Wolverine goes to school in Yellowknife

In the annals of things-that-only-happen-in-Canada, some lucky middle school students in the city of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, got to see a wolverine, shortly before the school administration placed the entire school on lockdown in fear of an encounter between students and the animal. Despite the sensationalist headlines, the decision was probably good for the well-being of the animal because, let’s face it, being chased around by a horde of middle schoolers is a more alarming experience by far than encountering a wolverine.

Sounding a resolute note of sanity, Fred Sangris, a local Dene trapper, shrugged the incident off, saying that wolverines are to be expected in wolverine habitat, and that the species is not a threat to humans, as attested by thousands of years of indigenous experience, which includes exactly zero incidents of wolverines attacking people. His interview is well worth listening to. The people at Vice, on the other hand, deserve a wolverine let loose to ransack their office, after publishing a silly story about how scared their staff are of “Satan’s lap dogs.” That’s a new one to add to the list of wolverine nicknames; thanks, Vice.

Meanwhile, officials in Yellowknife have set a live trap for the wolverine to remove it from the vicinity of the school. With humans continuing to keep pets and generate garbage and scraps in wolverine habitat, however, it’s likely that the animals will continue to visit the town in the future.

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.






Anthropogenic Influence vs. Habitat Selection – Some Comments

Following a post earlier this week, which included a response to a short news article about a Canadian study, the supervisor of that study was kind enough to contact me to clarify some of the goals and methods of the work. I’m reposting those comments here so that they are highlighted and so that the regular readership of this blog, which I know is primarily interested in the science, is sure to see the comments. I appreciate this conversation and hope that it will be on-going, because this issue of how to sort out habitat selection and anthropogenic influence is key to understanding how we can better protect wolverines:

 Rebecca, thanks for all of your hard work on this blog, I always enjoy it.
 I’m Nikki Heim’s supervisor and the principal on this research. Your question is key: “…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?”.
 The goal of the East Slopes Predators project was to get at this very question. Kananaskis Country (KC) Alberta, where wolverines were scarce, is very nearly as fearsomely rugged as adjacent Banff National Park (BNP), where wolverines were dense. KC has plenty of high-alpine habitat, and prior to 2 decades ago, KC was a provincial icon of wolverine habitat. The major difference between the two (and the reason we selected it for study) is the current magnitude of anthropogenic features: KC has plenty, BNP has comparatively little.
 Critically, our statistical analysis does not conflate anthropogenic footprint and topography – which are not correlated in this study area – but rather parses these two apart. The clear result is that even after accounting for topography and spring snow, anthropogenic footprint plays a key role in explaining wolverine distribution. We obtained this same result in Fisher et al. (2013) from Alberta’s Willmore Wilderness. We now have data on 90+ wolverines, from an area over 20,000 km2, which support the conclusion: even after accounting for topography and persistent spring snow, anthropogenic features best explain wolverine distribution in this vast region.
 I wonder: are wolverines a mountain  & tundra species? They currently live throughout the boreal forest. Historically, they occurred throughout the great plains and mixed transitional forests stretching south of the Great Lakes. Hudson’s Bay data shows hundreds (and more) of animals were taken from these regions very early on in colonization, long before scientists started examining their distribution. Some analyses from the US include these historical data, but not in Canada, where most wolverine were harvested. We are left with a “shifted baseline” to measure against, a common problem in fisheries but less acknowledged in terrestrial ecology.
 I agree there is danger in conflating topography, persistent spring snow, and anthropogenic footprint, but it cuts both ways. Across the continent, persistent spring snow remains where anthropogenic footprint has been least, yet topography and spring snow remain the dominant theory. I wholeheartedly agree that more research is needed to tease apart these two conflated factors, before we settle on snow as an exclusive mechanism.
 Very best regards,
 Jason T. Fisher, BScH MSc PhD
 Senior Research Scientist – Wildlife Ecology
 Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures
 Adjunct Professor
 School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria

With regards to the comments, I have only one point of clarification – as I understand it, there is no evidence that wolverines ever occupied the regions south of the Great Lakes within historical times. Unfortunately the Hudson’s Bay Company’s archives are not yet digitized, so I haven’t seen these trapping records myself, but the American researchers who’ve worked with those records have told me that the records come from trading houses through which pelts passed. Information about the locations of individual pelt origin are not available. This means that wolverine pelts coming through a trading post in, say, Michigan, could easily have come from much further to the north or west. I run into this issue when I do my work in Mongolia, as well; I record a lot of pelts in Ulaanbaatar, but that doesn’t mean that there are wolverines running around the city. It means that that’s where marketable goods from the countryside accumulate and are redistributed to buyers. I also record a number of pelts in locations way out on the steppe, but when questioned, the herders who possess those pelts make it clear that they were generally obtained in more forested or higher elevation areas far from where we sit talking about the pelt in front of us. In the rare cases where they’ve been obtained from the local environs, the species is never referred to as resident; it’s always a case of “it wandered into a wolf trap and this is the only time I’ve seen this animal in 60 years of living here.” Without this detailed contextual information, however, someone 200 years from now, looking only at where I obtained pelt samples, might conclude that wolverine range included places that it actually doesn’t. Maybe there were wolverines in Michigan and the Great Plains 200 years ago, but the trapping records are not, as I understand it, reliable records for determining historical range.

That said, there’s no doubt that there has been range contraction since European colonization, and we are dealing with shifted baselines for just about every species and ecological process that we are trying to understand. The very best book I’ve read about the broad strokes of this process is William Cronon’s “Changes in the Land,” and I highly recommend it for people who want to consider the way in which economic, religious, and political philosophy can alter entire ecosystems in ways that are almost invisible to and unconsidered by subsequent generations – the way that, in essence, thoughts end up shaping landscapes. We’re dealing with the consequences of that to this day.





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.














Canadian Wolverines, Glacier DNA, and a Wildlife Symposium

Last week several hundred people gathered at the Teton Science School in Jackson, Wyoming, for the Jackson Hole Wildlife Symposium, a semi-annual event that addresses the future of wildlife in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Several of the speakers discussed the importance of considering long-range movements of species like wolverines in conservation planning, and I was fortunate enough to have an entire half hour to get up and talk about my favorite subject. The symposium was not open to the public and there was limited registration, with a fee, and sold out early, so I didn’t advertise the event here. But I’ll post an outline of my talk later this week for people who were not able to attend, since the presentation dovetails with a post I’ve been promising to write for some time – themes about the role of science, and particular scientific critiques, that emerged from the listing situation and that conservationists should be attentive to as we move into a world where climate change is a major threat to wildlife.

In the meantime, though, there have been a few wolverine-related news items over the past week or so.

First, Canada is considering listing wolverines as a species of concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Canada maintains extensive trapping seasons on wolverines, and scientists have not observed a population decline, but the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada is concerned about the impacts of increasingly fragmented habitat at the southern extent of the wolverine’s Canadian range, as well as the risk posed by climate change. Listing an animal as a ‘species of concern’ places it in a category that recognizes future threats that might cause a population decline. Species in the midst of a population decline are listed as threatened or endangered, a status of higher concern and more immediate action. The current discussion seems to have been motivated by concerns about wolverines in Nunavut, and hunters and trappers across northern Canada have been asked to submit their comments by January 15th. Here, I have to plead guilty to not being as aware as I should be about how wildlife policy works in Canada, and I don’t know how a listing might effect things like trapping, so I’ll do some research and keep readers posted when I find out more. It will be interesting to see how the listing situation develops in Canada, in comparison to the US.

Second, the results of a multi-year wolverine DNA study in Glacier National Park are in. The study was a low-cost, non-invasive follow-up to Jeff Copeland’s 2003-2008 collar study. From 2009 to 2012, park biologist John Waller and a team of 50 volunteers – including wolverine-in-human-form and author of The Wolverine Way Doug Chadwick – set up grids of baited hair snares across the park, and the hairs were then analyzed for DNA. The number of snares varied by year, but the study identified 17 individual animals in total (six of which were recaptures from the Copeland study), estimating a total population of 36 wolverines within the park. This yields a fairly high average density of 13 animals per 386 square miles (compared to a low of 3.5 wolverines per 386 square miles in the Yellowstone system, and a high of 17 wolverines per 386 square miles in Canada’s Northwest Territories.) The study also revealed that as of 2012, Glacier Park’s ultimate badass wolverine, M3, was still alive, giving some valuable information on a the lifespan of a wild wolverine.

Finally, in the world of captive wolverines, the oil company Phillips 66 is donating $50,000 to the Billings Zoo to build a new wolverine enclosure, as the zoo hopes to exhibit and maybe breed wolverines. Interesting to see an oil company donating money to a zoo for a climate-sensitive species. Phillips 66 is a member of the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying organization that submitted 175 pages worth of oppositional commentary on the wolverine listing decision, so while I always applaud corporate social responsibility – in this case, the Billings refinery spokeswoman expressed a commendable commitment to environmental education – I also respectfully submit that a systems approach to environment and conservation would be more effective.

That’s it for now, but now that I’ve finished up some other major writing work, and interesting wolverine news is astir on the Mongolia front, I’ll be updating more regularly again. In the meantime, if you’re in wolverine country, get out into the mountains, enjoy the winter weather, and let me know if you see any sign of the world’s most inspiring weasel.






Call for Canadian Volunteers

Here’s another short piece from the CBC on Tony Clevenger’s project in British Columbia. They are looking for volunteers to bait camera-and-hair-snare stations. This involves carrying beaver carcasses in to the stations, so it’s not for the squeamish (beaver, according to everyone who deals with wolverines, is the favorite snack food of gulos everywhere.)

Aside from the fact that the project is offering a chance to work on a wolverine research project in a spectacular location, the best part of this article is the comments section. I was struck both by the politeness of Canadian commenters, and the astonishment with which they seemed to greet both the general premise of the piece – many of them thought the entire idea was a joke – and the notion that anyone would volunteer to trek around the wilderness carrying a beaver carcass, without a salary. I fully agree that the environmental field is underfunded and it isn’t fair to assume that we can continue to run research projects on volunteer energy, but in the US enthusiastic amateur scientists seem to be crawling out of the woodwork with time and resources to spare. For those who want to participate but don’t have the academic background or full-time commitment to work on a project in a more in-depth fashion, volunteering offers both the chance for participation, and a focus for being out in the wild.

Of course, I have a selfish motivation for painting things in this light – but more on that in a bit.



Volunteer Opportunities For Winter 2012-2013

Wolverine field season is approaching, and there are a few opportunities for people who are interested in volunteering and/or helping out.

In Canada, Wolverine Watch is looking for backcountry athletes to participate in tracking, and is asking for reports of track and/or wolverine sightings in Banff, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks. There’s some more information here, including information on how to contact project director Tony Clevenger if you want to volunteer.

In the US, Cascadia Wild, based in Portland, Oregon, is offering wolverine tracking workshops on Mt. Hood this winter. Contact information for registration is here.

The Friends of Scotchman Peaks’ on-going wolverine monitoring project is up for funding from Zoo Boise again this year, and they are seeking votes in order to win a grant. You can vote for them at the Zoo Boise site; the deadline in October 28th.

We are still seeking reliable reports – preferably with documentation – of wolverines throughout Wyoming, to gain a better understanding of their distribution in the state. You can report those sightings either here, or by contacting the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative. Laminated pocket-sized wolverine track ID cards will be available this winter at the NRCC office for skiers who want them.

There will doubtless be other opportunities in the US Rockies this winter, so keep in touch with your local conservation organizations. Wolverine “citizen science” is all the rage these days, so there should be plenty of chances to get out and track. (And if anyone wants to make the wolverine-interested public aware of specific programs, let me know; I’ll post them.)

Wolverine weather has descended on the West, and I’ve been caught up in recovering from what we sometimes refer to as “reentry shock,” that annoying process of waking up each morning and remembering that you’re supposed to be speaking English instead of Mongolian. I’ve had some good wolverine-related adventures in the past few days, though, and should be back to updating this blog soon.