Dr. Healy Hamilton on Temperature and Precipitation Changes in the GYE

This talk is going to be harder to summarize without the visuals used during the presentation. I’m googling to see if I can find an online copy of some of the graphs and maps that Dr. Hamilton used to illustrate her work – it looks like they are not immediately available. But in summary, GYC and Dr. Hamilton have partnered to look in detail at the GYE to try to develop some idea of what is actually going on with climate, based on weather station data from the past century. Using USDA information on temperature and precipitation, they’ve constructed a historical timeline of average temperature and precipitation from 1900-1970, and then looked at places where, over the past thirty years, temperature or precipitation have varied by more than two standard deviations from the 1900-1970 averages. For people without a background in statistics, two standard deviations from average is significant because about 98% of variation in any situation should fall within the boundaries of two standard deviations from whatever the average of the data is. So if you see something that is more than two standard deviations from the average, you can be pretty sure that something out of the ordinary is occurring.

The standard narrative of climate change around the world is that temperature is rising, which is true, but how this plays out a local scale can be extremely varied. This is why there’s still so much room to sow doubt and confusion over the climate science.

Dr. Hamilton’s data suggest that average minimum temperatures are increasing, particularly in late winter and early spring, but that average maximum temperatures are not increasing. This means that, as Dr. Hamilton puts it, “we are losing climate space” on the colder end of the spectrum, but not necessarily gaining it on the warmer end. Precipitation seems to be decreasing in July, but by October it’s increasing; by December, it’s leveled out and remains approximately the same as it has been since 1900. A few places seemed resistant to the general loss of minimum temperatures, among them the northwestern edge of the Wind River Range.

So what does all of this mean for the future of the ecosystem? Difficult to say for sure, but this is certainly the next step in the climate change narrative – boring down into local trends and trying to create scenarios that will allow planning for adaptation.

Three things in the presentation were particularly striking. The first was Dr. Hamilton’s opening statement, in which she briefly addressed the politics of climate change and then said she didn’t want to talk about it.  Who does? I sympathize with her. But whether we want to talk about it or not, the gridlock over climate change policy is the problem with which we really need to be wrestling. Falling back on science and scientific management, generating more data and more maps, isn’t going to convince people who already believe that researchers like Dr. Hamilton are being paid off to do the work they do. (They aren’t. Just because the right wing pays its ‘scientists’ to generate data doesn’t mean that real researchers lack integrity.)

The second was the predominance of maps in the presentation. Some colleagues of mine have an old joke that asserts that when environmentalists are in doubt about what to do, they fall back on producing maps. Sure enough, in the face of climate change policy gridlock, we are indeed producing more maps. The maps are beautiful, fascinating, informative, and represent great research. Hopefully they will make an important contribution to conservation planning in the GYE. But maps aren’t solutions, and to put these maps to good use, we need something more.

The third thing, which I found hopeful and which partially addresses the concern above, was the suggestion that the GYE would be the test case for how to use tools like these maps, because the region  has such a broad conservation constituency. Let’s hope that the support for conservation values does translate to some form of planning for ecosystem resilience at a broad scale. But the challenges are still manifold, and those problems aren’t scientific problems – they’re people problems, and they’re governance problems.



E.O. Wilson on Wolverines

Eminent ecologist and renowned ant expert E.O. Wilson published The Creation in 2006. The book tries to bridge the perceived gap between Christianity and science, making the argument that if you claim to love God, you can do nothing less than devote yourself to the protection of God’s work. Whether you refer to that work as biodiversity or the Creation, the ultimate object for conservationist scientists and for the Christian faithful should – if your theology is coherent – be the same.

I haven’t read the entire book, but a colleague brought to my attention the fact that the wolverine makes a starring appearance in chapter six, ‘Two Magnificent Animals.’ How to describe the delight of discovering that E.O. Wilson, the man whose papers you read with avid attention in grad school and whose work defined the field you are now in, thinks that your species is magnificent? It made me smile to myself for the whole day. It made my week. And it is particularly apt because Wilson pioneered work on island biogeography, which is exactly how we now think about wolverines at the southern edge of their range – that is, islands of population (high mountain ranges) separated by oceans of unsuitable habitat (lowlands). Wilson gave us the scientific vocabulary to consider these things, with important implications for how we might conserve the wolverine. (The second of the two magnificent animals, in case you are curious, is the pitchfork ant.)

Below, the wolverine in Wilson’s words:

No words and no art can capture the full depth and intricacy of the living world – as biologists have come increasingly to understand it. If a miracle is a phenomenon that we cannot understand, then all species are something of a miracle. Each and every kind of organism, by virtue of the exacting conditions that produced it, is profoundly unique and shows its diagnostic traits reluctantly.

To press this point, let me tell you about two of the species I have personally found of compelling interest.

The Wolverine

I have never seen a wild wolverine, and I hope I never will. This weasel-like mammal of the north woods is legendary for its ferocity, cunning, and elusiveness. Chunky in form, three to four feet long and weighing twenty to forty pounds, it is one of Earth’s smallest top-tier predators. It feeds on everything from rats to deer. It can chase cougars and wolf packs away from downed prey, and drag carcasses three times its own weight. It has fuzzy black fur, but this is no animal you’d want to pet. It has sharp teeth, a predator’s retractable claws, and the face of a miniature bear. It walks flat footed and low to the ground, such that when standing still it seems poised to spring forward….

The other vernacular names given it, devil bear, skunk bear, caracajou, and glutton, and even its brutish scientific name, Gulo gulo, suggest the gap that exists between the wolverine and humanity.  Add to that the difficulty of spotting a wolverine in the wild. Individuals are both solitary and exceptionally shy of humans. They wander far and wide – here today, over there somewhere tomorrow, and gone for good the day after that.

It’s savage demeanor is not, however, the reason I want to avoid the wolverine. The reason is that I find Gulo gulo the embodiment of wildness, and I know that there will still be untrammeled habitats on earth if wolverines still roam there. I trust they will hold on in the vast subarctic forest, somewhere in North America or Eurasia, in places too far to be reached by vehicles… Wildlife biologists will need to know the general status of the wolverine in order to save the species, but I hope there will always be remote regions of its range barred to trappers and even scientists. Please let part of the wolverine stay a mystery!

How to Find the World’s Least-Known Animal in the World’s Most Sparsely Populated Country: A Beginner’s Guide

Mongolia is not for the timid.

Neither are wolverines.

Put the two together, and you have a situation that requires a degree of focus, brazen inventiveness, and raw physical and mental strength, contemplation of which is enough to inspire doubt in even the most self-confident, let alone a shy and introverted writer.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia from 2000-2002, serving in the town of Kharkhorin in Ovorhangai Aimag, in central Mongolia. When I first met Jason Wilmot and his wife Kate in 2006, the thing that caught my attention about wolverines was the fact that there was an unstudied population in Mongolia, and that Jason and Kate expressed the ambition of going to Mongolia and studying this population. I’d vaguely known that there were wolverines in the mountains when I was a volunteer, but I’d been much more interested in the more high-profile snow leopards and wolves; nokhoi zeekh, as the Mongolians called wolverines, weren’t on anyone’s radar. But over the course of our first meeting in a remote mountain valley in Wyoming, as Jason enthused about wolverines and I enthused about Mongolia and Kate stated with absolute certainty, “We’re going,” it seemed far too great a coincidence to allow inaction.

It took three years, but in 2009, I returned to do some preliminary interviews and to take a language class to dust off old skills. In 2010, we received enough funding to allow Jason to travel to Mongolia to participate in a pilot survey as we build relationships with the Mongolian academic and herding communities. I’m writing from Ulaanbaatar; Jason will arrive in August. In the meantime, I’ll be traveling through other parts of the country conducting further interviews, and working on a second component of the project, looking at pikas with a wildlife biologist from the Teton Science Schools, and trying to determine whether any of Mongolia’s four pika species are responding to climate change in measurable ways, as America’s pika populations appear to be doing.

The project is incredibly exciting, but also overwhelming. How do you find a wolverine in Mongolia? How do you establish a long-term monitoring agenda that takes into account the knowledge – and needs – of the local communities with whom you’ll be working?

Logically, of course, the answer is to begin with the communities. In the US, if you want to find a wolverine, you need a general idea of where it might be, and then you need a helicopter, some snowfields that will hold tracks, and someone in the helicopter who is reliable enough at track id that their assessment can be trusted. Flying a mountain range, you can determine presence and start to create a rough map of where you might set up a monitoring or trapping operation. In the US, wolverines and humans lead largely separate lives in very separate places; American culture is a culture of lowlands and valleys, and so helicopters become necessary to cover large swaths of high altitude terrain that are inaccessible and seldom visited by humans.

In Mongolia, the land is saturated with human presence. Hypothetically, humans and wolverines are sharing habitat – not just in cases of occasional human recreation, as in the Rockies of the US and Canada, but in a real and thorough way. Mongolians are making their livings in high altitude pastures, and they’re doing it, in many cases, in a movement pattern that imitates the wolverine’s seasonal movements. In technical anthropological parlance, Mongolians in mountainous areas practice transhumant pastoralism – they move to higher altitudes during the summer, and lower altitudes during the winter, and they are outside with their herds every day. So the chances of regular encounters with wolverines are much greater among Mongolian pastoralists than among even the most adventurous of mountaineering Americans. In this situation – so my hypothesis goes – you should be able to pinpoint wolverine locations with a high degree of accuracy, simply by talking to people who are in the habitat.

Of course, this remained to be proved. Two weeks ago, we set out to put the theory to the test, and headed West to Mongolia’s fiercest mountains, the Altai.

Waffles, anyone?

My friend is in Trondheim, Norway, for a biodiversity conference. In 2002, the UNEP and the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed that 2010 was the target year for halting, or at least substantially slowing, biodiversity decline. The conference in Trondheim will address what to do now that we’ve reached 2010, and biodiversity decline continues at a shameful rate. Gloomy stuff.

On the more humorous side, Trondheim apparently has a resident wolverine. After my dramatic assertions about how the wolverine is the last representative of true wilderness, you will share my sense of entertainment – and slight chagrin – to learn that this wolverine hangs out in town and, apparently, has a taste for….waffles.

The waffle-loving Trondheim wolverine