Support the Wolverine Foundation through Give Big Gallatin Valley

Wolverine enthusiasts, please consider supporting the Wolverine Foundation during the 24-hour Give Big Gallatin Valley fundraising event. It starts tonight, May 4th, at 6 pm and ends tomorrow, May 5th, at 6 pm. All donations made through TWF’s Give Big donation page during the event will be partially matched by the Bozeman Area Community Foundation, increasing the impact of your support for wolverine research and conservation.

The Wolverine Foundation has been integral to the advance of wolverine science and management over the past 20 years. The organization supports research projects with small grants, conducts education and outreach through talks at community organizations and schools, and supports researchers and students through dialogue, mentorship, and organization of workshops and other events.

Thank you!



Two new wolverines at ZooMontana

For those who haven’t been fortunate enough to see a wolverine in the wild, you’ll soon have a chance to view a gulo in a more accessible location – if you’re in Montana, anyway. ZooMontana, in Billings, will open a new wolverine exhibit featuring two Scandinavian wolverines, Sid and Ahmari. Sid is Swedish, Ahmari is from Finland, and you can read more about them, and check out a video, here. There’s additional information here. The opening date of the new wolverine enclosure is not yet certain, but it should occur by the beginning of May.

The Billings Zoo previously had a wolverine, but he passed away in 2012. The new wolverine program is significant because ZooMontana will be participating in an attempt to breed wolverines in captivity – notoriously difficult to do. Will we have the very rare opportunity to observe wolverine kits up close in a few years? Stay tuned. And drop by to say hello to Ahmari and Sid if you’re in Billings.

Wolverines in “Wild Hope”

Last year, author Colleen Morton Busch contacted me to report a possible wolverine sighting in the Sierra Nevada near Tahoe, California. She knew that her sighting, lacking the evidence of photographs or DNA, wouldn’t be conclusive, but her descriptions of the animal she’d briefly spotted sounded distinctly gulo, and we suspected that Buddy, the California wolverine, was still somewhere in the area. We’re always conservative in assessing these sorts of reports, so I had to tell her that I couldn’t consider it a definite sighting, but I felt that it was probable that she’d seen a wolverine.

As we continued to email, the conversation evolved into a meditation on broader themes in conservation, and how those themes tied to Buddhism, with which both Colleen and I have some background. She wanted to write an article about her wolverine encounter that dealt with some of these themes, which made an intriguing divergence from the usual reporter inquiries about species biology and the policy situation around listing. Our ongoing email conversation was a highlight of last spring, particularly as she asked questions about the toll that immersion in the climate change scene takes on researchers. These are questions that people don’t usually ask, and that touch on the weights that we all carry; depression is common among climate researchers and people in affiliated fields. So it was wonderful to talk with someone who was aware of the dynamic between loving what you do, and constantly searching for some small hope – or, failing that, at least the equanimity to continue to love, and to accept impermanence, in the absence of hope.

Appropriately, then, Colleen’s article appears in the most recent volume of Wild Hope, a magazine that celebrates biodiversity and relates well-written stories of species accompanied by lush photography. There is no digital link to this article, but I’d encourage people to buy a copy if you want to read a great reflection on what wolverines mean to the people who are lucky enough to catch even a quick glimpse of one. As scientists, the emotional or psychological meaning of nature and wildlife is a topic that we’re wary of engaging with, but if we’re being honest, most of us would have to admit that we’re in this field in part because of our own dependence on the wild for some form of sustenance, and that we believe that protecting that source of inspiration is important for humanity. So it’s nice to read an account of how much a single, fleeting encounter meant to one person. As Colleen writes, “One wolverine sighting is likely all I’ll get in this life, so I’m grateful to have crossed paths ever so briefly. But seeing the wolverine lit a fire in me. It led to my education. And now I’m telling you, who may or may not live in a state where wolverines can be seen, but who are likely concerned about the changes we humans have wrought on our planet, about any threat of extinction, because the loss of the wolverine is connected to our shared future. Because there’s a glimmer of hope in an encounter between two beings – one wild and the other, a lover of wild things – even if it’s undocumented and unverified.”

A single wolverine encounter changed my life, so I understand this sentiment. There’s something uniquely compelling about this species, something that causes the mind to open in particular ways. Colleen’s captured that in her article, and that’s a great thing. Check it out.



Wolverine Talk in Colville, WA, Friday, March 31st

This Friday, March 31st, I’ll be giving a talk for the Friends of the Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge in Colville, Washington. I’m excited for this opportunity – they’ve been fantastic in the planning stages of the event, so I anticipate a good venue and a great crowd. I’ll be talking primarily about wolverines and wolverine research in the US – it’s a talk for a scientifically-literate lay audience, complete with some hand-drawn illustrations, and photos and video from cameras in Montana.

I’ve never been to this park of the world before, so I’m also looking forward to seeing a part of wolverine country that I haven’t yet visited.

The talk will be held at the Colville Community College theater, 986 S. Elm St. Doors open at 6:00 and admission is free. You’ll also have a chance to win wolverine-related door prizes, which is unique in my experience of giving talks. Details are here. If you happen to be in the area, I hope to see you there. Bring your sense of curiosity and some good questions.


It’s always nice to have a posse keeping an eye out for stray information on your pet topic of fascination. So it was with great delight that I recently opened an email message from Marissa Smith, a friend of mine who has reliably given moral support and often physical backup for wolverine work in Mongolia, to find a 400+ page Manchu-to-English dictionary and a rundown of all the mustelid words she’d found in perusing that dictionary. Her detective work bridged a gap that I’ve been trying to fill for the past several years, ever since a discussion with a historian working on the dynamics of the fur trade during the Qing Dynasty in China. The Qing, who ruled China (and Mongolia) from 1636 to 1911 and were notably interested in cultural and environmental conservation, were Manchu, and many of their records were kept in Manchu, which makes the language relevant to understanding wildlife management and environmental protection during that era. I asked this scholar whether he’d run across any accounts of wolverine pelts in his research, or whether he could even tell me the Manchu word for wolverine. He had no idea. The best he could do was offer the fact that there were two descriptors of otters: a relatively well behaved “river otter,” and a “mountain otter” that had a reputation for being crazy and aggressive. At the time, I speculated that maybe the mountain otters were actually wolverines (he was not impressed with this hypothesis).

Finally, after several years of wondering about this – and remaining attached to my mountain otter idea – I can report, thanks to Marissa, that the Manchu word for wolverine is ongnika. The stem ong- appears to relate to being rude, which appears to be related to being from the countryside, since ong– is the root of a word that means pasture. This is in keeping with many other terms for wolverine which reference some idea of being rude, boorish, or uncultured.

Ongnika and related words, from “A Comprehensive Manchu-English Dictionary,” Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 85, by Jerry Norman, 2013

The –nika portion of the word is more obscure. Both ni and ka are, according to a Manchu grammar from the 19th century, grammatical suffixes, but ni is used to form the genitive noun case, and ka seems to be used as part of a compound verb form indicating recent past tense. It’s unlikely that these two suffixes would be used together. The other option is to take nika as a whole, in which case, according to this particular dictionary, it means “Chinese.” This leaves us with the perplexing possibility that the Manchu word for wolverine refers to a rude or rural Chinese person. I really hope not, because while it would open some very interesting perspectives on perceptions of wolverines, I’d prefer not to have my species embroiled in some kind of stereotype-slinging feud between the Manchus and the Chinese. There may be another explanation, and my exposure to Manchu grammar is about a week old at this point, so this is all off-the-cuff. If anyone has any greater expertise, please weigh in.

At some point I’d like to compile a list of all the terms for wolverine from Siberian languages, as I tried to do for North American languages some years ago, so if anyone has any information on this from any of the other Siberian/Turkic/Tungusic languages, let me know.

In the meantime, though, as I searched around for information on Manchu grammar, I was surprised to learn that Manchu has only about ten living native speakers. It’s one of those languages that we consider highly endangered. On the long list of things that are at risk in this world, languages get consideration by only a limited number of people, most of them either speakers of those languages, or linguists. I’d like to make a quick case here that you too, as someone concerned about wildlife, should care about the loss of indigenous languages. As was apparent as I pored over the dictionary, a language contains in its structure and vocabulary a wealth of knowledge and understanding about the environment, about how to survive in that environment, and about how people were supposed to orient towards and interact with that environment. Below are some examples of terms specific to life in the wolverine’s habitat, which I found as I looked up the words for “mountain,” “snow,” and “ski.” They tell us something about the specificity of Manchu environmental knowledge (a term just for the forests that grow on north-facing slopes, for example, or the multitude of terms for types of snow and snow crust, or the wealth of mustelid terms), technologies that they created for exploring and navigating that environment (hiking boots, crampons, skis, snowshoes), approaches that people should take to environmental conditions (a special term for an adept skier, or the fact that “risking one’s life” is synonymous with “going out in a snowstorm”), and some insights on worldview (the fact that the word for “male otter” is the same as the word for fame, or the fact that the death of an emperor was referred to, literally, as a mountain collapsing).

The large number of words related to mustelids, and specifically to sable, illustrates the importance of fur within the Manchu world, an importance which extended to the management of the empire, since tribute was frequently paid in sable pelts. I didn’t find any clarification on the river otter vs. mountain otter distinction, but there were a charming number of terms for different age classes of both otters and badgers, as well as a number of terms related to hunting and trapping techniques, the handling of pelts, and the ways mustelid fur was used on garments. The only other animal with the same degree of related terminology as mustelids, in this dictionary anyway, is the tiger. The fact that a bunch of weasels assume the same linguistic status as the mighty tiger is a testament to the role of mustelids within the Manchu world.

Words related to wolverine habitat (plus a caution on how not to behave around sleeping tigers….):

kulkuri suru: a white horse good in mountain terrain

olongdo: long boots used for mountain climbing

sa: 1. silk gauze, tulle; cf. cece; 2. a dense forest on the north side of a mountain;

saban: a piece of leather with an attached iron cleat (tied to boots or shoes to assist in mountain climbing or walking on ice)

senggin: 1. forehead; 2. the place where the foot of a mountain and a river meet;

urimbi: (-he) 1. to collapse (said of a mountain or hill); 2. to die (said of the Emperor)

alin: mountain

farsambi: to risk one’s life, to act carelessly, to brave (rain, snow)

kordon: a person good on skis or snowshoes

mere nimanggi: snow that has frozen into small beads the size of a grain of buckwheat

nimanggi: snow

nimari yanggaJi: a small bird with snow-white feathers – when it sings it is supposed to snow

sulhumbi: to become soft and mushy, to be soft (said of earth or snow)

suntaha: snowshoe, ski

undan: spring snow that has frozen on the surface and for which snowshoes are required

undaSambi: to hunt on frozen spring snow

ungkan: frozen snow on the top of grass

hujimbi: 1. to rouse a recumbent tiger by shouting

Mustelid terms:

algin: 1. fame; 2. the male otter

haihūn: a name for the otter

haihū: 1. soft; 2. staggering, weaving from side to side

imseke: the young of the otter

lekerhi: 1. Latax lutris: sea otter; 2. otter skin

mederi dorgon: sea otter; cf. lekerhi [author’s note: lit. “sea badger.”]

uki: a female otter

aihii: female sable

baltaha: the hair under the chin of a sable

cakiri: 1. half-cooked, half-done; 2. sable or fox pelts speckled with white hair

desihi: a kind of trap attached to a tree over a stream, used to catch sable and various other small animals

gathiiwa: a jacket made of weasel or sable fur

gina: 1. a trap for sable and squirrels, a deadfall; 2. sheepskin decorated with gold leaf

hara: 1. a short autumn coat of sable or lynx;

hayahan dahii: a court garment trimmed with sable, lynx, or black fox

kiyamnan mahatun: an ancient-style hat adorned with golden cicadas and sable tails

lunggu: a male sable

muhi: 1. a sable (or other animal’s) tail attached to the front of a fur jacket below the lapel

sahalca: pelt of a black sable

seke: 1. Martes zibellina: sable; 2. sable pelt seke furdehe: sable jacket

ufuhu wehe: pumice: a very porous stone found in streams and that can be used for dressing sable hides

ulbimbi: to jump from branch to branch (said of squirrels, sable, etc.)

abadan: an old badger

dorgon: Meles meles: badger

huren: 1. the ridge of the nose; 2. a hole on a stove near the cooking pot where a light (hiyabun) is placed; 3. a badger trap

indahfin manggisu: a name for the badger

manggisu: badger

nanggu: a trap for badger and raccoon-dogs

ulgiyan manggisu: a name for the badger

yandaci: a young badger

sanggiyan ulhu: ermine

sanyan ulhu: Mustela erminea: ermine, stoat

ulhu: 1. squirrel, ermine; 2. ermine pelt

ulhu alban: tax on ermine pelts

ayan jelken: a species of weasel

jelken: Mustela sibirica: Siberian weasel

kurene: weasel

silihi: a name for the weasel

solohi: Mustela sibirica: weasel

suwayan solobi: weasel [author’s note: “suwayan” means “yellow”]

ayan barsa: beech marten

harsa: Martes fiavigula: yellow-throated marten



Sweden Incidents in Wolverine Research

I’m the first to admit that I give Scandinavian wolverine research less attention than it deserves. I’ve never been there, I don’t know the researchers or the research or the policy situation as well as I know the North American and Mongolian situations, and it’s easy to put aside detailed write-ups when I can’t draw on background expertise to pull together a quick post. Things that take more background work on my part tend to get written about less, because writing this blog is uncompensated intellectual labor (or escapist fun; it varies by the day) and the greater the investment, the less likely something is to get written.

Something apparently happened recently in Sweden, however, and no one can figure out quite what the so-called “Sweden Incident” entailed. Since the question remains open, the Sweden Incident may or may not involve wolverines. So I thought this would be a good chance to run down a few of the Swedish wolverine resources, to remind all you wolverine-interested people that there is, in fact, some pretty cool stuff happening in Sweden. And this stuff is verifiably and objectively true. So enjoy.

Scandlynx is a joint project with participation by both Sweden and Norway. They monitor lynx and wolverine and put out some interesting research. The website is available in Swedish, Norwegian, and English.

The Swedish Wolverine Project has its own page, where you can learn more about the specifics of wolverine research, check out a good bibliography with links to research publications, and enjoy a brief synopses of wolverine ecology and life history.

In less savory news, Swedish wolverines regularly depredate on domestic reindeer. This creates a lot of conflict with the reindeer herders, but has resulted in some innovative experimental compensation schemes. Here in the US, of course, our biggest conflict is between livestock producers and wolves, and we tend to compensate after a wolf pack depredates. Ranchers aren’t keen on this way of doing things, because they have to prove that the depredation happened, and they claim that far more animals are killed by wolves than those that they can find and verify. Consequently, they claim, the rate of compensation is far too low to actually pay for their losses.

Sweden solved this problem by instituting a preemptive payment scheme for wolverine dens on Sami herder territories. Rather than compensating after a depredation happens, the Swedish government pays for “conservation performance” when a den is successful. While this compensation scheme seems to be better at addressing herder concerns, poaching remains a problem; as of 2009, at least, up to 60% of wolverine mortalities in Scandinavia were due to poaching. And there’s also evidence that national parks in northern Sweden, rather than serving as places of protection for wildlife, are actually the loci of greater illegal hunting. This may be due to the fact that these parks are large and remote, and therefore difficult to patrol.

The intensive monitoring program in Sweden allows researchers there to look at predator interactions in a way that is difficult elsewhere. Ecology as a field has spent a lot of time studying predator-prey dynamics, but less time understanding how suites of carnivores interact with each other. The Swedish wolverine project is able to monitor both lynx and wolverines on reindeer herding territories, and has produced some interesting work on how these two species share resources. It appears that the resource-sharing strategy in Sweden primarily involves avoidance; although wolverines scavenge off lynx kills, the two species don’t interact that often. The most detailed work on this topic is Jenny Mattisson’s 2011 dissertation. Follow-up work on wolverine-lynx interactions is also available.

Perhaps the most intriguing Sweden Incident in the wolverine world, however, is the recent establishment of a population in a previously uninhabited boreal forest region of southern Sweden. In a paper published last year, the authors contend that Sweden’s monitoring and management programs need to adapt to account for this new population, since most monitoring protocols and management objectives are related to populations in northern alpine herding regions. They also mention that the presence of this wolverine population in an area where the snow melts earlier in the spring is evidence that wolverines may not be as dependent on late spring snow as the Copeland et al 2010 snow model paper suggests. I have a lot of thoughts on that topic, but for now I’ll just confine myself to two points. First, the original snow model paper pointed out that north of 54 latitude, the relationship between spring snow and wolverine presence breaks down, and this site is substantially farther to the north, somewhere around 60 latitude. So in fact, the original snow model paper accurately predicted this exact situation. Second, the framing of questions about wolverine snow-dependency has becoming depressingly binary, because of the management implications for listing in the US, with a tendency towards papers that highlight apparent exceptions to very specific features of the model to make claims that apply to the particular US policy questions, without taking the larger picture into account. This population in southern Sweden, similar to populations north of 54 latitude in Canada, offers us a chance to ask a much bigger set of questions about wolverine habitat requirements and the relationship between cold climates and wolverine persistence. I’m looking forward to learning more about this.

Finally, though, if certain individuals are implying that there is a Swedish Incident or Incidents involving terrorizing of the good and upstanding people of Sweden, our best avenue of analysis would probably focus on moose. As documented here, rowdy drunken moose are apparently a perennial issue in Sweden, destroying property, breaking into stores, holding public orgies, and even occasionally killing people. The establishment of that southern wolverine population followed the implementation of a moose hunting season in the region where the wolverines have taken up residence – perhaps that season was instituted in response to aggressive moose issues? In any case, there’s a theory that gut piles left by moose hunters might actually be responsible for supplementing wolverines in that region and giving them a foothold in a place where they wouldn’t otherwise be able to persist, proving once again that ecosystems are complex, that humans are embedded within them, and that thinking about complexity, in complex and nuanced ways, is necessary to understanding the world we live in.

Here’s hoping that whatever the Sweden Incident actually was, it doesn’t impede the ability of Swedish wolverine researchers to keep up their good and interesting work on the species.








Weal and Wolverines

Weal is an old word. It goes way back, to the days when a bunch of European tribes were squabbling over Great Britain: Roman invaders building walls to keep wild Celts and Picts from the civilized environs of their empire, Germanic and Scandinavian and Norman French invaders crashing onto the shores of an island where immigrants weren’t necessarily welcome, mixing up their genes and their languages and their culture. Whatever the disagreements of these groups as they contested over the British Isles, words akin to weal are found across large swaths of northern Europe, all related to a single concept: collective well-being. This is the word that gives us “well,” “wealth,” and “welfare,” as well as “Commonwealth,” a political entity that foregrounds the idea of shared responsibility and shared prosperity. Words with similar meanings are found throughout the world, so this is hardly an exclusively European concept; something in the human psyche acknowledges that we are, at our core, a social species responsible for our fellow creatures.

Today we understand wealth as relating to capital, material goods, and private property, but at one time wealth inhered in this shared investment in one’s community. When Puritans overthrew the corrupt monarchy of England in 1649 and decapitated Charles I – a man whose inflated self-opinion and dictatorial policies eventually became untenable to the British public – the nation’s briefly monarch-free government was referred to as a Commonwealth (This is about the time that the first use of the word “wolverine” is recorded in the English language, in customs forms related to fur imports). When those same English Puritans landed on the shores of North America in the 17th century, bringing with them all the good of their anti-monarchial ideals and all the ills of their colonial and religiously intolerant agenda, the land that they colonized eventually became the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American Revolution. And if there has always been a struggle between oligarchy and democracy in this country, if there has always been a tension between Enlightenment ideals and terrible colonial realities, the country’s values are nevertheless rooted in an understanding that we come to our community, and to its governance, in a spirit of both individualism and shared investment in the well-being of our fellow citizens.

What does this have to do with wolverines?

Wolverines, like all wildlife, are a public good. They don’t belong to any single person or interest group in the US, which means that we are collectively responsible for them. They are part of the weal of this country, part of the wealth we share. When we discuss what we know about wolverines, when we discuss management of wolverines, we’re talking about how to negotiate within a common-interest space for common-interest outcomes. This process is essential to democracy as well as to conservation of wildlife and the preservation of other environmental values that involve shared resources.

This reality rests uneasily next to a narrative that has gained increasing power over the past few decades, however: the narrative of unfettered neoliberal capitalism. The neoliberal narrative is a study in the privileging of special interests over the well-being of the collective of citizens known as society. It’s a deliberate turning of our backs on the idea that there is a reciprocal relationship between the individual and the world in which that individual lives and makes a living. Neolilberalism privatizes all profit, while socializing the risks and costs of profit-making. It consolidates capital among those who already have it, and denies the idea of the common weal by allowing those with capital to horde it without giving back and without taking responsibility for the ways in which  they impose on the public good. It puts a price tag on everything, and dismisses things that cannot be assigned monetary value. How much is a wild wolverine population worth to the public? This is hard to quantify. Easier to quantify is the value of profit made by oil industry executives and shareholders. The oil industry, in a world that extolls the neoliberal narrative, wins out over public interest. Neoliberalism is a powerfully destructive ideology, insidious and pervasive, and it is this basic set of values that will end up driving wolverines – and other climate sensitive wildlife – to extinction. Unless, of course, we have a massive society-wide awakening, immediately.

To that end, for those of you who are wolverine fans, I’d like to ask you to take a moment to reflect on your values. What are your priorities? How do these priorities potentially have an impact on society? What do you expect or feel entitled to in life, and what do you consider to be your obligations to the wider world? How do you define that wider world, and do you think are there limits to your obligations? If so, where are these limits? Likewise, if you feel like you are entitled to certain things, where are the limits on those entitlements, and do you extend the same set of entitlements to others? If so, which others?

These may seem like large and abstract questions, but I suspect that most people who are concerned with the persistence of wildlife fall within certain parameters when these questions are considered on a spectrum. There’s a lot of work out there in the social sciences on values orientation, the psychology of concern for in-groups vs. out-groups, and where environmental folks tend to fall out on these tests. For now, I’ll provide a couple of graphics and a set of questions to help you situate yourself within this conversation, because this issue of common interest vs. special interest will feature in upcoming posts and you’ll probably find yourself having gut-level reactions to some of what I write. You should know where those reactions are coming from.

Wolverine Quiz: What’s your in-group? 

First, let’s look at in-groups and out-groups. There’s a theory that people subconsciously define other people and entities as being relatively closer or relatively farther from themselves, and care about those people or entities to a degree that is dictated by that distance.


Beings that are closer to the self get more care. Beings that are further get less. There are entities that are seen as being definitively outside of the scope of care; those beings are the out-group.

In a very restricted or self-centered worldview, the in-group and out-group might look something like this:


In a very generous worldview, everything might be part of the in-group:


Note that these graphics should actually contain another dimension, which is time – for example, I consider living and non-living future generations, up to a certain point, as part of my ‘in-group,’ but I don’t really think about non-living past generations as part of my responsibility since – unless we really take it to a science fiction level – my actions can’t affect them. These are very basic graphics and very general explanations, but you probably get the idea.

Most people will fall somewhere in between the restricted and generous versions of the in-group/out-group dynamics above. Where do you fall? Who or what is in your in-group? If wolverines are in your in-group, why? (If they aren’t, what brings you to this blog?)

That question of why certain entities are included or excluded from our circle of concern leads us back to values. And that will be the topic of an upcoming post.