Updates, Uncertainty, a Couple of Bears, and a Moose

Once in a while, the whole world implodes.

About three months ago, I started the process required to get a study visa in order to return to Mongolia. I am at the point where I have to do this, for various complicated bureaucratic reasons, the details of which I will spare my readers. When I left Mongolia in June, I anticipated a nice month in the States catching up with family and friends, picking up cameras and supplies for the wolverine/snow leopard project in the Darhad, and heading back to get the project started. Through a series of circumstances, however, the visa application – a single step from completion – fell through, and I found myself stuck in Bozeman, Montana, while I tried to figure out if I could return to the country this year. As places to be stuck go, Bozeman is lovely, but the state of mind generated by the total uncertainty about what you will be doing a month in the future is not. If there’s a kryptonite to the sort of personality that enjoys running around in the mountains chasing wildlife and writing about it, it’s bureaucracy. The past few weeks have passed in a haze of paralysis over how to sort all of this out, what to do with regards to the camera project (I had planned on being in the Darhad working with the protected areas’ rangers as of last week, and time is getting short), and so on. I don’t need to bore anyone with the details, but it’s also not a very good mental place from which to spin engaging narratives about one’s pursuits in the world of wildlife research. So the blog has been hibernating. I’m close to resolution, though, so hopefully (although this is still an optimistic interpretation) I will soon be reporting on my pursuit of wolverines and snow leopards from Mongolia.

In the meantime, though, I’ve been hiking up into the Bridgers to retrieve camera traps that I set up there this past winter and spring, in affiliation with the Forest Service, and with the WCS wolverine project, whose director Bob Inman was good enough to loan me some of the parts to make the stations. I haven’t written much about this endeavor here on the blog, but I wanted to test my cameras before taking them to Mongolia, and the wolverine status of the scattered, so-called island ranges of Montana remains relatively uncertain. The Crazies, to the east of the Bridgers, would have been my preferred range to test, but lacking a four wheel drive vehicle (yes, I’m still driving a car better suited to the streets of Boston than the back roads of Montana….) I had to settle for a more accessible site. The Bridger range is very small, tiny in wolverine terms, and could probably hold one, or at most two, reproductive females. I doubted that we would find any wolverines, but I was curious to see what might turn up (and exactly how much effort it takes for a single individual to run a wolverine camera trapping endeavor across even a small swath of the landscape.) In February, I set up five cameras, two on the east side of the range and two on the west side, all just below the ridge. I set up a fifth camera in the Bangtails, the rolling, low range just to the east of the Bridgers, where a woman had taken a photo of a wolverine while mountain biking last year. I took down two of the cameras in mid-March, shortly before I departed for Mongolia, but the other three remained in place until early July.

As expected, I did not detect any wolverines – this doesn’t mean that they aren’t there, though, because there were a number of things about the study that were not optimal for wolverine detection. In a more focused update, I’m going to write more about what I learned about wolverine camera trapping from this project, but in the meantime, here are some images that did turn up, and that I particularly enjoyed as they popped up when I was sorting through thousands and thousands of photos of carnivorous squirrels.


Ghost bear in the Bridgers. I was taken aback by this photo when I first saw it, but the camera exposure can substantially invert or alter tone, so despite early hopes that I’d discovered a rogue polar bear population in Montana, this is a black bear. (The trees on which I set up these cameras were too close together, one of those lessons that I’ll discuss soon, but ideally you should be able to see the run pole and the ground beneath it, to record visits of animals that don’t climb the run pole.)


This may be the same bear, several days later, paying a visit with her cub.


This critter contemplated the bones for several frames, displaying only its ears, and I was worried that it would never give me a portrait so that I could tell whether it was an elk or a moose.


Luckily it did eventually reveal its identity – and took advantage of the wolverine apparatus to scratch its nose.



Oregon Cascades Wolverines

Three weeks ago, my sister and I climbed Mount St. Helens. From the top, the view was spectacular, volcanic peaks floating above swells of forested country in all directions. Wolverines could easily be living in the area, but although there are records and anecdotal sightings from the Washington Cascades, wolverines have not been documented in the Oregon Cascades. This winter, using the camera-trap methodology that Audrey Magoun employed in the Wallowas in eastern Oregon, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and several other organizations will survey for wolverines in the region around Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson, and the Three Sisters.

As Audrey Magoun says in an article about the project, “Nobody thought we’d find them in the Wallowas, but we did…If Jamie [McFadden, project leader] finds wolverines in the Cascades, so close to a large human population, it will be way bigger news.”

This project is one of a range of wolverine surveys that are using camera traps to try to document wolverine presence across the Western US and into Canada. Some of these efforts are working through state wildlife departments, some are cooperative efforts between state agencies and wildlife conservation or advocacy groups, and some are pure citizen science efforts. The explosion in wolverine work through camera trapping and track surveys and citizen science in general is a little dizzying, and has left me wondering about how best to harness all the enthusiasm to ensure that the results are as scientifically useful as possible and that they reach decision makers. In efforts such as the Oregon project above, the involvement of the state wildlife department will accomplish that, but with the numerous disparate efforts elsewhere, I wonder if there’s room for more discussion about how to maximize the utility of the data. With a wide-ranging species that inhabits the west as one interconnected meta-population, a lot of localized, independent efforts risk yielding data of only limited use. Maybe we should create an opportunity for all of these projects to communicate with each other about study design, methodology, and results. Opinions on the topic would be welcome.

Controversy, Camera Traps, and Unlikely Love in Michigan: A Review of “The Lone Wolverine”


The Pretty Girl emerges from obscurity with the help of science teacher Jeff Ford, as documented in “The Lone Wolverine.” Photo copyright Jeff Ford.


The Lone Wolverine: Tracking Michigan’s Most Elusive Animal. Elizabeth Phillips Shaw and Jeff Ford. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor. 2012.

The Lone Wolverine begins with an ending – the discovery in early 2010 of Michigan’s only known free-living wolverine dead in a ditch – and the rest of the book is tinged with a sense of impending loss. The sense of loss is oddly elliptical, because before this wolverine appeared, Michigan had no wild wolverines, and after she was gone, it returned to wolverine-free status with no actual loss to global wolverine populations. Instead of sadness at the implications for the species – the sort of chronic depression with which conservation biologists cope every day – the sadness is for the loss of a unique relationship between an individual man and an individual wolverine.

At the core of the story is Jeff Ford, a high school science teacher who, along with his friends Steve Noble and Jason Rosser, conceived a plan to track and photograph a wolverine that showed up in the Michigan Thumb in 2004. Although the Michigan Department of Natural Resources confirmed that the animal was a wolverine and issued a rapid order protecting her from harm, they remained unable to invest in documenting her activities, and Ford and his colleagues’ initiative alone provided the impetus – and funding – to gain insight into her life. Over the next six years, Ford used baited camera traps to photograph and video the animal, and tracked her through the boggy terrain of the Minden City State Game Area. He wrote a series of articles for the popular press, keeping interest in the animal alive. Initiating contact with the wolverine research community, he read through the wolverine science and painstakingly collected DNA samples for the scientific community. A heart condition requiring two surgeries slowed him, but nevertheless he returned to hauling venison to the camera site a scant few weeks after his operation. By the time the wolverine’s body was discovered by hikers, Ford had become the wolverine’s protector, spokesperson, and amateur scientist in his own right. Following her death, the book and an upcoming Michigan-wide tour will allow Ford to continue educating people about their state animal.

Despite Michigan’s renown as the Wolverine State, the species has been extinct there for at least 200 years, making the appearance of this animal especially startling. Did she disperse naturally from Ontario? Or was she a released captive of Alaskan genetic stock? The question of his gulo’s origin drove much of Ford’s work, particularly his quest to obtain DNA samples in order to ascertain both sex and source population. In the first endeavor, the evidence was conclusive – the Michigan wolverine was a female – but in the second, the evidence was not. The question of the origin of Ford’s “pretty girl,” as he called her, remains a subject of controversy. Despite placing this controversy at the heart of the narrative, the book doesn’t resolve the question, nor does it really explore the complicated methodological issues surrounding wildlife genetics research, relying instead primarily on Ford’s explanations and copies of email correspondence between Ford and wolverine researchers.

As disappointing as this is to a scientist whose obsessions lie in educating the public about nuance and uncertainty and all the gritty details of wolverine research, the treatment of the controversy highlights the fact that this is not a book about hard science. It’s the story of Jeff Ford and a tough little wolverine who stuck it out in a tiny home territory, hemmed in on all sides by people (and raccoons, not to mention a pack of carnivorous hares that sound worthy of Monty Python), for six years. If the book isn’t a scientific work, it  does succeed as a story of outdoorsmen and their passionate relationship with landscape and wildlife.  The book is oriented towards this audience, and just as Ford’s popular press articles served an important purpose in reaching a constituency beyond the research community, this book reaches out to people unlikely to read scientific papers and who might shy away from self-proclaimed “environmentalist writing,” but who would be interested in reading about a hunter who used his backwoods skills to orchestrate a monitoring project that no one else was willing to take on.

As a book about individual characters, the story contains some highlights, aside from Ford, Noble, and Rosser. The coyote hunters who first spotted strange tracks in February of 2004 and set their dogs onto those tracks, thinking they might be after a cougar, deserve special mention. When Aaron and Ryan Shenk finally realized what they were chasing, word of the discovery spread, and by the time they treed the wolverine after an hours-long chase, other hunters, snowmobilers, and curious onlookers had arrived, vying for a glimpse and a photo of the animal. Several people in the crowd wanted to shoot the wolverine, but the Shenk brothers, exercising the prerogative of the hunters who had discovered her, forbade it; instead, they called the Michigan DNR, resulting in confirmation of the animal’s identity, and an immediate order protecting her. Ethical hunters with an interest in protecting rare wildlife are too often ignored in environmentalist circles, which tend to focus on poachers and unethical hunters. The Shenk brothers deserve recognition and credit for their role in this story.

Wolverine biologist Audrey Magoun and Wolverine Foundation director Judy Long also play important roles in the story, Long through her role as facilitator of contacts and information transfer, and Magoun through her open-mindedness to the potential contributions of an enthusiastic novice (full disclosure: I have communicated extensively with Judy Long and the Wolverine Foundation, and worked for three weeks in 2011 with Audrey Magoun as an apprentice to her camera-trapping study in Oregon, so I too have been in the role of enthusiastic novice in relation to these individuals.) Although all of these relationships experienced moments of stress – circumspectly referenced – they touch on the heart of an unarticulated but important theme of the book: the interface of citizen and professional science. If not for Ford’s initiative, the pretty gulo girl of the Michigan Thumb would remain nothing more than a confirmed wolverine outside of known range, with no DNA samples gathered, no information on her sex or age, and substantially less knowledge about wolverine biology and ecology among the Michiganders who followed Ford’s work. Despite some issues around scientific protocol – which probably seem arcane to outsiders but are absolutely critical within the profession – his contribution stands. And if citizen scientists like Jeff Ford are capable of making valuable contributions to work on rare and elusive species, the book pushes scientists and outdoorsmen to build a better process for navigating the interface of enthusiasm, methodological rigor, and communication with the public. Ford and the wolverine community were all in unexplored territory, but the glitches and the successes of their collaboration should help generate discussion of how to build on shared interests and passions.

The wolverine herself is, of course, the most important character in the book – next to Ford – and in true gulo character, she tantalizes us with brief glimpses and trickster antics. With a home range of barely 6500 acres, she survived in a tiny area in comparison to wolverines further north. Supplemental feeding probably helped keep her within the confines of the protected area, but she still disappeared several times, for days or weeks, before reappearing again at the camera site. She and Ford engaged in an intellectual tug-of-war as Ford sought ways to anchor the bait, test her ingenuity, and make it harder for her to vanish with her prize. She quickly solved each challenge, whether it involved freeing the bait from a cable or moving a 100-pound log to dig up venison buried beneath. Her obsession with caching food is evidence of a gulo survival strategy that relies on keeping meat cool and protected from other scavengers. Ford also caught on video a series of interactions with a local tribe of raccoons that were plundering the bait until the wolverine pinned one to the ground to demonstrate who was in charge. After that, the raccoons either hung back, or, dominance issues sorted out, occasionally fed side-by-side with her. Once in a while, she was videoed tossing an old bone or two around for fun. Wherever she came from, she was getting along pretty well in the woods, echoing Ford’s own love of being outdoors. After her death, an autopsy confirmed that she had never borne kits, and suggested that she was about nine years old when she died. Her cause of death was the same heart condition for which Ford himself had had surgery a year before, adding a spooky resonance to a description of Ford’s relationship with the animal: “They were the same.”

As a record of an anomalous, intriguing event in the annals of wolverine research, the book is valuable and fascinating. As an account of a unique relationship between a man and a wild animal, the tale is inspiring, providing an emotional core to a story that might otherwise succumb to occasional stylistic issues. As a narrative of the contributions of committed citizen scientists, the volume could serve as a ‘how-to’ manual, and as an implicit exploration of the relationship between citizen scientists and professional scientists, the book prompts us to think more broadly about the potential research role of interested and skilled constituencies. For wolverine enthusiasts, the book is well worth the read as an accessible window into the life of a single wolverine and the man who dedicated six years of his life to documenting her existence, and will undoubtedly become an important work in the limited canon of popular books about the species.


Wolverines in the New Year

Just in time for the new year, the January 2012 issue of Smithsonian features a short piece about Keith Aubry’s work in Washington, briefly documenting the adventures of the Cascades’ contingent of wolverines – Xena, Rocky, Chewbacca, Melanie, and Sasha. These wolverines have huge territories, among the largest ever reported for North American wolverines. The article suggests that in two possible mated pairs, the females have larger territories than the males (Xena covers 760 square miles to Chewbacca’s 730, and Melanie defends 560 square miles compared to Rocky’s 440), which seems the inverse of the usual observation that male territories are larger than female territories. The usual ratio is roughly two female territories to every male territory, which means that two (or sometimes more) females share a mate. The researchers haven’t proven that reproduction is occurring in the Cascades, so these animals, even if they overlap with each other, may  be young animals still exploring the world and not yet defending a true territory. Or we may simply not know enough to make any kind of generalization about how female and male wolverines behave when they are in different environments and circumstances.

So what else does the new year hold for wolverines? 2012 will see more wolverine studies in more locations in the US than ever before – long-term monitoring of wolverines in the Greater Yellowstone region continues for the animals originally collared by the Absaroka-Beartooth project, and for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wolverines. Round River Conservation continues research on the interface between wolverines and winter recreation in Idaho, expanding the study from McCall to Stanley and Fairfield, while further to the north, Idaho Fish and Game, in collaboration with various conservation organizations, launches a second season of camera-trapping for wolverines in the Selkirk, Cabinet, and Purcell ranges. In Oregon, Audrey Magoun and the Oregon Department of Fish and Game are constructing camera trap bait stations across the Wallowa mountains for a second season of work that will hopefully reveal a resident population; the three males photographed this past spring represent the first documentation of wolverines in the range, and if the cameras capture a nursing female this year, it will be the first evidence of a breeding population in the state since the species was declared extirpated in 1936. A camera trap project in Oregon’s Cascades will seek to document wolverines further to the west, while the Cascades Carnivore Project monitors wolverines (among other species) in the Washington Cascades. This means that at least eight projects (there may be more; I’m not sure about the status of the Glacier National Park DNA and camera study) are working on wolverines in the US. Internationally, Canada, Sweden, and Norway continue research on wolverines, and 2012 will see the set-up of camera traps in Mongolia.

2011 was a big year for wolverines. The momentum from the 2010 listing decision and the attention from the PBS wolverine documentary and Doug Chadwick’s book contributed to an increase in public awareness of the species. The discovery of wolverines in the Wallowa mountains in Oregon generated excitement. The launch of three non-invasive, camera and DNA-based studies – one in Oregon, one in Glacier, and one in Idaho – point to the new direction that wolverine research is taking: easier on the animal, and (somewhat) less labor intensive for the people, who have known from the beginning that trying to keep up with this animal is an impossible aspiration.

For me, the year began in Cambodia, contemplating ways to mitigate climate change effects, proceeded to Mongolia for a summer of tracking wolverines through the Altai and Sayan mountains, and wound down in Oregon, where I was privileged to have the opportunity to participate in the Wallowa work. I hope that the coming year holds just as much adventure for everyone, and that 2012 is full of good things for wolverines, wolverine researchers, and wolverine fans everywhere. Thanks to the blog’s readership and to everyone who supports wolverine research and conservation, and Happy New Year!

More Wolverine News

I find myself newly (and happily) initiated into the world of wolverine camera-trapping – more about that later, but in the meantime, check out Yale Environment360‘s recent article on camera-traps as conservation tools. The piece provides an overview of how camera traps are used worldwide to learn about species as diverse as pygmy hippos, African golden cats, and giant muntjacs. Wolverines also get a brief mention.

Equally exciting, a new article in the Journal of Wildlife Management summarizes the findings of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s multi-year Yellowstone Ecosystem wolverine project. I haven’t had a chance to read more than the abstract, but the findings are explored (albeit briefly) in articles in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and at Mongabay.  I’m looking forward to reading the article itself, especially since it brings some attention to habitat requirements at the southern edge of wolverine range – which has implications for work on the species in Mongolia. I’m also in the middle of reading through a new thesis about wolverine-lynx interactions in Sweden and Norway, which offers another set of insights into gulo requirements in a very different habitat. So it should make for an interesting comparison.

Finally, I try to avoid politics on this blog, but Dan Rather recently stated that, “Newt Gingrich on the move politically is as dangerous as a wounded wolverine.” I have to take issue with this.  Newt doesn’t deserve the compliment, and wolverines don’t deserve the insult. Please, Mr. Rather, let’s start a trend of speaking more respectfully of our wolverine compatriots if we’re going to bring them into politically symbolic public discourse. At the very least, no one should be compared to a wolverine if they don’t look like they could actually climb a mountain.