Wolverines have dozens of diabolical nicknames, including “nasty cat.” Here’s a little doodle to encourage all the American wolverine fans to get out and vote tomorrow, if you haven’t already.
A new comment period on the proposed wolverine listing rule has opened this week. Although the public may comment to express general support of (or opposition to) wolverine listing, the main purpose of the 30-day comment period appears to be gathering of new scientific information that may be relevant to the wolverine’s status.
Back in April, a Montana judge ruled that the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2014 decision to withdraw the proposed listing rule ignored good science, and ordered the agency to reconsider. This was not an order to list wolverines, but the text of the decision makes it clear that the inexplicable abandonment of a listing rule in which the science clearly suggests threat was a misstep in a process that should have led to ‘threatened’ status under the ESA. The USFWS is now saying that the April 2016 ruling sends the process back to the open comment period, and an entirely new review of the wolverine’s status.
In some respects, this makes sense – the original proposed rule was written in 2013, and additional work has been done on the species since then. The judge also found that the original rule failed to adequately consider the effects of genetic isolation and trapping, even in the absence of climate threats. This suggests that at least portions of the rule would have to be rewritten to accommodate these additional concerns.
On the other hand, the timeline is now pushed out to (speculatively) 2018, and it’s likely that there will be additional comment and scientific review periods that will occur before a decision is made, which is at odds with the sense of urgency that the judge expressed. Significantly, this longer timeline will also allow the results of the upcoming multi-state wolverine study – a one-winter effort to determine the distribution of wolverines and create an occupancy model throughout the western US – to be incorporated into the status review. Hopefully, it will also allow the inclusion of potentially important data from the Wolverine Winter Recreation Project, which looked at the effects of motorized and non-motorized recreation on wolverines, and which turned up some interesting observations on other dynamics as well.
It will be interesting to see how this process moves forward. I’ll share a few thoughts on the evolution of my attitudes towards listing in a future post. In the meantime, if you want to comment, you can do so through this site, which also contains links to supporting documentation. The comment period closes on November 17th.
The bear came into our camp at dusk.
In the gathering dark, we weren’t sure, at first, whether it was a shrub, suddenly materialized on the ridge a scant fifty feet away, or whether it was the source of the crashing and snapping branches we’d been hearing for the past fifteen minutes.
“Amanda,” I said, and pointed my chin in its direction.
My sister looked over from where she was standing near the tent.
“Was that there before?”
“Is that – ?”
We both knew it wasn’t a shrub, and in the heartbeat before it started moving towards us, Amanda was crouching, kicking off her camp sandals.
“Should I put on my hiking boots?” she asked, tense, already tugging them onto her blistered feet.
“Put them on,” I said. The bear was coming at a quick lope. I reached down for my day pack, slung it over my shoulder, and slid the safety off my bear spray. Amanda leapt to her feet, shoelaces not yet tied, and grabbed for her day pack.
In the half-light, with the animal face-on, I couldn’t tell what kind of bear it was, which was a problem. If you run into a black bear, you’re supposed to act big and aggressive, shout, throw rocks, try to scare it off. If you run into a grizzly, you want to be quiet and calm and back away, assuring the animal you mean no harm. We’d been yelling and making noise and singing off-key show tunes since we first heard the crashing in the woods, just after we returned to our tent from dinner at our kitchen site over another low ridge. If this bear had been any kind of normal bear, black or brown, it should have headed away from us.
In those first few confused seconds, as my heart turned to ice in my chest, that was the thought that gripped me: Why is it coming towards us? That’s not supposed to happen. We’d done everything right, performed all the proper rituals of bear avoidance – we’d been loud, we’d kept the food far from camp in secure containers, we’d cooked at a third location far from the tent and the food storage site. We’d even sung songs from The Sound of Music, an activity guaranteed to send anything with ears scurrying. But here we were, a bear of unknown species approaching at speed. The wind had been high all day, and if I used the bear spray in the position we were in, it was going to blow back into our faces, potentially blinding us and leaving the bear unharmed – essentially turning us into spicy, incapacitated snacks. I didn’t want to risk chucking rocks at it in case it turned out to be a grizzly. Our best option was to leave; it would probably stop at the tent to investigate while we made our way to safe location.
I waved a hand at my sister, who was fumbling with her bear spray, and said, “Up the ridge. Don’t run.” Even in the dimming light, I could see the panic rising in her face. We moved east, downhill from our camp, across a tiny stream, and then back up towards the low ridge that concealed our kitchen site. We headed south along the ridge, away from the food containers and the kitchen, and up into the pines.
In the trees, we turned to look back. If the bear ransacked the tent, so be it.
But the bear was not ransacking the tent. The bear hadn’t stopped. The bear was still coming for us.
Living and working in wolverine country means living and working in bear country. In the US Rockies, wolverines – and their researchers – share the landscape with both black bears and grizzlies. To traverse wolverine country in the summer, certain precautions are essential. You carry bear spray. You make noise. You keep a clean camp. You store your food and toiletries in bear-proof containers or hang them from a tree. You do this for your own safety, but also for the safety of the bears. A bear who learns to associate humans with food is going to continue to pester people, and it’s only a matter of time before the bear hurts a human. In the greater Yellowstone region, once a bear threatens people for food, the bear will likely be shot. Grizzlies are granted some leeway, black bears less. But a food-conditioned bear of any sort is almost certainly a dead bear walking. Keeping food away from bears is a way of expressing a wish for their continued existence on the landscape.
For wolverine work, the presence of bears requires that baited camera and live-trapping stations are taken down before bears come out of hibernation in the spring. Wolverine work is primarily winter work, in part because no one in their right mind wants to risk accidentally nabbing a grizzly cub in a baited log box trap, or hiking in to a camera station when a bear might be snapping selfies with the deer haunch hanging from the wire. Summer wolverine work is limited to the kind of surveys that my sister and I were doing – visiting sites of potential importance to wolverines, without any expectation of seeing the animals or sign.
Amanda and I were deep in the northwestern Tetons, the wild and remote region of the range that is less accessible and less traversed than the southern reaches encompassed by Grand Teton National Park. We were up here for two reasons. The first was a straightforward scientific objective: we were ground-truthing a talus model that will be used for the Wolverine Winter Recreation Study’s habitat analysis. This involved visiting randomly selected points that the model had identified as talus, and recording the characteristics of those sites.
The second reason was my sister’s wedding, a mere three weeks in the future. The pressures of wedding planning were stressing her out, a fact that was evident when I’d asked her, over the phone the week before, how things were going with the organizing, and her voice had assumed the flat quality that it does when she doesn’t want to talk about something. So I’d sent her an email the next day, the subject line of which read “Bachelorette Backpacking Bash (with Bears!),” proposing that she come out from Massachusetts for a week to help with the surveys and take a break from the demands of matrimonial spectacle. I’d added the paranthetical commentary both because it was alliterative, and because her fiancé has a phobia of bears, which I found worthy of some gentle teasing. Bears were cause for caution, not fear.
I didn’t think she’d say yes, but three days after the email, she was on a plane to Jackson.
Like all wolverine work, the talus surveys took us to places that would not normally be part of a recreational hike. Most of the points were parked up precipitous slopes, and some were on cliff faces (bare rock, in the model, reads as bare rock, whether talus or exposed bedrock). I’d spent the first two weeks of August in the southern Madisons and the east side of the Tetons with other field assistants, sidehilling across miles of precarious talus, scaling and descending cliffs, and bushwhacking through dense, steep forest. I’d developed bad blisters, sliced up my arms on the sharp, fossil-studded limestone boulders of the southern Tetons, and watched my boots fall apart piece by piece. With another field assistant, I’d already had one encounter with a black bear, which had huffed at us when we stumbled across it in the trees, and then moved off – but not that far off. Disconcertingly, it sat down in a patch of sun on the slope above us and watched until we moved out of sight.
On the whole, though, the surveys were spectacular, a chance to spend the clear blue days of late summer in remote country, in high elevation bowls cradling aquamarine lakes, the slopes still hung with snowfields, the ground carpeted in flowers, following the game tracks of bighorn sheep and mountain goats across the talus, startling elk in their havens far from the hiking trails. This was the part of the experience that I thought would benefit Amanda – the vast tranquility of being absorbed in the beauty and the magnificence of the mountains, the sense of unity with nature.
We’d hiked six miles in along one of the Teton drainages, and over a high pass, crossing into another drainage and then setting up camp close to a cluster of talus model points just below the divide. We spent our first afternoon clambering around on granite boulders of gorgeous hues, pink and gold interspersed with white and grey and the occasional chunk of pure black basalt or amphibolite. We found a scat that looked promisingly wolverine-like, and collected it as we verified the first set of points.
A snapping branch woke us at about 6:30 the next morning; we both sat up and listened, tense, in the way that you do when you’re in bear country. But we heard nothing further, so we got up, went over to the kitchen, and prepared for the day. The next set of points was about five miles down the drainage we’d crossed into when we came over the pass; we’d have to descend about 2000 feet, and then ascend about the same elevation to reach the points. We would use our current campsite as a base camp rather than hauling our gear down the drainage, since an active fire had closed the trail below us. The fire prevented us from making the loop we’d intended, which meant extra miles overall, but nothing we couldn’t manage. Amanda’s a sub-three-hour marathoner, in excellent shape, and I had no concerns about 15-mile days over rough terrain. Unfortunately, however, Amanda already had incipient blisters from climbing on the talus the previous day. I handed her the blister band-aids that had been indispensable to me over the past couple of weeks, and she doctored her feet, and then we set out.
When we finally reached the points, we could see fires burning all around, the smoke lending the day an ominous light and an uneasy edge. We’d turned off the trail just before the closure, and from our ridge we watched trees torching one by one to the west, while over another high ridge just to the north, a much bigger fire burned, smoke roiling apocalyptically. The wind was ferocious, stoking the fires and gusting so that we were constantly grabbing our hats and anchoring them to our heads. Our route back down to the trail was circuitous and slow. Amanda’s blisters were worse, and we were both tired.
By the time we finally got back to camp, it was past 7:00 pm. Amanda took off her boots to messy, bloody heels, despite the blister bandages. In her socks and camp sandals, she trudged over to the kitchen site, and we ate our dehydrated camping meals in the saturated light of sunset, the wind still gusting around us. She peeled off her left sock and liner to rebandage the worst blister, and then we secured all of our food and toiletries, donned our hats and puffy jackets in the quick cold that gathered after the sun set, and headed back to the tent, ready to sleep. Amanda had just collected her boots from where they lay overturned near the tent, and stuck the left liner sock in one, when the crashing and cracking started, branches breaking in a nearby grove of trees, a bird flying into the pink sky, squawking a warning. The vague sense of unease seeded by the fires burst into full and furious life.
“It’s probably just an elk,” I told Amanda, but I didn’t believe it. “We should make some noise,” I added. And we did. But the bear came anyway.
In the trees, we watched the bear as it loped towards us. The sense of warped reality heightened:The bear is not supposed to be acting like that!
It was probably a black bear, but even if it was a grizzly, I didn’t care anymore about antagonizing it. I scrabbled on the ground for a rock. My hand closed around a big piece of granite, and I picked it up and heaved it towards the bear, shouting. The rock fell short and the bear, a dim shape, seemed to pick up speed. Beside me, Amanda yelled, “No!” She held out a finger, as if admonishing a dog, and then repeated it a second later, this time as if she couldn’t believe this was happening: “No.”
Amanda’s fear was hot and panicky; I could feel it and I could see it in her face. My fear was cold and tactical, as if time had suddenly reeled and tilted in a way that made everything both extremely slow, and absolutely immediate, stripping away everything except for a rapid-fire process of crisis logic.
A lot of things happen, quickly and subconsciously, in the adrenaline-saturated brain. Instantaneously, and almost simultaneously, the things that cycled through my mind included:
The wind is still against us; I need to maneuver until the bear is downwind.
We can’t go east up the talus slope, we’ll be at a greater disadvantage, the bear will probably have better footing than we will on those boulders.
Holy shit, that thing is moving fast.
The best option is to go southeast, back up the pass, because it’s open and we can see the bear.
If we go back up the pass, the bear will also be downwind.
But using the bear spray means letting the bear get closer, and I do not want that thing any closer than it is, and what if the bear spray malfunctions?
You’re going to have to use the bear spray. Get over it.
It’s getting dark. That’s bad. We need to spray it before it gets any darker and we can’t see it.
I dragged my little sister up here and what if she gets hurt or killed?
Idiot! Why did you put that snarky “With bears!” in the email? You just had to tempt fate, didn’t you?
Is it responsible to abandon the camp and let the bear trash it?
We can abandon the camp if we have to, the food is secure and the bear won’t get any food reward.
I have to protect Amanda.
Amanda is about to panic and run. Don’t let her run.
Amanda was fumbling with her bear spray as I continued to throw rocks and yell.
“How do you use this?” she demanded.
“Okay,” I said, and my voice was alien to me in its terrible calm, “First, take off the safety.”
“How do you get the safety off?”
I heaved another big rock at the bear, herding Amanda up towards the pass, holding out my hand for her can of spray. I slipped the safety off and handed it back to her.
“But which side does the spray come out?” she asked, turning the can in her hands, her voice pitching upwards.
The bear was on the other side of the thin line of trees, just downslope, trying to cut us off. I turned to face it. The wind had died.
“Get behind me,” I said, “I’m going to spray it.”
She obeyed. My scalp prickled, every cell oriented towards the bear, towards the enormous task of letting it get close enough to spray, every instinct shrieking Get away from it! We were still stumbling backwards, the bear downslope, and suddenly we were on the switchback trail leading up the pass. For the second time that night, I had the sense of lurching between realities; what was this thing, this bare line of ground, this artifact of a human world where nature was curated and controlled? For the past few minutes we’d existed in a world where the thin veil of civilization had dissolved to reveal the stark reality of human existence. We were not the privileged darlings of evolution, dividing the world into neat segments with our roads and trails, managing nature to our own purposes. We were prey.
The trail was littered with smaller rocks, and I scooped up a handful.
The bear burst through the trees just below us. The remaining light hit it in such a way that I could see its lighter muzzle, its nose, its eyes, its mouth slightly open, a horrible amalgamation of adorable and terrifying.
Facing it across that tiny, inconsequential space, a cryptic conviction hammered through my mind: You and I are not the same thing. We’re not one thing. We’re two things.
Why was that the thought that fixed itself in my mind at that moment, when I was scared that my sister was going to die less than a month before her wedding, that I was going to die before I finished my novels, before I got a PhD, before I’d ever visited Kamchatka, or learned Navajo, or run a marathon, or found out how Game of Thrones ended, or any of the million other things, trivial and non-trivial, that I wanted to do with the entire rest of my life? I had no idea. But the thought was like a shield, something I placed between the two of us and the bear.
I shifted the bear spray to my left hand, a palm sized rock to my right, and aimed, and threw the rock.
It hit the bear, and the animal pulled up short. I was sure that it looked surprised and hurt – not physically, but in an emotional sense, as if deeply indignant that I’d interrupted its fun, violated the rules that said that prey did not bite back.
I threw another rock, and then another, yelling “Get out of here!” The stones landed at its feet, and it shifted backwards. I crouched and grabbed another handful of rocks, and threw them. They peppered the area around the bear like shrapnel, and it looked from one side to the other, and turned.
We moved along the trail, which was leading us west, towards another grove of pines. Below us, the bear moved west as well, dropping towards the base of the little wood. The bear reached the trees and turned uphill, as if to cut us off when we reached the other side of the stand.
But the trail hitched east, and we went with it, far from the bear and the trees, rising with the contours of the mountain. By now it was so dim that all the detail of the landscape was lost. I didn’t want to look behind us, because if the bear was coming, we probably wouldn’t be able to tell. We wouldn’t be able to aim the bear spray, or rocks. Would we even hear the thing coming?
We continued up and up and up until we crested the top of the pass. I peered back down along the open expanse of the slope, several hundred feet down to the pines where we’d last seen the bear. Nothing seemed to be moving.
“Can I tie my shoes now?” Amanda asked.
Below us on one side of the pass was the camp. Between us and the camp was the bear. We didn’t know whether the bear was still following us. We had our day packs, which held warm layers, water, water purification, a GPS, and our headlamps. The car was six miles away, at the trailhead, which would require traversing another big drainage that was not necessarily bear-free.
We headed downhill on the other side of the pass in instant unspoken consensus, pulling out our headlamps as we went. The light kept us on the trail, but Amanda’s headlamp, which she’d bought for long marathon training runs during dark winter afternoons in Boston, was blindingly bright, and it threw wild shadows with every step.
Shadows, when you’ve recently been chased by a bear, all look like bears.
More than once as we came down the pass, I was sure that I saw it coming after us, only to realize that the pursuing bear was the shifting shape of a pine or a boulder as our headlamp beams flashed across it. We stumbled down the trail, finally reaching a clearing at the bottom of the pass. Everything was still and quiet.
We were both overheated, our mouths parched, symptoms of the adrenaline. We paused for water and a brief discussion, quickly resolved. Neither of us wanted to stay out. We went on towards the car, talking in low voices, caught between the knowledge that the bear behind us was not intimidated by human voices, and the thought that any other bears out there in the dark might be.
We went through lists of what each of us was supposed to tell friends and family if only one of us survived.
“Tell Mom and Dad that I love them,” Amanda said, “And tell Michael I’m really sorry I didn’t listen to him.”
“About the bears. He was right about the bears.”
We talked about wedding planning, every time we approached a bend in the trail, all the details that Amanda had come out here to escape – guestlist, play lists for dancing, the entire menu, dresses, flower arrangements, plans for a bachelorette 5k once I got back to Boston – just to have something to say, to forewarn any bear around the corner that we were coming. We talked about books, and movies, and TV shows, and friends. We brought up the same subjects multiple times. I assiduously avoided the subject that repeatedly jostled to the forefront of my thoughts: the fact that black bears that turn predatory will stalk humans, persistently, until they catch and eat their prey. I didn’t think Amanda needed to know that while we were still out in the open.
We skittered along the miles back to the trailhead, the night vivid with stars and fear. Overhead, the Milky Way arced above the valley, and we moved beneath it, our headlamps dim earthbound stars, rocks in one hand, fingers of the other hand resting lightly on the triggers of our cans of bear spray. To the north, Ursa Major stalked the sky, the ever-present Great Bear, watching us, inescapable.
At dusk the next evening, I crested the pass again, this time on horseback. The large carnivore management specialist for Wyoming Game and Fish rode beside me, leading a packhorse. We started down the slope towards our abandoned campsite, on the same trail Amanda and I had traversed in such fear 24 hours ago. I was tense, scanning the surrounding landscape for signs of the bear. The evening stillness felt sinister as we reached the hollow where the tent sat, seemingly undisturbed. As we dismounted, though, I spotted my sleeping bag twenty feet downslope, lying crumpled like something dead. The carnivore management guy – his name was Sam – pulled a rifle from his saddlebag. For the thousandth time that day, my emotions ricocheted between sadness and anger.
Amanda and I had spent a cold and uncomfortable night huddled in the front seats of my little car, which we couldn’t drive down the dicey Forest Service access road in the dark. At dawn, we drove out to Driggs. Our phones were still up on the mountain, in the tent, and Amanda’s blisters meant that we couldn’t hike back in, even if we hadn’t been concerned about running into the bear again. We pondered our options, and eventually I remembered that I had a satellite phone in my backpack. I’d briefly recalled this fact when we were up on the pass, but I hadn’t wanted to take the time to use it when we weren’t sure whether the bear was still chasing us. It had slipped my mind in the weariness of the hours since.
I hesitated before I made the call. The bear had chased us, and it had seemed like a dangerous situation, but had we done anything to provoke the animal? Should we have stood our ground at the tent and sprayed it, regardless of the wind, regardless of not knowing what kind of bear it was? By leaving the tent, had we made ourselves seem like prey? By escaping over the pass without spraying it, had we missed an opportunity to teach it a lesson? What if the fires had driven it up the mountain, hungry and crazy and confused? What if it had just been a curious young bear trying to figure out what we were? I hated that damn bear for scaring us, for chasing us, but what did I really know about its intent?
On the other hand, it had never stood up on two legs, as curious bears do. It had stayed on all fours, and come at us without hesitation. We’d yelled, we’d thrown rocks, and it had continued to come after us.
I made the call, and by early afternoon, the director of the Wolverine Winter Recreation Project had called in Game and Fish. They deemed the bear’s behavior worrying enough that they wanted to send someone in with me to retrieve our gear. I wasn’t naïve; I knew that this person would come with a loaded gun, and that by reporting the incident, we’d probably condemned the bear.
As I waited for the Game and Fish guy, I wrestled with an overwhelming sense of guilt and grief over the fact that this bear’s interaction with us could cost it its life even though it had no understanding of the rules humans had established in regards to bear behavior. And then, balanced against that guilt, was a visceral animosity towards this particular animal, the resolution that if we did shoot it, I wanted its skull and its pelt to give to Amanda and Michael as a magnificent, barbaric wedding gift.
We started late – it takes some time to round up horses and haul them over Teton Pass – and the last of the sunlight receded up the slopes in front of us as we rode up the valley. Game and Fish had only three horses available, which meant that Amanda was staying in Driggs with wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland and his two dogs, Kilo and Mac. As we drew closer to the pass, I kept rehashing the whole incident, wondering if we’d done the right thing in moving away from the tent when we first saw the bear, in not using the bear spray, in abandoning the camp, wondering what the bear had really been thinking.
I hope it’s gone. And then, ten seconds later, I want it dead! Over and over again.
I saw its face, in the one glimpse I’d caught of it, when it was so close – the eyes, the half-open mouth, the indignant way it had huffed and stopped when the rock had hit it, the slyness of its retreat towards those trees, where, I was convinced, it had thought it could catch us as we rounded the slope.
That strange thought that had lodged in my head as I threw the rocks returned: We’re two things, not one. Had it been a repudiation of the bear’s perceived intent to incorporate us into its being by eating us? Or was it a recognition of the limits of the idealistic notion of oneness with nature, of immersive empathy with animals? Was it a failure of one of the foundations of my own dearly cherished narrative of the world and myself in that world?
At the campsite, we circled the tent, Sam with the rifle ready, my fingers resting on the bear spray on my belt. Although the tent was standing and looked undisturbed from the front, the back was a mess. The bear had sliced open the fly and back wall, pulled out my backpack and my sleeping bag, and tossed them aside. Then, apparently, it had lain down inside the tent, where it chewed my camping mattress into pieces and shredded the tent floor. Amanda’s things – backpack, sleeping bag, mattress – were untouched, except for her camp sandals, lying in front of the tent where she’d kicked them off. These the bear had chewed; they were punctured by numerous canine marks. Next to her sandals was a disgusting piece of wadded, muddy fabric. I pulled it out of the dirt and shook it out. It was the liner sock she’d taken off when she rebandaged her blisters, and had tossed to one side when she’d frantically pulled on her hiking boots. The sock had evidently spent some time inside the bear’s mouth, and the bloody heel had been chewed out.
“Did it get any food?” Sam asked.
“Not unless it got into the bear canisters somehow,” I said. Did a bloody sock count as a food reward? It was too creepy a question to articulate. And again, the guilt – the poor animal must have been incredibly hungry, to take the time to chew out the bloody heel of a sock. I shoved the liner into Amanda’s backpack.
The bear canisters were where we’d left them, undisturbed. We packed up the camp and loaded the backpacks onto the third horse without any sign of the bear. It was too dark to check for tracks to verify that it was a black bear, so that question remained unresolved.
It was nearly two in the morning when we finally got back to Driggs. I was too tired even to feel dismayed at the destruction of the camping gear that was so essential to my work on two continents. But I wasn’t too tired to recognize that, in the deepest part of my heart, I was glad that the bear had been gone when we got there.
The next day, we were at a friends’ house in Jackson, relaxing in the disorienting comfort of solid walls, hot water, and real food, when Amanda came in from their front yard waving her left hiking boot.
“Seriously, look at this,” she said, shoving it towards me.
There was an enormous chunk missing from the tongue of the boot.
“I saw it yesterday and thought maybe a mouse did it, back in Massachusetts, but I would have noticed that when I was wearing them. Right?”
We examined the boot more closely. The missing piece from the tongue was suspiciously similar in size and shape to a bear’s mouth. There was a canine puncture mark exactly where a canine would be. And as we looked at both boots, more canine marks and damage became evident. We went through our photos, found pictures that we’d taken during the surveys a few hours before the bear. In the photos, the boot was intact.
The bear had been in our camp, chewing on my sister’s boots, while we were over the ridge having dinner. We’d scared it off when we returned to the tent – I vaguely remembered Amanda righting her overturned boots when we got back. But then the bear had returned. For us, or for the boots, or for what, I didn’t know. We joked that he’d chased us because Amanda was wearing the boot that he wanted to snack on. We joked that he had a foot fetish. We told the story to the friends with whom we were staying, one of Amanda’s college classmates and his wife.
“If we didn’t know you two,” he said, “I’d totally think you were making this up.”
His wife, who works with Search and Rescue, said, “I’m glad that we didn’t have to go in there looking for you after not hearing from you for a few days.” Unspoken was the subtext: I’m glad we didn’t have to go retrieve your half-devoured remains. This was not a theoretical situation for her. She’d found such remains before.
In the days that followed, we joked about the situation more and more. Every time I thought about the things that hadn’t happened – What if it had waited five minutes and we’d been in the tent when it came into the camp? What if it hadn’t stopped when I’d hit it? What if it had chased us out? What if we’d used the bearspray and it kept coming and got us? What if something had happened to Amanda? – I’d counterbalance it by attributing silly motives to the bear. It was a way of re-processing the experience, alchemizing it from something frightening to something locked within the framework of a humorous story. It was a way of bringing that bear under our control.
But the bear was never under our control. The bear, before we encountered it, during the encounter, after the encounter – it was always its own bear. It was an unknowable quantity, and therefore troubling. The opacity of its intent was the source of the conflict I felt in the wake of the encounter.
For an entire month after the incident, I refused to allow myself to write about it. I wanted to let that tug-of-war between sympathy and terror play out, to assess whether the encounter would leave me afraid.
Fear is a tricky thing. I’m afraid of certain things, but those fears – of needles, of wasps, of having to deal with people who are severely bleeding, of crossing high rivers on horseback – are not the sorts of fears that dictate or reflect an orientation towards the world. They are little fears, almost quaint, easily dealt with.
Fear of carnivores is different.Yes, it can coalesce around a particular encounter, but there’s a more generalized narrative of fear around predators. Sometimes this is a narrative of individual phobia – referred to among outdoors-y wordsmiths as “bearanoia” – which makes a person fearful about going out into the wilderness, turning the landscape into a perpetually hostile and risky place. Caution is one thing – no one goes into bear country without being cautious. But to be afraid is to hamstring yourself, to cede all enjoyment of the outdoors to imagined catastrophe. This is the thing I was worried about, because the wild plays too great a role in my life for me to be afraid of it.
Fear of carnivores has another dimension, too, though. Those of us who do research on carnivores, who celebrate their return to landscapes from which our ancestors eradicated them in decades long past, are frequently faced with a countervailing narrative of dominion over nature, a story focused on the right of humans to use resources for personal profit without regard to the broader environmental or social costs. In this narrative, carnivores are an impediment to the free pursuit of profit – a threat to life and property, a nuisance to be removed or even extirpated so that humans are never inconvenienced. This narrative frequently employs fear as a justification for human entitlement, and it has both personal meaning to those who hold it, and broader socio-political manifestations. Dominionistic worldviews make no allowance for the individuality or sentience of wildlife, let alone the long-term interests of a species.
To counter this tired but persistent story, wildlife advocates, enthusiasts, and many researchers perpetually construct an argument – sometimes explicit, sometimes in subtext – about the ways in which humans and animals are alike, about shared qualities of concern for mates, for young, for the persistence and well-being of the species, for the need for intact habitat. We identify with them, we consider their home to be our home, we argue that they are moral in their behavior, or that our interactions with and understanding of them reflect something about our own morality. We create compelling tales of heroic individuals – Grizzly 399, the great mother bear of the Tetons; Wolverine M56, the traveler from Wyoming to Colorado to South Dakota; the original wolves of the Yellowstone reintroduction, all known to wolf-lovers by number and pack. We believe that we are giving these animals a voice and bringing them into a community of personhood. And implicit in all of our stories is an argument against fear, because the line from fear to intolerance is clear.
I spend much of my life, day to day, word by word, thought by thought, building and celebrating narratives about the unity between humans and animals, humans and nature. Fear is a cancer to the ability to love in this particular way (probably in any way), and it was a disease that I didn’t want.
But love and empathy have hard limits. That was the thing I’d run up against in the final moments of the confrontation with the bear. I wanted to be like the Buddha in the Jataka story about the starving tigress, unafraid to recognize the needs and the karma of a wild animal as equivalent to my own, enlightened and empathetic even to the point of self-sacrifice. Does this sound crazy? Probably. And in any case, I was, in the end, the antithesis of enlightened and empathetic. When we walked away from the tent, I wanted to let the bear do its bear thing, even at the cost of our gear. When the bear came after us, our relationship to each other abruptly shifted. We were no longer one thing, with one interest, the seamless continuity of human and animal, the seamless functioning of “nature.” We were two different things. My sister and I were humans. The bear was a bear. There was no unity, no shared interest, no empathy, no love, no kindness, no wonder, no awe, and no mercy. For those few minutes, we were adversaries, and that was all.
A month later, nearly to the day, I began to write. By then I knew that I wasn’t afraid. That bear was probably a bad bear, with bad intentions. It had probably gotten food from people before, and understood that bullying might lead to a meal. But an encounter with a bad individual of any group is hardly a reason to judge or go in fear of the entire group (see also: humans, for which I still feel overwhelming love despite consistent terrible behavior by terrible individuals). The lessons that I took from the encounter were not about staying out of the wilderness; they were about the importance of being prepared. I’d been through bear training, I knew how to use bear spray, I knew to store food and keep the campsite clean, I’d had hundreds of conversations about bear behavior and how other people dealt with bear encounters. In the moment, I didn’t panic. I was scared – I would even go so far as to say terrified, briefly – but I didn’t panic. We dealt with the situation. We got out. We had good friends who helped us out in the aftermath, and a good agency that responded immediately, and that put their resources towards helping us retrieve our gear. Amanda and I went back to Massachusetts, we ran Amanda’s bachelorette 5k (I PR-ed, Amanda won the race: bachelorette bear power!), and Amanda and Michael said their vows at a beautiful country inn in Vermont, which was located along a road with signs cautioning motorists about bear crossings. We told the story of the bear to a lot of people, and they were suitably astonished at the adventure, and I took care to tell them that they shouldn’t be afraid, but prepared, because we are sharing our world with carnivores now and fear is not a way to live. And every time I told the story, I hated that damn bear, but bit by bit, piece by piece, word by word, in spite of our separateness, I loved bears again a little more too.
In writing this, I wanted to convey the intensity of encountering a large predator, and the specifics of what was going through my mind as I dealt with the situation. As a writer, my job is to tell a good story, with a dramatic arc that the audience is compelled enough to follow to the end. The elements that one chooses, as a writer, are inherently the most dramatic and striking. Everything in this post is true and accurate to the best of my memory, including the weird and somewhat inappropriately intellectual reflections that were going through my head as I chucked rocks at the bear.
In telling this story, however, it’s important to remember that the story itself is about my perceptions, and doesn’t reflect an absolute measure of how dangerous the bear actually was. In other words, I don’t want people to read this and take away from it the idea that bears are scary and you need to stay out of the woods. I’ve had many previous black bear encounters and none of them ever went so badly wrong; in all other cases, the bears ran off. Do I think this bear was dangerous? Probably. Most bears are, potentially. But was it a human-stalking killer? Probably not – it didn’t follow us over the pass, and in the end, it was more interested in wrecking our stuff than chasing us. Bears are potentially dangerous. Be careful out there. But – at the risk of belaboring this point – don’t be scared.
Being prepared for these situations is important. I took two specific lessons from our encounter. One: I knew how to use bear spray, and I’d even test-sprayed an old can, just to see what it felt like. Nevertheless, in the encounter, I went through an intense few minutes of feeling reluctant to use the bear spray. Part of the reluctance had to do with the wind, and part of it to do with that screaming instinct to not let the bear get closer, and part of it with a weird concern that if I used the bear spray and it somehow didn’t work, my means of defense were gone. But bear spray works at distances of 25 or 30 feet, and the propellant is strong enough to carry it forward through breezy conditions (although maybe not the kind of wind we were dealing with). It’s designed to create a cloud, almost like a wall of pepper, that the bear runs into. You are going to get some pepper up your nose no matter what, so be prepared for that. But use it. It’s far more effective than bullets, and it’s definitely more effective than running, which will get you killed. (Throwing rocks is also a good defense, as it turns out, if it’s a black bear – which I think this was.) Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, the Forest Service, and other agencies, and some outdoor stores, have practice cans of pepper-less bear spray that you can use to get a feel for how the spray works. Take advantage of this so that you know what you’re doing and feel secure with using it.
Two: my sister has visited me in Montana and Wyoming in the past, and I’ve loaned her bear spray and explained how it works. I’m so used to carrying it that I figured she’d also retain familiarity with it from past visits. We didn’t review how to use it again. We should have. If you have guests who are not familiar with bear spray, or have been instructed in the past but are from places where they don’t usually carry it, review how to use it. Amanda has said that she “didn’t feel particularly brave” in the encounter, but she also wasn’t confident in the means to defend herself, and that was my responsibility. (Amanda, who, with most of the rest of my family and a number of friends, was a block from the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off in 2013, and who has found herself at the center of assisting several people in medical crisis, is habitually brave. Ask anyone who knows her.)
Other things that I’ve thought about: Normally it’s probably not the best idea to go hiking around a bear-inhabited area in the middle of the night. The decision to go back to the car was made solely on the basis of the fact that we knew for sure that there was a badly-behaved bear behind us, and we weren’t sure how far behind us. It’s not something I would have done under any other circumstance.
I was glad that I always carry my car key in a zipped inner pocket of my hiking pants. I had it on me. That worked out well.
It was cold in the car. I happened to have my down jacket and pants in the car, and a sleeping bag liner that I’d left when sorting through my camping gear. My sister also had her sleeping bag liner in the car. It’s not a bad idea to keep emergency gear in the car. Because emergencies happen.
It was incredibly fortunate that the bear didn’t come after us while we were eating, with the bear canisters open. It was incredibly fortunate that we’d been super-conscientious about putting every bear attractant into those canisters. Bear canisters are heavy, bulky, and kind of awkward, but worth it. Carry them. Even when you’re not required to do so.
Wyoming Game and Fish were great. In reporting the incident, I figured that they would simply take note and let us go on our way to retrieve our things. I didn’t realize I’d get a horse and an armed escort on the gear retrieval. Many thanks to them for their assistance, and to Sam for his patience with my Mongolian-style horse-riding (read: American horses are huge, and the tack is confusingly different, so when I said I knew how to ride a horse, what I should have said was, “I know how to ride short Mongolian horses.”)
Finally, big thanks as well to Jeff Copeland, who took us in and let us use his phone and stay at his place when we weren’t sure where to go immediately after we got out, and to Jona and Jess King (and Ruthie!) for the hospitality, hikes, and patience with endless rehashing of the bear story. You guys are the best.
If you’re looking for a small grant to support a wolverine research project in 2017, the Wolverine Foundation is accepting proposals through October 31st. TWF funds proposals of up to about $10,000, with a research focus. Applicants will be notified by the beginning of December.
Further details on the application process can be found here.
For anyone in the Yellowstone ecosystem, I’ll be giving a talk next Wednesday, August 3rd, at the Nature Conservancy’s Flat Ranch in Island Park, Idaho. The talk starts at 7 pm and will cover basic wolverine ecology, with a focus on wolverines in the GYE and the US Rockies, and a bit about wolverines in Mongolia. There will be a Q&A session, so bring your burning questions about wolverines.
You can get directions to the Flat Ranch here.
Hope to see you there!
Two weeks ago, a female wolverine was killed in Utah. The animal was hit by a car near Bear Lake, at the far northern edge of the, close to the Idaho and Wyoming border. This was most likely a naturally-dispersing and young wolverine, and it’s especially sad because a female wolverine in an area without a verified reproductive population could be particularly valuable in establishing a new population node.
There’s not much more to the story beyond the bare facts – hopefully at some point we’ll learn more about her genetics and about whether or not she’s ever given birth. In the meantime, I was prompted to consider the history of the discussion about whether there are wolverines in Utah or not. In 2014, a wolverine was caught on camera in the Uintas, and the year before that, an aerial survey spotted tracks. Reproduction has not been documented in the state in recent decades, however, and the animal seen in 2014 could have come directly from Wyoming, as a wolverine was captured on camera in southern Wyoming shortly before the Uinta photos were taken. Intriguingly, there were also track sightings and reports in Wyoming, not far from Bear Lake in wolverine terms, several weeks before this female was killed.
Does this mean that Utah doesn’t have its own population of wolverines? It’s difficult to say. In the seven years that people have been reporting sightings on this blog, I’ve received 13 reports of wolverines in Utah, including one, several years ago, at Bear Lake. A number of these reports sounded credible, some less so. Only one included photos, and the photos were not conclusive.
As the wolverine’s profile continues to increase, we see more and more reports coming in, and more reports that intersect with verified documentation of a wolverine in a particular area. This suggests that if wolverines are present in a region, they may be more visible than we previously thought – less “elusive” (a word that I’m guilty of overusing) and more “sparse.” I’m finding it harder to credit the idea that hidden populations of wolverines are hanging out in pockets of the US Rockies – M56 was spotted and photographed repeatedly when he was running the length and breadth of Colorado, for example. And with the advent of smartphones and go-pro cameras and other devices that exist to document every second of a human’s life, even in the backcountry, it seems like a robust population of wolverines in an area with heavy human recreation would be documented in some confirmed way before too long. My instinct is that wolverines are still not widely established in Utah, but that animals periodically do pass through and may even stick in particular ranges for a while – and that some of the reports I’ve received from people in Utah are probably legitimate. So those of you who live in wolverine habitat, especially habitat that we consider currently unoccupied: keep your eyes open, your smartphones and other recording devices handy, and your sighting reports coming. Thanks to everyone who has submitted a report to date, and let’s hope that the next female wolverine in Utah is sighted alive and well, and preferably with kits.
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.