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 News From All Over

Wolverines have made the news fairly frequently over the past few weeks. Here are a few articles that just came out, and a few that I missed posting earlier.

First, another update on the Alberta wolverine research, which I discussed briefly last week, can be found here. This article is longer and does a much better job of discussing the varied factors that influence where wolverines appear on the landscape.

Second, DNA tests confirm that the wolverine recently spotted in California is the same wolverine first detected in 2008. An article in the LA Times contends that this means that the animal is nearing the end of its life, since wolverines are generally thought to average about a ten year lifespan, and this animal is at least seven. I’ve heard rumors that a wolverine known to be much older was recently recaptured on a project, however, so let’s hope that the Sierra wolverine proves to be equally long-lived – maybe by then a female will find her way to California as well.

In the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, forest biologists are continuing a project to assess the wolverine population, using DNA and Audrey Magoun’s camera techniques. This is one of the many wolverine projects that have sprung up over the past few years, indication of a heightened interest in a species that was once overlooked. Another ongoing project continues the work begun in Idaho to assess the influence of motorized and non-motorized backcountry recreation on wolverines. Operating for a second year in the Tetons, this study was featured in a June 2014 article that I missed posting because I was in Mongolia. It’s worth the read, and it’s great to think how much this project has accomplished since it started in 2009. Although this article has a typically controversy-generating headline (“Can wolverines and backcountry skiers coexist?”), the alarm is misplaced. The answer to the question is “yes,” so let’s dispense with the need to get people worked up. The real question revolves around whether either of these snow-obligate species will continue to prosper in the era of diminishing snowpack.

In Washington, researchers recently captured a 30 pound (!) male wolverine, as part of the final season of the decade-long North Cascades wolverine project. The article is fairly detailed and I’d like to focus a little more on this project in a separate post, but in the meantime, four observations. One – that’s an impressively large wolverine! Two, I’m so glad to hear that at least a few people did something interesting on Super Bowl Sunday – not just this year, but last year as well. Three, I’m assuming they named this wolverine “Special K” after the ketamine used in the capture, which betrays a somewhat dark aesthetic on the part of the researchers. Four, and most interesting, it appears that this wolverine is the son of Rocky, the original male occupying the area. Rocky vanished and was replaced by his son, Logan, who has now moved to a different location, apparently displaced by his half-brother Special K – the one named after the drug. Definitely some interesting social interaction data, but it also really piques my interest in how wolverines maintain enough genetic diversity to avoid fatal bottle-necks, since these males are taking over territories that most likely overlap with those of their mothers and/or their sisters.

Also in Washington, a news video and an article with a second video feature work on wolverines near Snoqualmie Pass. This is interesting, but the reporter does the same thing that generally drives me crazy when people talk about wolverines: he equates presence with a reproductive population, stating that wolverines are “moving south in spite of climate change,” which implies that there’s a resident population. I’m excited to see wolverine detections in new locations, but there are two things to keep in mind: first, as I mentioned, a wolverine or two is not necessarily a breeding population, and second, are these detections the result of wolverines moving in to new locations and expanding south, or are we finding them because we now have the motivation and the technology to look in places where we weren’t looking before? (I incline towards the former because I’m invested in the idea that wolverines are recolonizing, but that may just be my bias. It’s a question worth asking. Cameras and DNA make it easier to ‘observe’ the landscape in a sustained way that was unavailable to us until recently.) In any case, it’s nice to see yet another study utilizing Audrey Magoun’s camera technique.

Finally, for Montana residents, if you have ever felt the need to declare your allegiance to the conservation of climate-sensitive wildlife with a license plate for your (hopefully hybrid) car, you can now buy a specialty plate featuring a wolverine. The proceeds benefit the Swan Ecosystem Center and Northwest Connections, environmental groups that help monitor wildlife and work towards ecosystem conservation.

Wolverines may or may not be expanding their range, but interest in wolverines definitely is. It’s exciting to see.






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.









California Wolverine Coverage

The recent sighting of a wolverine by a hiker in California is generating a tremendous amount of interest – visits to this blog were at an all-time high today, and the media is covering the event thoroughly. Here’s a quick collection of recent articles, for people who are interested:

A second segment on the news features a follow-up interview with a California biologist who is hoping to find more gulos in the California backcountry. It’s difficult not to smirk, just a bit, at the comparison of reclusive wolverines to reclusive Hollywood stars – it’s such a stereotypically Californian analogy. But I secretly kind of like it.

The LATimes ran a short opinion piece celebrating the sighting, and the Modesto Bee featured a short article. Further abroad in the press, the sighting made news amongst gamers (perhaps because of X-Men links) and among Christians (hopefully reflecting a sense of responsibility towards god’s creatures.) Possibly linked to the Christian post (although one hopes not, given history….) the website Inquisitr also ran a story. These are all pretty basic, but the press flurry is intriguing, suggesting a gratifying degree of wildlife interest among Californians. I do wonder about the repeated claims that a lone wandering grey wolf makes Canis lupus “the rarest species in California,” (if there’s a single male of each species, aren’t they equivalently rare?) but….oh well.

For more on California’s wolverines, the California Department of Fish and Game has a page with images taken in 2008 by a camera trap set up for a marten study; this is probably the same wolverine – nicknamed “Buddy” – recently seen by the hiker. The US Department of Fish and Wildlife has a sparse page on the original Californian subspecies of wolverine, Gulo gulo luteus, now believed extinct.  Tom Knudsen has a compilation of information about Buddy, although this was posted back in 2009.

Gulo gulo luteus has also garnered some scientific interest from the Rocky Mountain Research Station, featuring in an article on global wolverine genetics; analysis suggests that wolverines in California show more genetic similarities to wolverines in Mongolia than to wolverines in the Rocky Mountains of the US, although this could be due to convergent evolution rather than descent. Another article out of RMRS details the genetic findings on Buddy, showing that he is not a descendent of the historic Sierra population, and articulates that the wolverine represents the first evidence of gulo connectivity between the Sierras and the Rockies.

We’ll have some more news shortly on wolverines in Wyoming and in Mongolia, so check back tomorrow!

Wolverine Event in Bozeman, and California Sighting

On Tuesday, June 12th, at the Emerson Cultural Center in Bozeman, Montana, Steve Gehman of Wild Things Unlimited will give a presentation on his wildlife research in the Gallatin Range. Gaimen has worked in the Gallatins for many years, tracking wolverine and lynx and conducting citizen science educational and research programs; the presentation will cover several decades worth of wolverine work. The presentation is at 7:30, and is free and open to the public.

A lucky hiker in California caught a wolverine on film in May. The wolverine was near Lake Spaulding, close to the place where a male wolverine was caught on a marten camera-trap back in 2008, and re-sighted every year since. It’s probably the same wolverine, although we can always hope that a female found her way out there and that they are even now conspiring to repopulate the Sierras.

Certainly this is better Californian wolverine news than another recent item, which detailed the confiscation of a stuffed gulo from a bar. The officers went to the bar on a report that two stuffed roosters on the wall were California condors; perhaps the sense of aggravation with people’s wildlife-identification skills led to a determination that their time shouldn’t be entirely wasted. They spotted the wolverine, which had been there for 50 years, and took it, along with a red-tailed hawk. If it’s a Sierra wolverine, it might be a useful addition to the DNA database; the wolverines that originally inhabited California appear to have been genetically distinct from the rest of the Western US population. Sierra wolverines were apparently extirpated in the 1930’s. The wolverine sighted there in 2008 has genetics similar to the Idaho population, suggesting that he is not a descendant of the Sierra population, but a disperser from the Rockies.

The Wolverine Week in Review

A small avalanche of articles on wolverines has appeared over the past two weeks. From an enthusiastic write-up of Doug Chadwick’s Canadian tour promoting The Wolverine Way, to two pleas (here, a piece in New West, and here, in National Parks Traveler) for wider protection of the species in the US, to a synopsis in High Country News of new climate change research that suggests that wolverines are facing harder times ahead, to a recap of the adventures of the lone Sierra male, wolverines are becoming more newsworthy day-by-day. Average daily visits to this blog are about twice what they were six months ago, and attendance at wolverine talks in Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming has been standing-room-only for the past ten months. All of this indicates an increased interest, which is gratifying to those of us who have long hoped that the wolverine would gain a more prominent place in our collective awareness.

Sometimes, wider attention can be two-edged, however. Over the past few years, as we’ve prepared to induct the wolverine into the ranks of conservation darlings, I’ve had a few moments of panic over the way in which good intentions could go awry. There’s a thin line between reasoned advocacy and blind enthusiasm, and it’s easy for the former to tip over into the latter. The wolverine needs a constituency, but it needs a constituency that advocates for smart things, in a smart way.

Immediately following the listing decision in December,  the environmentalist reaction to the “warranted but precluded” designation was primarily one of disappointment and reproach. I was particularly taken aback by an editorial that lambasted the decision as “political” and called for immediate listing. I’ve struggled to articulate reasons for my reaction to this piece, because I too would have preferred to see the wolverine listed and offered endangered species protections, even while realizing that the ‘warranted but precluded’ status represents a huge step forward. But, after some reflection, after a lesser resurgence of frustration while reading some of last week’s articles, and partially in reaction to some recent discussions about Montana’s trapping season (about which more to come in later posts), I think it comes down to this:

The environmental movement gained its foothold in the midst of the crises of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and its narrative – its essential script – is always of crisis. Environmental advocates are caught in a perpetual reactive cycle that is fundamentally defensive, combative, and angry. And in order to be defensive and combative, one requires, of course, someone against whom to direct one’s anger – an enemy.

In reacting to the listing decision in December, some people chose to cast the federal government in the role of enemy. There have been murmurs within the environmental advocacy community and the growing wolverine fan base, seeking to assign that role to other groups – to snowmobilers, to trappers, to ranchers. It is to the credit of environmental advocates that none of these narratives of threat have blown up and taken off, but the risk is always there. And it is a risk, for two reasons. First, using any of these potent narratives against a specific identity-based group has the potential to evoke an anti-wolverine reaction from politically powerful people. Take a ten-second glance at the state of wolf conservation, and you will understand why this would be a disaster. Second,  re-enacting the ritual battles of cultural identity that characterize environmental disputes in the West distracts us  from the real issues surrounding wolverine conservation, which are climate change and habitat fragmentation.

This, then, is why calls for listing as a conservation solution for wolverines make my stomach flip. Listing has worked fantastically for a number of species, but it’s as if people have come to believe that putting an animal on the list is the equivalent of having conserved it. That’s not the case. The wolverine could be listed, and it would make little difference to its long-term prospects, because we lack the political and social will to tackle those big, looming issues, and the ESA, which doesn’t allow us to regulate for climate change, gives us no grounds to do so.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t list the wolverine, but that we need to stay focused on substantive as well as symbolic actions. We’ve become so accustomed to fighting for listing as the apotheosis of endangered species conservation that, in some ways, we’re floundering in confusion, and clinging to the comfort of those old successes, as we try to deal with the fact that wolverines – and polar bears, and other species threatened by climate change – call for something above and beyond the predictable strategies that have worked well in the past. We don’t yet know what those solutions will look like, but we know that they will have to be bigger and just as systemic as the problems that necessitate them.

And this brings me back to narratives of combat, crisis, and enemies. If we’re going to tackle these bigger issues, we need alliances, not battle lines. We need to use reasonable federal decisions as a jumping-off point instead of entrenching and employing limited resources to fight the government. We need better data on critical questions about reproduction,  dispersal, and genetic exchange so that we know how to take effective action – which means that we need to fund research and monitoring. We need to guarantee every single wolverine a fighting chance to successfully disperse and reproduce, with as few potential sources of direct mortality as possible. We need instantaneous action on climate change, although – as Synte Peacock’s recent paper on climate modeling in wolverine habitat in the Rockies points out – it may be too late for that already. We need a push for a new conservation narrative, more complex, more sophisticated, and ultimately more successful, that can build alliances for action on those larger issues.

So keep the interest in wolverines high, and keep calling for listing, but let’s make sure that we’re also talking about what we’re going to do beyond that to ensure that the wolverine stays on the ground in the Rockies. There is a crisis, but it’s not a simple crisis with a single solution – it’s worldwide and culturally embedded, and its implications extend far beyond wolverines.

That was something of a rant, and I apologize for any sense of negativity. I deeply appreciate the increasing interest in wolverines and the sincerity behind people’s desire to see it protected. But I hope we can direct energy and resources in the most effective fashion, without getting distracted by protracted legal or media battles unless they are necessary.

To bring things down a notch, I’ll leave off with a series of camera-trap photos from Banff National Park in Canada, which includes some photos of a wolverine gnawing on a moose carcass, and a great action shot of a wolverine in mid-air, chasing a raven. Enjoy.

Strychnine and Consequences

A copy of the Yukon wolf conservation and management plan, written in 1992, fell into my hands today.  On page 3 of the plan, the unintended wider effects of wolf slaughter campaigns in the 20th century are highlighted:

“During the 1920’s, strychnine poisoning of wolves was first allowed in the Yukon….Government poisoning programs started in the 1950’s when up to 154 strychnine poison baits were set out in the southern Yukon each winter. Between 1957 and 1967, a total of about 600 wolves were killed and many other animals were accidentally killed, including more than 150 wolverines.”

Mike Schwartz of the Rocky Mountain Research Station published a paper on wolverine genetics, estimating that the effective population of US Rockies wolverines – that is, the number of wolverines contributing to the gene pool –  is somewhere between 28 and 52 animals. Most of these are in Montana and Idaho. Wyoming holds six or seven known wolverines. Colorado is home to one. We couldn’t lose 150 wolverines, because there are probably barely that many in the US in the first place.

Wolverines are more widespread in northern Canada than they are in the Lower 48, but 150 unintended deaths in the course of a decade still seems substantial. Strychnine and other poisons were widely used in wolf and coyote eradication campaigns in the US, and there is speculation, even beyond the wolverine research community, that the poison baits intended for other predators eliminated wolverines from the US Rockies and the Sierras. The range expansion that we are seeing now, as wolverines make their way to Colorado and California, is, according to this theory, part of a decades-long recolonization process as Canadian and then Montanan wolverines make their way south. In one sense, then, the story of wolverines in the US Rockies in the 21st century is a story of a resilient species making its way home in the wake of astonishingly irresponsible human behavior. And it took little human effort; all we needed to do was stop interfering.