How Not to Write a Wolverine Article for the Popular Press

As most readers know, there was an uproar following the death of M56 in North Dakota last month. A new article appeared on the Huffington Post on Monday, using the M56 incident as a jumping off point to talk about the urgent need to list wolverines. The article constructed a chain of argument that was factually inaccurate and flawed in its reasoning, with errors in nearly every paragraph, and an overall picture of the wolverine listing debate that sets us back by years, if not decades. This piece manages to encapsulate all of the  stupid things that advocates do when they push science into the narrow confines of their pre-existing agendas. It’s a perfect case study in how not to write about wolverines.

In summary, the author, Cristina Eisenberg, says that wolverines must be listed, and that the federal government inexplicably ignored documentation of a “plummeting” wolverine population when they decided not to list in 2014. I’m not going to nitpick over the numerous small inaccuracies peppered throughout the piece. Instead I want to bring attention to Eisenberg’s uninformed assertions about wolverine population trends, show how a biased and obviously cursory reading of the science can lead to the wrong conclusions, and make a suggestion about how this has negative repercussions for wolverine conservation down the line.

Recently, the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana used unfounded contentions about wolverine population trends to drive a narrative of “wolverines are doing fine,” which helped undermine the listing process in the latest round of ESA discussions. The states built their case on a paper by Aubry et al. on historic wolverine distribution and habitat associations. I discussed this paper when I summarized the February 2016 court hearing in Missoula, because it was heavily debated there. Let me recap: Aubry et al. 2007 is absolutely not a paper about current wolverine population trends. It’s a paper about historic distribution that tallies and ranks the reliability of different sorts of historic reports of wolverine sightings, posits a range retraction and possible extirpation of wolverines from the Rockies in the early to mid 20th century, and then suggests that they’ve recolonized large parts (but not all) of their former range (the extirpation-and-recolonization idea is reinforced by genetic analysis, described in a paper published in 2013). This speculated recolonization was the basis on which the states rested their case that the wolverine population is growing and healthy. This is also, notoriously, the paper that threw University of Michigan fans into depression by suggesting that the Wolverine State – and in fact all of the upper Midwest – had been largely devoid of resident wolverines since the mid-1800s. (“Our results and all published accounts by early naturalists indicate that wolverines were rarely, if ever, encountered in the upper Midwest….Historical records are sparse and haphazard in that area, and the habitat conditions that are associated with wolverine records in the western United States are generally lacking.”) The paper’s major argument is about habitat associations, but let’s leave it here for the purposes of this piece.

Here’s Eisenberg’s assessment of the situation:

In 1994 and 2000, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considered Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for the wolverine. However, each time it found listing unwarranted due to lack of data about this species’ historic range. To address this lack, ecologist Keith Aubry analyzed wolverine trapping and observation records and found that from 1801 to 1960, the species had occurred throughout the Intermountain West and Upper Midwest. Between 1961 and 1994, people continued to report it in the northern Rockies and Cascade Mountains. Then from 1995 to 2005, these reports declined. Nevertheless, in 2008 USFWS deemed listing unwarranted on a technicality (none of these wolverines constituted a distinct population, as defined by the ESA). Environmental groups sued and won…

By 2010, wolverine trapping had been prohibited in the US, except for Alaska and Montana. In October 2012, environmental groups litigated the ecological soundness of lethal wolverine trapping in Montana and prevailed. Meanwhile, wolverine numbers continued to plummet….

I’m pretty sure that Aubry et al. 2007 now officially qualifies as the most misunderstood scientific paper in the wolverine debate. No sooner have the states finished using this paper to contend that the wolverine population is growing, then someone appears using the paper to suggest that the wolverine population is declining. Eisenberg claims that Aubry et al. state that wolverines were resident in the upper Midwest through the 1960’s, and then says that a decline in reported sightings in the Rockies and Cascades between 1995 and 2005 is evidence for the wolverine population crashing. What Aubry et al. actually say is that wolverines may have been present in the 1800s in the Great Lakes states, but we aren’t sure. They also say that there were a number of reports from the eastern Cascades in the 1960’s-1970’s, and that these reports ceased in the 1995-2005 era. They posit that those 1960’s-1970’s reports reflect “extreme dispersal events that did not represent self-sustaining populations,” ie wolverines that were not reproductive resident adults and that were part of the inevitable source-sink dynamics of a meta-population.

Aubry does not report declines in sightings from the northern Rockies. Between 1961 and 1994, a period of 33 years, there were 326 sightings in total in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Between 1995 and 2005, a period of ten years, there were 215. Even without taking into account the biases and problems with using sightings data as a proxy for population trend, and the ways in which sightings are bound to fluctuate from year to year, there is no decline in sightings, since the periods measured are not comparable (three+ decades vs. one decade) – and I’m willing to bet that if the sightings of the last 11 years were tallied, we’d see an impressive overall increase.

As for the assertion that “the wolverine population continued to plummet” in the US Rockies following the suspension of trapping in Montana, there is no evidence of this anywhere in the literature. It’s hard to see where Eisenberg could be using even Aubry as a justification for this statement, since that paper was published in 2007 and wolverine trapping in Montana was suspended in 2012. Far be it from me to suggest that a self-professed scientist is inventing claims to serve her narrative – but I’d like to see the data on which she’s basing this. In short, Eisenberg misrepresents Aubry and the data to drive a narrative of crisis that is just as counter-productive as the narrative of complacency constructed by the states.

Why is it just as problematic as the states’ misrepresentation of these data? It’s a deliberate attempt to skew the facts to fit an agenda. In the states’ case, it was an agenda to keep wolverines off the list. In Eisenberg’s case, it’s an agenda to list wolverines. Neither the Wolverine Foundation nor I share this agenda a priori, but we do have an interest in accurate representation of the science, and the application of that science to policy and management. The existing science says that wolverines are threatened by climate change, and I believe that this science justifies a ‘threatened’ listing status. But starting with the science and arriving at a conclusion that listing is justified, and starting with a position that listing is necessary and then cherry-picking the science – or inventing incoherent fantasies that you pass off as legitimate interpretation of the science – are two entirely different things.

From the start of the wolverine listing debate (and, for that matter, the entire climate change discussion), we’ve struggled to stand our ground on the idea that near-future threats should be taken seriously, and that a species can be threatened even if we haven’t observed a population decline. Humans are notoriously bad at thinking about the future. We’re bad at anticipating even problems directly related to our personal well-being. Getting people to anticipate problems that affect that well-being of non-humans is an order of magnitude more difficult – but we’ve persevered. We’ve kept this debate alive. We’ve made a case for thinking about the future. It’s a case not just for wolverines, but for all climate sensitive wildlife. We’re entering an era when we won’t be able to show definitively that all populations of concern are currently declining. We’re entering an era when having an edge of a few decades before the decline starts is going to be critical.

Lack of documented decline is one of the big points that opponents of wolverine listing make, over and over again. Polar bears were listed, they say, because we could show that polar bears were dying. They assert that we don’t need to bother with wolverines because we can’t show a similar population decline, and therefore the population is fine. For years, both scientists and advocates have attempted to explain that this listing discussion isn’t about current and documented decline, but about climate effects in the near future. By inventing a population decline and using it to propel arguments for listing, Eisenberg reinforces the idea that we need to demonstrate a population crisis before we list. This is old-school thinking. It’s disheartening to see someone from an older generation of wildlife conservation come along and, from a pretty big national platform, air the same old narrative demanding a demonstrated population decline to warrant protection. Documented population declines should still be a reason to list, of course, but we need to expand our understanding of threat to include problems that we know are coming.

With the population decline fiction, Eisenberg also gets the policy story wrong. The USFWS did ignore good science in their 2014 decision, but they didn’t inexplicably disregard a wolverine population in documented decline. They ignored the science showing impending threat. She touches on this, but with the imaginary population crash in the first few paragraphs, and her statement that the 2010 warranted-but-precluded decision was due to the “plummeting” population (in reality, it was projected climate threats), she implies that this allegedly discounted piece of alleged science is the thing about which we should be outraged. It’s not, and in fact this never happened. There is plenty to think about when we contemplate the wolverine policy situation, and plenty of red flags about how that process went forward. By tossing this invention out to the wider world, Eisenberg distracts from the real story, which is about special interest interference, climate change literacy, and looming issues with how the ESA can be applied.

I’m not particularly familiar with the rest of Eisenberg’s work, but from what I can tell, she worked with wolves and puts herself forth as an advocate for and authority on carnivores. From skimming headlines and the summary of her book, she seems to favor of a “carnivores can fix ecosystems” narrative that focuses on trophic cascades as proof of the value of carnivores, and “carnivore corridors” as a way of connecting the landscape. Fine, but again, all of this is sort of old school and, at least in the case of trophic cascades, overly simplistic. In view of this approach, though, it makes sense that she would latch onto wolverines and try to bring them into her narrative – which presupposes that listing must happen, that it happens because of population declines (as it did with wolves and bears), that corridors are a panacea (regardless of the biology of the species in question – I’ll touch on this in a second post), and that crisis stories with a clear opponent (in this case, the feds who ignored the purported population decline) successfully rile people up and make them into better advocates.

The problem is, wolverines are not wolves or bears. The history, ecology, and biology of the species, the state of the science, and the social and political issues around wolverines are particular to wolverines. Of course carnivore conservation, as an overarching concept, can be discussed, but it’s important for advocates to know that each species has individual requirements, ecology, and socio-political context. It’s important to start with what we know, and decide the best course of action from there, rather than starting with an assumption about what should be done, and cherrypicking the science – or just making things up – to justify your position. It’s important for advocates to get the science and facts right, because when you start with a false claim, it’s easily disproved, and you and your cause end up looking lame.

Yes, the real story is complicated – but not so nuanced that it can’t be told accurately, even in a popular-press piece. And yes, there’s urgency to building wildlife constituencies – but that doesn’t justify spreading misinterpretations of the science in the national press.

When people come to the wolverine constituency, I want them to be informed, well-educated, and capable of understanding the science. I don’t want them to be automaton minions for a particular policy agenda. A decision to list, and any advocacy for listing, must stem from a thorough understanding of the science and the management options. We live in a complex world with multiple and intersecting complex systems (ecological, social, political, etc), and living in that world requires complex thinking, not simplistic – let alone false – narratives. Let’s dispense with the idea that the only thing that justifies listing is observed population decline. In the era of climate change, staying a few steps ahead of those declines is critical to conservation. And let’s all show how much we appreciate Keith Aubry’s wolverine work by making an attempt to use his science accurately from now on.

Full Disclosure and Meta-Commentary

Several years ago Cristina Eisenberg friended me on facebook. I’ve never met her but I accepted her request. For years, she’s posted her articles with an exhortation to “like and share widely.” I’ve never read the articles or interacted with these posts, although I did once point out that a lecture program that she’d linked used the title of someone else’s work and that she might want to check with that person to make sure it was okay. I also once submitted a piece to The Whitefish Review, where she’s an editor, and it was declined for publication – which was the right decision, as it wasn’t a great piece for that journal.

On Monday, Eisenberg linked to her article with the usual command to “like and share widely.” I read the piece and commented about the population trend inaccuracy on her facebook page. I identified myself as ED of the Wolverine Foundation, thanked her for bringing attention to the species, mentioned the lack of documentation of population decline, and offered to chat with her if she had any questions about wolverine research. Within minutes, the post was deleted. I was pretty taken aback by this, so I asked if my post had been deleted. She then defriended me.

For about an hour after this happened, I felt like I’d been coated in slime. I didn’t seek this woman out; she imposed herself on me, evidently with an expectation that I would be her uncritical cheerleader. In years of being her facebook friend, she’s never liked or commented on my posts. She obviously sought out people in the wildlife community to serve as amplifiers and advertisers for her work, and, given the censorship, doesn’t like it when someone demonstrates that they actually want to engage and discuss what she’s written in anything less than enthusiastically positive terms.

One of the purposes of this blog, from its inception, has been tracking press coverage of wolverines and critiquing the ways in which popular press authors report on and build narratives around wolverine research and conservation issues. Even if this facebook incident hadn’t happened, I would have critiqued this piece, simply because it provides such a fine illustration of where advocates go off the rails and become anti-scientific to push an agenda or indulge their preconceived narratives. But my commentary would probably be less extensive if I didn’t have this indication that Eisenberg knows what she’s doing. I find censorship and knowing dissemination of misinformation pretty disturbing.

On a basic level, stuff like this exasperates me because as someone who frequently lectures about wolverines, I end up having to deal with the fallout of inaccurate stories. I’m going to keep a running tally of the number of people who now ask me why the USFWS ignored the population decline, just to see how far this story spreads. Maybe it won’t be an issue. But maybe every question session will henceforth require a response about how this article is bad science writing. It’ll be interesting to see.

At a broader level, the interaction with Eisenberg crystallized something that I’ve been concerned about for the past year or so. I see more and more individuals and groups that ostensibly share my values – which are liberal, egalitarian, environmental, and oriented towards protecting common goods like public land and wildlife – willing to resort to manipulation of facts and data to get what they want. Frequently this involves a heavy component of narcissistic self-promotion or profit, and often it involves insulting “out groups,” entrenching conflicts, and rallying allies around a sense of crisis, persecution, or fear. Skewed clickbait headlines from groups that I used to support, attached to articles that misrepresent science or statistics about some social or political issue, are one very basic example. These are tactics I once scornfully associated only with Fox News and right-wing propagandists. How is this becoming common and uncontested behavior among people who once stood for a reality-based existence? I don’t know if this is an unavoidable consequence of the way we use media, or whether there’s still a point in making a plea for critical and scientific literacy. Regardless, I’m going to make that plea now, and again and again into the future: in the Age of Opinion, inform your opinion with facts and research. Embrace complexity. Consider systems. Engage in conversation. Suspend the need to judge. Indulge the impulse to think.












3 thoughts on “How Not to Write a Wolverine Article for the Popular Press

  1. Completely thrashed Eisenberg article whichI havent read. A rebuttal to Huffington is in order, its a popular newsfeed. thankful for the intent, not so brutal, and a summary correction to facts. would clear misconceptions. Yer doin OK!

  2. Bravo Rebecca. I am a longtime follower and gulo enthusiast. You speak eloquently on the broader challenges of using science and scholarship in the public and global interest, independent of increasingly potent forces of polarized, oversimplified dialogue and tribalism. Keep using that voice. It’s so important and rare. Best of luck and success with TWF!

    • Thanks for the comment and for your interest in wolverines. It’s nice to know that the harping on what science is and how it functions resonates with people!

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