This winter, the states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington have teamed up to participate in a survey that will contribute to our understanding of wolverines in the US Rockies. This multi-state survey is a single season snapshot of wolverine distribution, using cameras and scent lures and some genetic analysis. Articles about this effort continue to pop up here and there; I haven’t highlighted them on the blog because most of the articles are rudimentary and don’t provide a lot of useful information. One trait that a lot of these pieces share, however, is a tendency to mischaracterize this effort as a “monitoring” program rather than a quick, single-season look at a highly dynamic population. Any effort to increase our understanding of wolverines is worthwhile, and the multi-state survey is no exception. It will potentially yield some interesting data. But the ongoing story about this being a monitoring effort that will result in “preserving” wolverines is misleading.
My personal obsession with clarifying all the minute nuances and details around wolverine science and the claims and counterclaims of competing interest groups has seemed, given the broader media landscape and socio-political trends, increasingly quaint and perhaps even Quixotic in recent months. Nevertheless, I’m going to carry on. So let’s take the latest iteration of the claim that the multi-state project is a monitoring project: a piece that appeared today on the KBZK Montana website. The headline states, “Wolverine Preservation Project Underway.” And then, in the space of a 265 word piece, the word “monitor” and variants are used four times. The words “conserve,” “preserve,” and variations thereon are used five times. At no point does the piece offer any substance with regards to what “conservation” or “preservation” entail, or how the survey connects to those objectives, or even what the source of threat is, with the exception of a quote in which Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks biologist Bob Inman talks about re-establishing populations in currently uninhabited former range.
Some earlier articles on this effort were more thorough and, in some cases, highlighted the snapshot nature of this winter’s survey. But even these articles tended to refer to it as a monitoring project, in both headlines and in the content of the articles, as in this piece. Monitoring, to be clear, involves the long-term observation of a process of interest to track trends or changes. A snapshot is a look at what’s going on with that process within a bounded period of time. A one-season survey is useful for offering insight into baseline conditions – but of course, we still have to keep in mind that the “baseline” is a fairly arbitrary moment, the significance of which hasn’t really been established. And with a highly mobile, sparsely distributed meta-population, in which habitat patches may move through cycles of occupancy and non-occupancy, we have to think critically about what the “baseline” information actually tells us about the population at large. The publicity around this project is interesting – the elisions in the narrative may just be the result of incomplete reporting, or they may represent intentional messaging, but either way, it’s a key example of a story being purveyed in the media in a way that doesn’t look closely enough at the scientific and policy contexts.
Again, any attempt to gain more information about wolverines is worthwhile and potentially valuable, and that’s true for the multi-state study, so my critique here isn’t necessarily of that effort (I’ll have more to say about that later, though). My concern is with the way media stories about wildlife science and policy create simplistic narratives about single studies leading to particular outcomes. Anyone reading these pieces should immediately ask whether the scope of the study matches the scale of the claims about the knowledge that will come out of it, and the level of protection and conservation that will be implemented as a result. Just something to consider as these stories continue to appear. I’ll be writing more on this topic in the future.
In the meantime, have a great weekend – hope it includes some good wolverine weather for all of you.