NatGeo Wild’s America the Wild is airing an episode entitled “Wolverine King” this Sunday, March 11th. The episode airs at 8 pm eastern and Pacific time, 7 pm central time, and 9 pm mountain time.
Except for a chance encounter with one of the camera crew in a Bozeman bar, I haven’t actually met anyone involved with this production, so I can’t comment on the quality of the show or its contents. It does, however, star Jasper, one of the same wolverines whose upbringing wolverine afficionados followed in Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom. So if nothing else, it will offer an opportunity to see Jasper again.
Some promotional materials for the NatGeo show have appeared in the press over the past few days. A short piece on the Huffington Post by Casey Anderson, the host of the show, includes two embedded videos of encounters with Jasper. I agree with Anderson’s lament over the lack of attention given to the wolverine, and am glad he’s doing his part to generate wider awareness. But some of the claims and statements beg the question: is widespread but inaccurate exposure better than no exposure at all?
Perhaps, but it’s still frustrating when hype and facile narratives take precedence over real information. So just a bit of scientific armor with which to gird yourselves before watching the show: in the first video clip, Anderson frames his encounters with Jasper as “training” for going out and meeting wild wolverines. Some of the promotional materials suggest that Anderson is risking his life in trying to get close to wolverines. If he really is meeting Jasper in order to figure out how to get close to wild gulos, he’s setting up the only situation in which a wild wolverine would actually be dangerous to a human: messing with it. If you are in the wild and encounter a wolverine, you shouldn’t even attempt to get close to it or interfere with it in any way. Respect wildlife on its terms when you are in its territory, and you won’t have a problem. Your life certainly won’t be at risk. Of course, maybe he isn’t trying to pet wild wolverines, maybe he’s just trying to understand their behavior, which is fine. But the moral of this paragraph is, leave wild wolverines alone if you’re fortunate enough to see them. They are not a threat to people.
Anderson also makes a statement in his piece that wolverines “….are disappearing at a rapid rate.” This is untrue. As far as I know, the only study that suggests a decline was conducted on traplines in Canada and the methods used are, to my mind, not robust (my skepticism is backed by the skepticism of the folks who really know: Audrey Magoun, Jeff Copeland, Kevin McKelvey, Keith Aubry, and Eric Lofroth, the rock stars of wolverine research, issued a commentary on this study in a 2011 issue of Population Ecology; they open by stating that the study “…reports conclusions that are unsupportable…”) In fact, right now wolverines appear to be undergoing a range expansion as they return to regions of the US (and maybe Canada) from which they were extirpated during the 20th century. The threats to wolverines come from long-range, landscape-level issues that involve climate change and connectivity. They aren’t disappearing right now, but they may within the next century, and we shouldn’t be deceived into complacency by current celebratory reports of wolverines in places like Colorado and California.
Nor should we revert to a simplistic narrative of immediate crisis, however. The conservation movement has gotten a lot of mileage out of endangered species crisis narratives, but we’re moving into an era when these stories are much more complicated and much less linear. I don’t honestly expect a one hour episode on TV to adequately address this complexity, but I would issue a general challenge to people involved in environmental media: find a way not to tell the same old story, especially when that story isn’t true. Shake things up. Surprise us. Challenge us. Make us think harder.
Finally, in the realm of “generally absurd,” the host claims in another interview that, “After an avalanche, a wolverine just might save your life.” During the film clip in which Jasper pulls the host from the snow bank, wolverine foster father Steve Kroschel explains that this is how wolverines extract carrion from beneath the snow. Just to clarify, ‘carrion’ means dead stuff. If you were buried by an avalanche, and you were under the snow long enough for a wolverine to find you and dig you out, you would be dead already. A wolverine is not going to rescue you from an avalanche.
All of that said, I also haven’t seen the episode, and maybe it’s a great, nuanced look at wolverine conservation, with a few glitches in the promotional materials. I don’t have a television so I may not find out for a while. If anyone sees the episode and wants to share an opinion, please do. I hope that no matter what, it will help build a constituency of wolverine-interested people.