Controversy, Camera Traps, and Unlikely Love in Michigan: A Review of “The Lone Wolverine”

 

The Pretty Girl emerges from obscurity with the help of science teacher Jeff Ford, as documented in “The Lone Wolverine.” Photo copyright Jeff Ford.

 

The Lone Wolverine: Tracking Michigan’s Most Elusive Animal. Elizabeth Phillips Shaw and Jeff Ford. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor. 2012.

The Lone Wolverine begins with an ending – the discovery in early 2010 of Michigan’s only known free-living wolverine dead in a ditch – and the rest of the book is tinged with a sense of impending loss. The sense of loss is oddly elliptical, because before this wolverine appeared, Michigan had no wild wolverines, and after she was gone, it returned to wolverine-free status with no actual loss to global wolverine populations. Instead of sadness at the implications for the species – the sort of chronic depression with which conservation biologists cope every day – the sadness is for the loss of a unique relationship between an individual man and an individual wolverine.

At the core of the story is Jeff Ford, a high school science teacher who, along with his friends Steve Noble and Jason Rosser, conceived a plan to track and photograph a wolverine that showed up in the Michigan Thumb in 2004. Although the Michigan Department of Natural Resources confirmed that the animal was a wolverine and issued a rapid order protecting her from harm, they remained unable to invest in documenting her activities, and Ford and his colleagues’ initiative alone provided the impetus – and funding – to gain insight into her life. Over the next six years, Ford used baited camera traps to photograph and video the animal, and tracked her through the boggy terrain of the Minden City State Game Area. He wrote a series of articles for the popular press, keeping interest in the animal alive. Initiating contact with the wolverine research community, he read through the wolverine science and painstakingly collected DNA samples for the scientific community. A heart condition requiring two surgeries slowed him, but nevertheless he returned to hauling venison to the camera site a scant few weeks after his operation. By the time the wolverine’s body was discovered by hikers, Ford had become the wolverine’s protector, spokesperson, and amateur scientist in his own right. Following her death, the book and an upcoming Michigan-wide tour will allow Ford to continue educating people about their state animal.

Despite Michigan’s renown as the Wolverine State, the species has been extinct there for at least 200 years, making the appearance of this animal especially startling. Did she disperse naturally from Ontario? Or was she a released captive of Alaskan genetic stock? The question of his gulo’s origin drove much of Ford’s work, particularly his quest to obtain DNA samples in order to ascertain both sex and source population. In the first endeavor, the evidence was conclusive – the Michigan wolverine was a female – but in the second, the evidence was not. The question of the origin of Ford’s “pretty girl,” as he called her, remains a subject of controversy. Despite placing this controversy at the heart of the narrative, the book doesn’t resolve the question, nor does it really explore the complicated methodological issues surrounding wildlife genetics research, relying instead primarily on Ford’s explanations and copies of email correspondence between Ford and wolverine researchers.

As disappointing as this is to a scientist whose obsessions lie in educating the public about nuance and uncertainty and all the gritty details of wolverine research, the treatment of the controversy highlights the fact that this is not a book about hard science. It’s the story of Jeff Ford and a tough little wolverine who stuck it out in a tiny home territory, hemmed in on all sides by people (and raccoons, not to mention a pack of carnivorous hares that sound worthy of Monty Python), for six years. If the book isn’t a scientific work, it  does succeed as a story of outdoorsmen and their passionate relationship with landscape and wildlife.  The book is oriented towards this audience, and just as Ford’s popular press articles served an important purpose in reaching a constituency beyond the research community, this book reaches out to people unlikely to read scientific papers and who might shy away from self-proclaimed “environmentalist writing,” but who would be interested in reading about a hunter who used his backwoods skills to orchestrate a monitoring project that no one else was willing to take on.

As a book about individual characters, the story contains some highlights, aside from Ford, Noble, and Rosser. The coyote hunters who first spotted strange tracks in February of 2004 and set their dogs onto those tracks, thinking they might be after a cougar, deserve special mention. When Aaron and Ryan Shenk finally realized what they were chasing, word of the discovery spread, and by the time they treed the wolverine after an hours-long chase, other hunters, snowmobilers, and curious onlookers had arrived, vying for a glimpse and a photo of the animal. Several people in the crowd wanted to shoot the wolverine, but the Shenk brothers, exercising the prerogative of the hunters who had discovered her, forbade it; instead, they called the Michigan DNR, resulting in confirmation of the animal’s identity, and an immediate order protecting her. Ethical hunters with an interest in protecting rare wildlife are too often ignored in environmentalist circles, which tend to focus on poachers and unethical hunters. The Shenk brothers deserve recognition and credit for their role in this story.

Wolverine biologist Audrey Magoun and Wolverine Foundation director Judy Long also play important roles in the story, Long through her role as facilitator of contacts and information transfer, and Magoun through her open-mindedness to the potential contributions of an enthusiastic novice (full disclosure: I have communicated extensively with Judy Long and the Wolverine Foundation, and worked for three weeks in 2011 with Audrey Magoun as an apprentice to her camera-trapping study in Oregon, so I too have been in the role of enthusiastic novice in relation to these individuals.) Although all of these relationships experienced moments of stress – circumspectly referenced – they touch on the heart of an unarticulated but important theme of the book: the interface of citizen and professional science. If not for Ford’s initiative, the pretty gulo girl of the Michigan Thumb would remain nothing more than a confirmed wolverine outside of known range, with no DNA samples gathered, no information on her sex or age, and substantially less knowledge about wolverine biology and ecology among the Michiganders who followed Ford’s work. Despite some issues around scientific protocol – which probably seem arcane to outsiders but are absolutely critical within the profession – his contribution stands. And if citizen scientists like Jeff Ford are capable of making valuable contributions to work on rare and elusive species, the book pushes scientists and outdoorsmen to build a better process for navigating the interface of enthusiasm, methodological rigor, and communication with the public. Ford and the wolverine community were all in unexplored territory, but the glitches and the successes of their collaboration should help generate discussion of how to build on shared interests and passions.

The wolverine herself is, of course, the most important character in the book – next to Ford – and in true gulo character, she tantalizes us with brief glimpses and trickster antics. With a home range of barely 6500 acres, she survived in a tiny area in comparison to wolverines further north. Supplemental feeding probably helped keep her within the confines of the protected area, but she still disappeared several times, for days or weeks, before reappearing again at the camera site. She and Ford engaged in an intellectual tug-of-war as Ford sought ways to anchor the bait, test her ingenuity, and make it harder for her to vanish with her prize. She quickly solved each challenge, whether it involved freeing the bait from a cable or moving a 100-pound log to dig up venison buried beneath. Her obsession with caching food is evidence of a gulo survival strategy that relies on keeping meat cool and protected from other scavengers. Ford also caught on video a series of interactions with a local tribe of raccoons that were plundering the bait until the wolverine pinned one to the ground to demonstrate who was in charge. After that, the raccoons either hung back, or, dominance issues sorted out, occasionally fed side-by-side with her. Once in a while, she was videoed tossing an old bone or two around for fun. Wherever she came from, she was getting along pretty well in the woods, echoing Ford’s own love of being outdoors. After her death, an autopsy confirmed that she had never borne kits, and suggested that she was about nine years old when she died. Her cause of death was the same heart condition for which Ford himself had had surgery a year before, adding a spooky resonance to a description of Ford’s relationship with the animal: “They were the same.”

As a record of an anomalous, intriguing event in the annals of wolverine research, the book is valuable and fascinating. As an account of a unique relationship between a man and a wild animal, the tale is inspiring, providing an emotional core to a story that might otherwise succumb to occasional stylistic issues. As a narrative of the contributions of committed citizen scientists, the volume could serve as a ‘how-to’ manual, and as an implicit exploration of the relationship between citizen scientists and professional scientists, the book prompts us to think more broadly about the potential research role of interested and skilled constituencies. For wolverine enthusiasts, the book is well worth the read as an accessible window into the life of a single wolverine and the man who dedicated six years of his life to documenting her existence, and will undoubtedly become an important work in the limited canon of popular books about the species.

 

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One thought on “Controversy, Camera Traps, and Unlikely Love in Michigan: A Review of “The Lone Wolverine”

  1. Rebecca, this is long overdue, but I wanted to thank you personally for your incredibly in-depth, thoughtful and insightful review of our book. I am deeply honored.
    elizabeth shaw

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