice, first as newborns and later as more active babies. Did F3 dig new tunnels as the kits grew, or had she constructed the whole network at once? Did she move them from place to place as waste accumulated? At what point did the babies begin to move around through the tunnels on their own? Or did they simply wait, curled up around each other for warmth, where F3 left them when she went out to forage? Had M57 come down here as well? The crew in May had heard his signal and found his tracks crossing their own ski trail; he had traveled directly to the den from the distant location where the crew had heard his signal earlier in the day. If he had gone into the den, what did he do while he was down there? Did he bring them food? Keep an eye on things while F3 was out? (She hadn’t been in the den the day the crew visited.) Play with the kits, add his warmth to theirs, wrestle with them to toughen them up for the outside world? When had they left this place, and did they ever return?

I looked up from the logs, scanned the trees, but everything remained still – no sign of wolverines, or of anything else. The most important ecological question – why here? – remained unanswered, but my personal reasons for being there had been more than fulfilled. I was overwhelmed again by the extraordinary stillness of the place. Later, it came to me that the meadow was suffused with a sense of peace that goes far beyond our normal conceptions of that word – the peace of the Wild, a peace that is so powerful because of its utter indifference to human concerns or moral order, a peace that is edged with on-going loss and ferocity and struggle that are, nevertheless, somehow more acceptable and less alien in places like this. It was, I hoped, a good place to be born a wolverine, and I was profoundly grateful to have seen it.

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