Wolverine News from the North

Wolverines from the north have featured in the press over the past week, with several articles from Alaska and one from Canada. Dispelling the myths around the wolverine’s reputation is a theme among the pieces. One Alaskan writer shares his childhood obsession with the animal and his several encounters with wolverines over the years, emphasizing their “nutty side,” and the way that inexplicable (to humans, anyway) playful behavior exists alongside the ferocity and tenacity for which the species is renowned. There are a few good anecdotes about wolverine feeding behavior and predator interactions in this piece, so enjoy the stories.

Alaskan Fish and Game Department researchers have also found that wolverines in their Southcentral study area defy myths about anti-social behavior and undue aggression. In a study over the past seven years, they’ve collared 18 wolverines and calculated a density of around five wolverines/1000 square kilometers within their study area, which the article describes as “typical” of Southcentral Alaska. The study also used hair snaring and camera trapping to identify individual wolverines. But the fun parts of this particular article are the details about how the wolverines behaved. Like researchers in the Lower 48, this study found that wolverines are playful and social with relatives, and that they are not dangerous to people.  A second article followed this one, with brief interviews with researcher Audrey Magoun, wildlife rehabilitator Steve Kroschel, and the president of the Alaska Trappers’ Association about their experiences with wolverine behavior. All confirm that the stories that are popularly circulated are likely exaggerated, including stories about wolverines fighting off larger predators (pay attention, friends of mine who have a tendency to drunk-text me at midnight to settle bar arguments about which animal might win in a fight against a wolverine.) Audrey Magoun states that she’s never heard an eyewitness account of wolverines fending off or attacking larger predators. I have heard stories in Mongolia about wolverines taking on packs of hunting dogs; in one account, the hunter said he had to intervene and whack the wolverine with a log because it was fighting with several of his dogs and had torn the side of his favorite dog’s face off and seriously injured her leg. When I asked about the dog, he said that she was still alive, scars and all, and at his cousin’s camp, which was unfortunately too far to visit – but this seemed like a pretty credible story, as he went into a fair amount of detail about the incident and about how he had treated the dog and helped her recover. On the other hand, I also heard stories in which dogs killed wolverines, or in which dogs treed wolverines, so obviously these encounters don’t always end in the wolverine’s favor. And dogs are not wolves.

Aside from the anecdotes and entertaining speculation about wolverine behavior, the original article about the Alaska work gives a pretty good overview of the study, with information on home range sizes and dispersal. It also highlights some of the challenges faced by researchers, including the difficulty of chasing down a wolverine even with a helicopter; the tendency of wolverines to slip their collars; and the way that wary wolverines may learn to avoid live traps once they’ve been caught once. The latter is not always the case, as a number of the Glacier study wolverines were captured repeatedly, as were one of the females and one of the males in the Absaroka-Beartooth study. But the Absaroka-Beartooth animals were also sometimes captured on the trap cameras visiting the trap, but not going inside. So there are a lot of factors that could influence capture rates, including individual personality and food stress – considerations that become of more immediate consequence as I contemplate setting up a collaring operation in Mongolia, since that’s a place where you do not want to put in the effort (inevitably enormous) unless you’re pretty sure you’re going to get your animals. The situation with live-trapping and collaring animals underlines the fact that a combination of techniques, including non-invasive DNA-based work, is probably the best way to get a bigger picture of what’s going on with these populations.

Finally, a small piece about the work of Nikki Heim, a student with Tony Clevenger on the Canadian Rockies wolverine work, highlights the finding that wolverines are found in relatively high numbers (for wolverines) inside of Canada’s national parks, but in low numbers outside the park’s boundaries. The article states, “Research conducted over the past two decades show wolverines avoid human-impacted areas and prefer mountainous landscapes protected from human influence. Locally, wolverines prefer remote and mountains areas located in the heart of Banff National Park.” This is an interesting encapsulation of something I see as a major issue in understanding how human activities affect wolverines, particularly in the southern extent of their range; the potential conflation of a preference for high-elevation habitat with avoidance of ‘human-impacted’ areas. Early on in my journey into conservation work, I remember someone pointing out that the conservation impact of North American protected areas was hampered by the fact that the majority of these landscapes were basically “rock and ice,” set aside for their scenic value (and also because they were basically too rugged to be useful to human exploitation for natural resource extraction, thus politically palatable to all.) The best habitat for most of the big, charismatic wildlife species is actually at lower elevations, frequently outside the boundaries of protected areas – an understanding that has been critical to the rise of the movement for corridors and connectivity. For wolverines, however, high-elevation habitats that are hard for humans are ideal, if not essential. Those regions that were pretty and, coincidentally, not coveted by mining and timber interests, and set aside under protected status, form the core of gulo country. So the question is: are wolverines relatively abundant inside these parks and scarce outside because they are avoiding humans and selecting for protected areas, or because they are tundra animals in a landscape where tundra is only found at the high elevations inside the parks?

I’ve seen and heard a number of environmental advocates mixing these two concepts freely, and I think it’s worth taking a considered perspective on this. Of course human development does affect wolverines, but it’s tricky, at this point, to make the case that absent human development, there would be wolverines all over the lowlands. Hopefully ongoing research in all of these southern parts of the wolverine’s range will eventually help us answer this question.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wolverine New Year 2015

2015 got off to an excellent start, with wolverine news from both California and Montana.

In the Sierra Nevada, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife caught a wolverine on camera. Most likely, this is the same male wolverine first detected during a marten study in 2008, although the Rocky Mountain Research Station is currently testing DNA to make sure. The Sierra wolverine has genetic ties to the population in the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, but may have been a released captive. He has been sighted and caught on camera multiple times since the initial photo capture. The native Sierra wolverines, which had a unique genetic profile, were extirpated from California in the early 20th century, but California wildlife managers seem excited to have the species back in the mountains, to the extent that they are hoping  – as quoted here – that this is a new, female wolverine, so that they will eventually have a population.

Aside from the sheer thrill of seeing a native carnivore returning to historic range, I’m especially interested in the fact that this animal has been so visible. The article above cites “more than two dozen documented sightings,” and I’ve had reliable reports about this wolverine here on the blog. It would be interesting to know how many people are accessing the wolverine’s territory and hiking through, and whether there’s some sort of critical level of human use at which a wolverine will definitely be detected. I bring this up because my Mongolian colleagues and herders in the communities where I work report seeing wolverines at rates that seem ridiculously high, and yet these reports too seem mostly reliable. Are wolverines really as elusive as we think they are, or will people definitely see it, if it’s around and if people are in the habitat enough?

Regardless, as California Fish and Game biologist Chris Stermer puts it, “…It would be exciting to have wolverines back in the Sierra.”

In Montana, a citizen science study on the Helena National Forest detected three wolverine track sets during a snow survey last week. Wild Things Unlimited, a Bozeman-based non-profit, is coordinating the effort to document wolverines in this region, along with other partners includes Winter Wildlands Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, the Montana Wilderness Association, and the Helena National Forest. These organizations trained about 30 volunteers on how to identify wolverine tracks and sites. The first teams out identified three set of tracks, a snowshoe hare kill site, and a scavenged elk carcass, and were able to collect DNA samples. The project is ongoing, with another training session and expedition planned in February. More information about the recent excursion and its discoveries is here, and you can find out more about volunteering for the February trip here. This is a great opportunity to get involved with wolverine monitoring, and to improve your skills, so check it out.

In somewhat more ambiguous wolverine news, a snowmobiler in Alaska fell through sea ice and managed to crawl out while his snowmobile, communications, and supplies sank. He survived three days of exposure, with internal injuries, during which he was pursued by a wolverine, which he fended off first with a gun and then with a stick. The wolverine retreated, and the snowmobiler was eventually rescued.

I get questions about whether wolverines are a threat to humans all the time, and the general answer is “no.” Wolverines are curious, and they frequently move toward things that they are curious about, which can be startling for those of us who think that size should dictate that a smaller animal depart the scene as quickly as possible when a larger one shows up. Weasels seem to employ a different strategy sometimes (I’ve had a wolverine investigate my camp while two humans and a dog were present, I’ve seen martens fearlessly approach and circle people, and I’ve also been charged by several ermine, so courage out of all proportion to size seems to be a mustelid thing.) For all we know, the wolverine in this situation may have just been trying to figure out what the human was doing out there. In a case where a human is clearly injured, and especially if there’s blood, however, I wouldn’t put it past a wolverine to try to take one of us down – they do the same with injured, distressed, or stranded large ungulates, so why not an injured and distressed hominid? In any case, much of the press coverage featured headlines emphasizing that this man was “stalked by a wolverine,” as if this were the major point. Not to undermine the amazing story of survival here, and I’m glad this man made it back to his family, but to me, if we’re dealing with issues of risk, the larger and more important point is being safe when you go out on a snowmobile. Sensationalist headlines that increase fear of wild carnivores are not helpful.

To top off the first two weeks of 2015, I was invited yet again to present about wolverine research and conservation with filmmaker Gianna Savoie, this time at the Sacajawea Audubon chapter in Bozeman. As always, it was a great experience to share the stage with a fellow biologist and artist who has such enthusiasm for the species, and to talk to an audience with such good questions.

That’s 2015 off to a good Gulo start. Stay tuned for more news – it’s shaping up to be a good year for the Mongolia project, with plenty of exciting activities in the works, and projects throughout the Rocky Mountain West promise to provide interesting stories as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The End of the World As We Know It

Since the Mayan apocalypse is due to hit on Thursday (or is it Friday?), I figure I should get at least one more post out before we are all (possibly) wiped out. Just in case we aren’t, and you are interested in volunteering on a post-apocalypse wolverine project, the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness in Idaho are looking for people to help them run live traps and cameras this winter. Information can be found here.

The first recorded case of rabies in a wolverine has been documented in Alaska, and an article on the Alaska Fish and Game website provides a thorough explanation of the circumstances. The female wolverine was carrying a strain of Arctic fox rabies and apparently fought with and infected a wolf shortly before she died (she also had a goose egg in her stomach, proving once again that wolverines are indeed versatile in their eating habits.) The incident is notable because it represents a first instance of recorded infection in a species, but the article is worth reading for its deeper exploration of rabies epidemiology in Alaskan fox species, the relationship between rabies outbreaks and ecological processes, and the possible connection between climate change, displacement of Arctic foxes by red foxes, and a potential related change in rabies prevalence.

Several interesting reports and papers have come out over the past few weeks – the 2012 report for the North Cascades Project was released, as well as the most recent update to the Idaho Recreation study. Both are available at the Wolverine Foundation website. And a new paper from Sweden looks at habitat selection in areas where lynx and wolverine overlap. I have not yet had a chance to read through all of these in detail but will report back once I do – provided, of course, that we have not met with fiery doom in the meantime.

 

 

 

 

Wolverines Everywhere!

A brief update on wolverine news, with a promise that future posts will be more in-depth:

On Tuesday, April 10th, Montana State University will host a showing of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom. If you haven’t yet had a chance to see the film on the big screen, find your way to the Procrastinator Theater (Is that the real name? If this isn’t a joke, I appreciate the stoicism with which MSU accepts its students’ priorities….) at 7 pm. Director Gianna Savoie will be there, and the event is free to all.

If you happen to live in the Rocky Mountain foothills near Alberta, keep your eyes open for a wolverine that made its way through the small town of Airdrie earlier this week. The wolverine stayed a few strides ahead of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as concerned citizens called 911 all over town. Someone managed to get a good picture of the animal as it crossed the street. Several commenters on the article expressed the opinion that this might be an April Fool’s joke, suggesting that wolverines don’t venture “that far out onto the plains.” Airdrie seems to be (a scant, for a wolverine) 40 miles or so from the mountains, so if this was a joke, it’s one that would be well within the bounds of possibility. An Alberta wildlife biologist decided it was probably a dispersing juvenile. The animal was last seen heading north. This may be overly cautious, but people in the region might want to keep their pets in for a while, especially at night. Wolverines strolling down Main Street might bode ill for domestic animals.

Further north still, wolverine made a brief appearance in Iditarod news when it shared the course with a dogsled team for a short distance, apparently not quite willingly. This is just a one-sentence mention, but it’s fun to think that a wolverine ran part of Iditarod – and then, perhaps, decided that it was too short a distance to bother with, and went and did something more badass instead.

 

 

 

 

 

Brief Updates

I am en route to Oregon to help look into wolverine populations in that state. For the next three weeks I’ll be offline and out of touch – I can’t even express how much I’m looking forward to this.

In the meantime, I thought I’d leave readers with a few brief bits of gulo news:

A wolverine was caught on camera by WWF  in the Russian Altai. These mountains are contiguous with the Mongolian Altai and whatever is going on with the wolverine population in Mongolia is undoubtedly tied to population dynamics in Siberia. So it’s great to have a quick glimpse, even if the bulk of the excitement in this particular article revolves around snow leopards.

A friend of mine pointed me to this Richard Nelson podcast about wolverines. It’s about half an hour long and discusses wolverine biology, and also some interesting Koyukon cultural beliefs about wolverines.

In a recent post about trophic cascades and the wolverine’s role in the ecosystem, I made some statements about wolverine habitat that are not necessarily universally true. Most of my personal experience with wolverines is in mountain ranges at the southern edge of the global range, and so I tend to default to an image of that habitat when I talk about them, and specifically to the Tetons, which is the wolverine-occupied range where I’ve spent the most time. This tendency ignores the bulk of their range in the boreal forests, not to mention variable conditions even between mountain ranges.   So here are a few clarifications:

Wolverines do overlap with wolves and bears in significant portions of their range, and stories abound in Mongolia of wolverines following wolves and feeding on wolf-killed carcasses. In picturing the Tetons, where wolverines are up in the high, rocky peaks and wolf sign is more frequently seen in the valleys, I was picturing a system in which wolverines might, at certain altitudes, be the top predator. But this is unlikely to be consistently true even in the Rockies.

Wolverines are distributed across any landscape in very low densities, and are unlikely to prey on any single species to the extent that they actually have an effect on the population of that species. So saying that wolverines may be a top predator on mountain goats or bighorn sheep in a given area was again a mistranslation between an image in my mind, and science. Depending on what’s going on in a particular wolverine territory, a wolverine might kill a number of animals in a particular herd, but does this affect the overall population of the species? Probably not.

I’m also planning to write a follow-up post about why focusing on trophic cascades is not the only way to think about the value or function of a wolverine. So stay tuned. But in the meantime, I’m off to the mountains to stop speculating and start learning.

 

Non-invasive Methodology from Glacier to Mongolia

A great article looks at a new non-invasive wolverine monitoring effort in Glacier National Park. This effort, combining camera trapping and hair snaring, is a follow-up to Jeff Copeland and Rick Yates’ years of research in the Park, which were cut off just when the data was getting good. The Glacier Park study still represents the best dataset on wolverines in the Lower 48 – and it’s given us some of the most epic wolverine stories out there, including M3’s ascent of Mt. Cleveland and F4’s feats as the matriarch of Glacier – so it’s good to know that further efforts to obtain information about the animals are underway.  The project seems to accept volunteers, too, so if you are in the Glacier area and want to participate in a gulo study, this may be an opportunity. (Note that there are currently more volunteers – 50 – than the estimated number of study subjects in the park – 40. This seems a particularly stark illustration of the scarcity of the species.)

Posts here over the past few weeks have been sparse, and the Glacier article is a good introduction to the reasons for the paucity of writing: it’s research proposal season. I’ve spent the past three weeks with my mind in a knot, trying to work out some tricky questions about how to best collect information on Mongolian wolverines without ever touching – perhaps without ever even seeing – a live specimen. The crux of non-invasive work  lies in figuring out how to study the species at low cost, with minimal impact on the animal, and in ways that are appropriate to the study site. The work in Mongolia will build on Audrey Magoun’s camera work in Alaska, which, in turn, probably helped inspire the Glacier work. Except we’ll be doing it in Mongolia, where wolverines have never before been studied in even a rudimentary way, where infrastructure is non-existent, and where human cultural factors add a unique twist to wildlife research. This is why the process of adapting the methods has been so time-consuming.

After a 2010 summer field season that was successful beyond anticipation (albeit stressful as well) as we interviewed herders and hunters and got some solid information on Mongolian wolverine distribution, I’m excited about the prospect of returning to Mongolia to begin camera-trapping and DNA work. But a number of big questions remain. Time constraints last year meant that I was only able to visit three of five potentially important wolverine areas in Mongolia, leaving two to cover in summer 2011. And then, a week after I returned to the US, I received word that a London Zoological Society wildlife camera-trapping effort had caught a mother wolverine and two kits on camera in a location that I hadn’t previously considered. The images of the wolverine and her kits are stunning, captured at dusk as they rolled through a high, barren meadow, one of the kits pausing to put its face and paw to the camera. The wolverines were caught in the southern Altai, in the region where the mountains begin to shade into the Gobi Desert. It’s hardly what we would consider optimal habitat, and yet here we had conclusive proof that wolverines are actually breeding there. This site, too, warrants a visit. So one of the remaining tasks for getting the project up and running is to visit all three sites this summer and figure out which is the best – in terms of reported wolverine population, in terms of terrain, and in terms of social factors – for conducting a multi-year camera-trapping and DNA-gathering effort.

Site selection is the first step. Next, we had to devise a statistically defensible strategy for placing camera stations across the landscape in order to estimate wolverine population parameters. This sounds fairly straightforward but actually isn’t, especially when the size of your site is as-yet undetermined. The statistical acrobatics required to go from a camera-station grid, a certain number of photo-captures, and a bunch of DNA samples, to making even a rough determination of wolverine numbers in a given region, involve taking into account everything from the unknown size of wolverine use areas in the vicinity of the traps, to the response of individual wolverines to individual traps. This probably goes without saying, but it isn’t easy to turn wolverine personality traits into a mathematical equation.

If I’d had to figure this stuff out alone, I probably would have spent most of the last few weeks crying in frustration (or drinking heavily…). Luckily Audrey Magoun’s work in SE Alaska provided a starting place (information about the Alaska project is available at The Wolverine Foundation’s research page) for both the statistics, and for methods of constructing camera stations that will induce a wolverine to stand up and display its unique chest patch to the camera. A minor diversion involved figuring out what materials we would need to do adapt Magoun’s design to the realities of available goods in Mongolia; I spent a lot of time mentally touring Ulaanbaatar’s massive Narantuul market and trying to recall what was available.

The really challenging part of the Mongolia work is the social side, though. Mongolia has one of the lowest human population densities in the world, with something like 2.5 people per square mile (the average in the US is 87 per square mile.) But someone once pointed out that although Mongolians inhabit the landscape sparsely, they inhabit it very deeply – every mountain is sacred, every pasture is known and used, every remote route through the desert or the hills is traveled, every wildlife population exploited in some way. And wolverine habitat, which is  unoccupied by humans and rarely visited in the US, is occupied and utilized for livestock grazing throughout Mongolia.  Research and conservation in these habitats is as much a question of human behavior as it is of wolverine population parameters. Devising methods for incorporating communities into the work has also been a challenge, even though I’m confident that it can be done, and done well. And while we probably can’t count on 50 enthusiastic volunteers wanting to participate just because they think wolverines are rad, we probably can count on a degree of expert knowledge about the landscape and wildlife that is lacking in America. This will be a huge resource; we just need to determine how to utilize it in ways that are beneficial to us and to Mongolians.

The focus on non-invasive methods of wildlife research is new throughout the world, a shift away from the expensive, labor-intensive collaring work that’s traditionally told us about wildlife. Collar studies still have their place, yielding information that we simply can’t obtain from non-invasive work, and we do plan to eventually conduct a limited collar study in Mongolia. But in the meantime, I’m excited to be part of pioneering new methods, especially in a place like Mongolia, where low-input research methods will be necessary to keep track of wildlife beyond just wolverines.

So, research proposals submitted, and April almost here, we now have two months to plan for the June-August summer field season in Mongolia. Looking forward to getting back out there (though maybe not to being back in a Mongolian saddle, which are made of wood….) and continuing the search for Mongolia’s nokhoi zeekh, as part of a global effort that stretches all the way from Glacier to the Altai.

 

 

 

 

Michigan’s Last Wolverine

Today, a sad piece from Michigan about the ultimate fate of their last wolverine, a female who died last year, age 9, of congestive heart failure. She had been tracked and photographed via camera-trap by a persistent school teacher, who had only just managed to get her on film when she died. As unhappy as this is, she will be preserved for display and educational purposes by a taxidermist, who shares his thoughts about the process of working on Michigan’s only documented wolverine in the past 200 years.

Some speculate that she walked over the ice from Canada and represents a true dispersal from a wild Canadian population. Others have suggested that her genetics are more similar to those of Alaskan wolverines, which would mean that she was almost certainly a released captive. Regardless, I hope she inspires folks in Michigan to be even more interested in wolverines than they already are.

On the topic of interest in wolverines, Jason Wilmot’s lectures in Colorado were attended by over 500 people, a great turnout. In some cases there was standing-room only, and Jason was asked to stay for an additional lecture; he was unable to do so but hopes to find time later in the winter. Thanks to the Center for Native Ecosystems and the numerous other sponsors who helped make these lectures happen, and thanks to the many people who turned out for the events.

Last week saw a flurry of wolverine articles related to a study that shows that their habitat will diminish in the face of climate change. I will write more about this shortly.

 

 

New Book on Wolverine Camera Trapping

A new book on wolverine camera-trapping is available here.

Audrey Magoun, the lead author, is one of the great pioneers of wolverine research in the US, from early studies on ecology and biology, to hand-rearing a pair of kits to better understand their behaviors in the natural landscape, to her recent work pushing the boundaries of non-invasive monitoring techniques. In the course of her work, she discovered that each wolverine has a unique chest-patch and that you can therefore monitor individuals  if you can capture images of their patches.

Of course, this involves getting a wolverine to stand up on its hind legs for the camera (you can also tell if a female wolverine is lactating by doing this….) and I’m sure anyone with any knowledge of wolverines is aware that it’s hard to induce a gulo to do anything it doesn’t want to. How do you make a wolverine want to stand up in front of a camera?  It involves placing a bait overhead, and the efforts of wolverines to obtain said bait doesn’t stop with demurely reaching up and snagging the treat; it involves somersaults, hanging upside down, taking flying leaps, and  other acrobatics. As featured in the film Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, the antics of Audrey’s subjects, even in still imagary, were enough to make the audience laugh out loud.

A 15-page preview of the book is available, and it looks like it is full of great shots. Given the dearth of wolverine imagery out there, it should be enjoyable to look at even if you’re a non-scientist wolverine fan. For those of us who are scientist wolverine fans, it will be fantastic to know how to set up camera traps for gulo studies – we are hoping to use these techniques for my work in Mongolia. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I am looking forward to it.

Proceeds from the sale of the book go to wolverine conservation and research.

Wolverines on the Red Carpet

Jasper and wildlife rehabilitator Steve Kroschel set the scene during the filming of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom. Photo copyright Gianna Savoie.

PBS Nature’s Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom premieres in less than 24 hours, at 8:00 pm on Sunday, November 14th. I’m entertaining a vision of a Hollywood event, with wolverines strolling down a red carpet to the fanfare of adoring crowds and the flash of paparazzi photography. Of course, one of the many things that makes wolverines so amazing is the fact that they’re charismatic enough to win a legion of devoted fans without the drama and glamor – they’re simply so compelling that you can’t help but be fascinated.

If wolverines can’t have a real red carpet, the way to the premiere is being paved by the cyber equivalent; the PBS website has several new goodies, including an interview with Doug Chadwick, author of The Wolverine Way, and a photo gallery with shots of the captive wolverine stars. PBS has also done something I’ve always wanted to do: walked around with a video camera asking people what they know about wolverines, and recording the answers. The result is entertaining testimony to the fact that the documentary is a much needed addition to wildlife education.

This week also sees the premiere of The Wolverine Network website, which serves as a portal to other wolverine sites. The group is a coalition of wolverine-interested groups and individuals hoping to build support for research, and awareness about wolverine conservation needs. The Wolverine Foundation, the nexus of worldwide wolverine research and, for many years, the sole online gulo presence, remains the place to go for synopses of research projects, monthly wolverine art features, great kids’ pages, and some pretty awesome wolverine hats. Rumor has it that this website will soon receive a multimedia makeover, making the content even more accessible while maintaining the commitment to covering every facet of wolverine ecology and lore.

Wolverine researcher Jeff Copeland, director of the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project, interviewed during a typical day at work. Photo copyright Gianna Savoie.

So tune in on the 14th at 8:00 pm, and then check out the Wolverine Foundation, the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative’s wolverine ecology page, the Wolverine Network, and the other information out there. And let me know what you think, of the film, the animal, and the researchers who pour so much effort into obtaining such scarce data about such an incredible species.

Jasper. Photo copyright PBS Nature.

The Phantom and the Filmmaker

When PBS Nature called Gianna Savoie in 2008 and asked if she’d be interested in making a film about the wolverine, her first reaction was exhilaration at the thought of creating a documentary on a little-known animal. Her second was trepidation: how do you make a movie about an animal that is impossible to find?

The tensions between the mystery, the quest for knowledge, and the intense personality of wolverines hold together the film that Savoie eventually created. From the extraordinary commitment of the scientists who track wolverines through Montana and Alaska with barely a hope of ever seeing the animal, to the quirky and energetic antics of the two captive kits who provide most of the film’s footage of actual wolverines, Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom is an hour of pure gulo charm. Getting to an hour, however, was nearly as epic as some of the wolverine feats the film documents.

Savoie’s initial instinct, as the film took shape, was to build the story around the non-appearance of the wolverine, allowing the very fact of its absence to speak to the rarity of the species and the difficulty of studying (never mind filming) it. But during research for the documentary, she became more and more interested in the lives of individual wolverines, and then she had a transformative encounter with captive wolverines in Washington state. She says that she can’t exactly explain the feeling, but whatever it was, it was unexpected. “They were really curious, intense…I got this feeling that they were thinking something, and they were thinking something about me…there was something that inspired me on every level. They’re tenacious, smart, good moms, survivors – I just respect them.” She knew that wolverines had to be characters in the film.

 

Jason Wilmot is filmed discussing wolverine diet in the early iterations of Chasing the Phantom. The final cut focuses on only two of the multiple wolverine projects in the US; we didn't make the cut, largely because F3 proved camera-shy.

 

That still left her with the problem of how to bring wolverine charisma to the screen when they remained so difficult to find. In August of 2008, Jason Wilmot and I led a cameraman into the remote Absaroka wilderness as we attempted to locate a GPS cluster from one of F3’s collars. The payoff for our pains, a full day of bushwhacking and a near tumble off a cliff, was a single mountain goat mandible. Throughout the ensuing winter, the cameraman in Montana was on high alert as we monitored our traps, hoping to film a capture. But between December and March, F3 went into the trap only once, and the collaring was called off when a blizzard closed the roads to the site. Getting a wild wolverine on film was proving even harder than anticipated.

Fate intervened when a fellow filmmaker and wildlife rehabilitator in Alaska, Steve Kroschel, was left with two orphaned male kits. Raising and educating these kits provides one of the central story arcs of the documentary, and their vibrant personalities as they romp, tumble, and wreak periodic havoc through the Alaska landscape instantly transform wolverines from the ferocious devils of myth to engaging wilderness spirits that you might not mind meeting.

Jasper and Banff – as the two kits are eventually named – give a face to the phantom, but the brief glimpses of wild wolverines are equally compelling. The documentary opens with home footage from a capture of M3, the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project’s superstar male, who later climbed  the nearly vertical 5000 foot face of Mt. Cleveland, the highest peak in the park, in the space of 90 minutes. M3’s growl resonates through the opening scene – nothing can replicate the experience of hearing this sound in real life, but the documentary gives a good idea of what it’s like to feel that rumble shooting through your very bones – and when he charges the camera, you have to admire the spirit of a 30 pound animal willing to take on the multiple humans converging on the trap.

As the film follows the Glacier Project and expands to encompass research in Alaska, the story of M3, his father M1, and M1’s mate, F4, becomes as compelling as the story of Jasper and Banff, even though there’s almost no footage of the animals themselves. The film illuminates the unexpected family dynamics of wolverines, the dedication of gulo mothers, the role that fathers play in raising kits, and the tenacity required for a young wolverine to make it in a rugged world. With shots of shrinking glaciers juxtaposed against snowbound wilds, the film also highlights the dependence of wolverines on snow, and the threats that they will face in a warming world.

Interwoven with the stories of the wolverines are the stories of the researchers – Jeff Copeland, Rick Yates, and Doug Chadwick on the Glacier Project, and Audrey Magoun in Alaska – whose dedication to the species transcends even the most rigorous work ethic, approaching something akin to faith. As Copeland, Yates, and Chadwick push forward through blizzards and up vertical scree slopes, as Magoun battles overgrown forests and scours the vast Alaskan wilderness for a sighting of a wolverine, the audience gains a brief glimpse of the great wolverine paradox: these animals are incredibly, almost indescribably compelling for the people who follow them and want to learn about them, and yet part of what draws us to wolverines is the very mystery and unknowability of the species. If it sounds mystical and over-the-top coming from me, just listen to the scientists as they talk about what wolverine research means to them. Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom won a well-deserved award for scientific content, but even for the scientists, it’s about more than hypotheses and methods and numbers. Magoun speaks of wolverines as the embodying spirit of wilderness, and Chadwick sums it up when he confesses that he and, he speculates, most of the other researchers and volunteers on the project secretly want to be wolverines. In a question-and-answer session after the screening in Bozeman, Rick Yates told the audience of his own initial foray into wolverine work: “Jeff Copeland told me I should work on the project. He said, ‘If you work with wolverines, it’ll change your life.'” Yates paused, let this sink in, and added, simply, “He was right.”

Savoie draws this passion out of her subjects with skill, perhaps in part because she comes from a biology background and understands the connection that can exist between a researcher and a subject species. She speaks with enthusiasm of her own academic research on bats, talking about what amazing animals they are, and lamenting the spread of the whitenose fungus that is wiping out bat colonies throughout the US. Part of the way through her master’s research, Savoie says, she realized that she was as interested in communicating the science as she was in doing the science. As she put it, “There’s a gap between the science and the story,” and she was interested in bridging that gap. She worked for Nature, and then went freelance, producing the award-winning Life in Death Valley and several other projects before being asked to make a documentary about wolverines. On her website, she refers to the wolverine project as the ‘most ambitious and important’ of her career. If her choice of species seems heavily weighed towards the disreputable – there’s a smooth trajectory from the misunderstood and culturally suspect bat to the misunderstood and culturally suspect glutton – you have to admire her for undertaking and succeeding in redeeming overlooked but fascinating creatures.

The film brings to light the world of an extraordinary animal, but for all of that, wolverine researchers are left to wonder what good a single hour long film can do. Savoie’s commitment to conservation outcomes is as evident as her commitment to making good films, but how do you harness the enthusiasm for wolverines that the film will undoubtedly generate? One obvious potential pitfall is the fact that Jasper and Banff are so interesting that a horde of people will want wolverines as pets. (Savoie, in an interview in April, said that she was utterly opposed to this as an outcome of the film. One hopes that Jasper and Banff’s tendency to chew through everything they encounter – gloves, power cords, frozen-solid dead moose  – would serve as further discouragement.) Another, more subtle potential pitfall is a sense of futility. The wolverine is up for listing under the Endangered Species Act, with a decision due in December of this year, but even if it is listed, mitigating threats will be a challenge. In past species conservation efforts, the barriers to recovery have been relatively easy to identify and deal with. For wolverines, though, the biggest long-term threats are most likely your car, your neighbor’s car, the thousands upon millions of cars zipping across America, the power plants and the factory farms – in short, the entire infrastructure of our country. And that’s not something that can be changed with a $50 donation to wolverine research.

Nevertheless, in the short term, the wolverine needs an informed constituency to support research and conservation. Jason Wilmot, who helped start the Glacier project and worked on it as a volunteer before becoming the field director for the Absoroka-Beartooth Project, says, “We’ve come a long way. Ten years ago, no one even knew what a wolverine was. This film is going to raise the level of awareness to a point that’s never existed before, and that’s a good thing for wolverines.”

As for Savoie, her own hope is that people become interested, get informed, and figure out what needs to be done to keep wolverines on the landscape. So far, generating interest seems to be working, as she engages with audiences across the country to help raise awareness and sort out the basics of what a wolverine is and what it needs to survive (she describes a favorite moment, when she asked an audience of children what they thought a wolverine was. One girl said, “An orange wolf,” imagining a cross between a wolf and a tangerine.)

Savoie is talking about a sequel, too. Her commitment to wolverines has only grown deeper in the aftermath of making Chasing the Phantom, and she explains that she wants to play a role in their conservation. An upcoming semester teaching wildlife film-making at Montana State University in Bozeman will allow her a full winter in wolverine habitat and a chance to investigate topics and regional wolverine research projects that didn’t make it into this film. Frustrated by the limits of an hour-long show, she wants to create a second piece that will focus on conservation and research and raise the serious questions of ‘what next?’ in a more direct way. At the same time, of the secret lives of wild wolverines, she says, “I don’t know if I want to know. I like the fact that there are some animals that are able to keep us at bay. We need to find out their status, but they do embody the wilderness – if they’re still out there, the wilderness is still okay.”

In one of the climactic scenes of the film, the camera catches a flashing glimpse of F4, the matriarch of the Glacier wolverines. She pauses, looks over at the camera, and you have to hope, for F4’s sake, that Savoie is right. Then, with a flick of her tail, the wolverine is gone.

 

Jasper, who frequently took creative license during filming. Trying to create a final shot of a wolverine crossing the rugged wilderness, Jasper's adopted human father, Steve, buried himself in the snow, hoping to call Jasper to him so that the cameras could catch him running. Instead, Jasper repeatedly dug Steve out of the snow. Never imagine that you can tell a wolverine what to do.

 

Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom airs on PBS on November 14th.