Wolverine Presentation in Washington

For those interested in learning more about wolverines in the north Cascades, Dr. Keith Aubry will give a talk about his work on November 5th at 7 pm, at the Adopt A Stream Foundation’s North Stream Center in Snohomish County’s McCollum Park, 600-128th Street SE, Everett WA 98208.  Dr. Aubry conducted the first study of wolverines in the Cascades, and this is a great opportunity to hear about this work. More details are available here.

Other exciting wolverine-related news is in the works, so check back over the next few weeks.


Wolverine Talk in Washington State

Keith Aubry, who runs wolverine research for the Forest Service in the North Cascades, will give a talk next Thursday, September 19th, 7pm, at the Northwest Stream Center in McCollum Park, Everett, Washington. The talk will cover his seven years of work on wolverines in Washington, including last year’s discovery of the region’s first documented reproductive dens. Attending the talk requires advance registration and a ticket. Details can be found here.

My talk last week in Jackson went well – the Jackson Hole Bird and Nature club comprises a great group of dedicated naturalists and scientists, and it was a pleasure to talk to such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience. I also appreciated the fact that a number of people who showed up for a misadvertised geology talk stuck around to learn about wolverines instead.

Over the course of the past several years, Jason Wilmot, Jeff Copeland, Gianna Savoie, and Doug Chadwick have been periodically involved in a series of talks about wolverine science and conservation. Much of their effort focused on introducing the species to the public, talking about basic biology and ecology, coaching people on how to ID the animal and its tracks, outlining threats and conservation challenges, and emphasizing the climate change issues. As I put together my talk, I had to make some choices about how to balance the “This is a Wolverine and Here’s Why It’s Amazing” theme with the “Here’s What I Do in Mongolia, and Here’s Why It’s Important” theme. In an effort to assess how much background I needed to give, I gave the audience a quick quiz at the beginning of the talk. I was struck by the fact that they knew all the answers, which left me free to move on to the story of working on wolverines in Mongolia. Admittedly this was a group of naturalists, but I wonder whether we’ve now moved to a second phase in conveying information about the species. Maybe all those earlier efforts have paid off, and we have a more broadly educated wolverine constituency? I certainly hope so.

Many thanks again to all those who came to the talk.




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.

Haplotype C in the Cascades

The Cascades have a new female wolverine. She was camera-trapped in the Chiwaukum Mountains in the Weenatchee National Forest, about 100 miles northeast of Mount Ranier. DNA analysis suggests that she is not related to any of the wolverines yet recorded in the Cascades. The analysis also confirmed that, like other Cascades wolverines, her haplotype is C, which, in a 2007 study by the Rocky Mountain Research Station, was found only in wolverines from the Northwest Territories and Alberta, Canada. Here’s an excerpt from the project’s explanation of why the presence of this haplotype might be important:

Halotypes are a part of the DNA that can tell us a bit about the evolutionary history of the animal. All of the wolverines recorded in the North Cascades to date are halotype C. This halotype does not occur in the Rocky Mountains, where extensive genetic research has occurred on their wolverine populations. Because of this, researchers believe that our Cascades’ wolverine population comes from the north not the east, and that our Washington Cascades’ population is genetically unique from other US wolverine populations.

Look at a map, and this seems logical; the Canadian Rockies make a perfect travel corridor for wolverines dispersing into Washington. The fact that this wolverine is a female, at the southernmost tip of known resident wolverine distribution in Washington, is interesting, particularly if she is unrelated to other Cascades wolverines. Some people have suggested that female wolverines don’t disperse over the same distances as males, that they inevitably occupy territories as close to their mothers as possible; this wolverine might suggest that the hypothesis of more home-bound females is incorrect. It might also suggest that there are undetected wolverines in the Cascades, and that she is related to one of them. Either (or both) could be true. I’m curious about the haplotypes of the wolverines detected in northern Idaho, since they, too, could be easily influenced by animals from the Canadian Rockies, but are also in very close proximity to the Glacier population in Montana.

For people who enjoy the occasional visual of a wolverine, here’s a short video of a wolverine feeding on a brown bear carcass in Alaska. This is on a hunting site, and I had to endure an advertisement for four-wheelers before getting to the wolverine, but there’s some reasonable footage of the wolverine running, illustrating that unique gulo gait that might help you determine that you’re looking at a wolverine if you see one in the field.

For people looking for a consistent social-media stream of wolverine images, I’d also suggest “liking” the Scandinavian Lynx Project’s facebook page. In addition to images of wolverines, you’ll get some insight into how wolverines are interacting with the rest of their ecosystem in Scandinavia. And also, of course, don’t forget to “like” the Mongolian Wildlife and Climate Change Project’s facebook page, where updates on my own work in Mongolia will be posted.

note: In an earlier version of this post, I stated that this was the southernmost confirmed sighting in Washington. Wolverines have been confirmed near Mt Adams, which is further to the south – for some reason, I tend to confuse Mt. Hood, which is in Oregon, with Mt. Adams, which is in Washington. This wolverine has been sighted as recently as January of 2012. Thanks to Jocelyn Akins for some updated info on the Mt. Adams work. 

Wolverines Breeding in North Cascades

Last month, the North Cascades wolverine project confirmed – after six years of diligent work – that wolverines are breeding in the region. Mallory and Xena, two of the project’s female wolverines, denned this year. The two females localized, researchers noted the localization via telemetry, and then flew in to set camera traps. Xena was recorded with a kit in her mouth, and they expect similar confirmation soon for Mallory. Rocky, the mate that the two females share, has been visiting both dens.

The article mentions natal and maternal dens. A natal den is the den in which a wolverine gives birth. She generally moves the kits to a den at a higher elevation after several weeks. A wolverine may have multiples maternal dens, generally close to each other, before moving the kits to a series of rendezvous sites later in the summer. We’re not sure what prompts a female to move from a natal to a maternal den, or from one maternal den to another. Disturbance could account for some movements, but more likely the shifts in quarters usually have to do with snow melt, kit growth and weaning, and the amount of refuse accumulating in the den.

The fact that it took the North Cascades project six years to confirm that their wolverines are actually resident – that is, a reproducing population – is noteworthy. It took the Absaroka-Beartooth Project six years to document a reproduction within the project area as well. This might serve as a useful guideline in conceptualizing the timelines for wolverine projects, especially in marginal areas or areas at the edges of known distribution.

In other news, an article about the Colorado wolverine reintroduction plans appeared last week in theSummit County Citizens Voice. The article addresses the fact that a reintroduction – tentatively proposed several years ago – is on hold. I’m flattered that the article provides a link to my blog, but I also want to clarify a point made in the article. The reporter states:

“A tentative state plan to reintroduce the mountaineering omnivores is on hold at least until the federal government decides whether to list the species as threatened or endangered. Opposition from the ski industry and ranchers played a key role in putting the brakes on the proposed restoration.”

The ski industry and ranchers have, as I understand it, voiced some concerns, but they are not the major reason for the delay. Anyone involved in reintroduction plans for an ESA candidate species would be far wiser to step back until the species’ status had been determined, since an ESA listing would create very different conditions and requirements than would occur under a non-listing scenario. With a definite date set for a final listing decision (by the end of 2013), it makes far more sense to wait for that decision than to try to proceed. The delay isn’t due to anyone’s recalcitrance, and given the likely logistical complexities of a reintroduction, wolverines wouldn’t be on the ground before that date even without a necessary wait for the ESA decision.

So far, in my admittedly limited exposure to the plans for Colorado, I’ve been impressed by how enthusiastic everyone seems. There are currently no good guys and no bad guys, just people voicing legitimate concerns amidst the uncertainty of the listing situation. If wolverine reintroduction in Colorado does go forward, I hope that the conservation advocacy community will take the opportunity to forge a process that is as conflict-free as possible. A key component of this process will involve taking a step back from “easy” conservation narratives that create division and point fingers at groups that will then – logically – become angered and more polarized. Wolverines really aren’t a threat to any special interest group, they have a broad appeal, their impact on the ski industry is likely to be minimal since a tiny (c. 1%) proportion of denning habitat is located within ski areas, and they don’t kill livestock except in very exceptional circumstances. With the right messaging, everyone should support wolverine conservation. A Colorado reintroduction should be about wolverines, not about honing identity-based conflicts that have been inherent in other wildlife conservation situations in the West.

That said, it’s always good to see gulos getting coverage. I don’t want to be too harsh, and I appreciate the attention to wolverines.

Speaking of attention to wolverines, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta, is hosting an art exhibition featuring species and landscapes found along the Yellowstone-to-Yukon corridor. Wolverines and pikas are among the animals making an appearance. It’s great to see art and conservation intersecting in this way. The show runs from June to November of 2012.

Also in the wolverine media world, a special on the Michigan wolverine will air on ABC on Saturday, May 26th- 1:00-1:30 pm, Sunday, May 27th, 6:30-7:00 am, and Monday, May 28th, 2:05-2:35am. This is probably only available in Michigan, but hopefully the rest of us will be able to see it online.

Wolverine the Creator

Here’s a brief legend about Wolverine the Creator, from the Innu tribe of Quebec:

” Long ago, Kuekuatsheu [wolverine] built a big boat like Noah’s Ark, and put all the various animal species in it. There was a great deal of rain and the land was flooded. He told the mink to dive into the water to retrieve some mud and rocks, which he mixed together to make an island. This island is the world which we presently inhabit along with all the animals.”

I took this from an article in the Boise Weekly about a Jeff Copeland lecture last week. Unfortunately I didn’t know about the lecture beforehand, or I would have publicized it, but the legend is nice. ‘Kuekuatsheu’ is the word from which one of the animal’s French names, ‘caracajou,’ derives; early French trappers in Quebec knew the animal by its Innu name and adapted it to a French pronunciation.

Closer to home, a writer in Washington state had an encounter with a wolverine in the Cascades, and if the author of the post wasn’t impressed enough to consider the wolverine a Creator God, the degree of excitement was a near miss. It’s nice to see people so amped up about gulos.

Closer still, dogs treed a wolverine in a campground just south of Glacier National Park. The wolverine, which the campground caretaker speculated was a young animal, was unhurt and later left the area. It might have been a dispersing juvenile who happened into the campground, but in any case, it’s further evidence that attractants such as garbage should be managed carefully at campground – not just for the sake of bears, but for wolverines as well.

Related to issues facing the wolverine, a recent study suggests that the consequences of species loss to climate change may be greater than originally thought. Up to a third of all species may go extinct, but even within species that remain, up to 80% of genetic diversity may be lost. In the case of wolverines, we might see this if gulos remained on the landscape in the Arctic, but populations with unique haplotypes were lost as populations further south died off. Mongolian wolverines, for example, possess an apparently unique haplotype (mng1) that would disappear if wolverines were knocked out of mountain ranges at the southern margin of their range. In turn, this would reduce the genetic diversity of the species as a whole, reducing options for the remaining wolverines and eventually leading to genetic bottlenecking and perhaps extinction further down the road. Not a happy thought, for wolverines or for the other species who might be affected.

And finally – just to end on a happier, although not-entirely-gulocentric, note – a grizzly bear with two cubs has been sighted near Shelby, Montana – the furthest east of any grizzly since they were nearly wiped out in the 19th century. The fact that the bear is a female is significant; like wolverines, a female bear tends to adopt a territory close to her mother’s, which means that the benchmark of population expansion is reproductive females (as opposed to the more wide-ranging young males.) Hopefully this bear and her cubs will stay out of trouble and continue to boost the grizzly population and range.

Wolverines Beyond the Greater Yellowstone

Wolverines made it onto NPR two days ago, with a short feature about projects in Washington and Idaho. The story offers solid, accurate information about two research endeavors to which I’ve dedicated far too little attention on this blog; the Pacific Northwest Research Station’s North Cascades Project, and the Forest Service/Idaho Snowmobile Association Central Idaho Wolverine-Winter Recreation Study. (More information about both these projects can be found on the Wolverine Foundation’s research page.)

As an aside, when I started this blog, I thought I was dealing with a manageable subject – after all, it’s not like I decided to cook my way through someone’s 1000-page cookbook every day for a year, or try to follow politics, or document my kids, my love life, or something else that’s ongoing and perpetually in front of me. Wolverines are one of the rarest critters on the face of the planet. How much news can a rare animal generate? I figured it would be just enough for one well-written, thoughtful post a week.

As it turns out, wolverine news, like wolverine attitude, seems to be out of proportion to the animal itself. Or maybe I just love the subject enough to delve as deeply as possible into limited information. In any case, I find things slipping by me, planned posts going unwritten, and deserving information being neglected. The neglect says nothing about my opinion of the projects or information, only about my ability to manage my time. With that in mind, I’ll try to summarize below a few interesting stories from beyond my Greater Yellowstone/Mongolia bubble. I’ve been following these, and meaning to mention them, for a bit.

In February of 2010, the North Cascades wolverine study captured a young female that they nicknamed Eowyn. She left the region shortly afterward, earning attention as her journey took her 150 miles to the north, into British Columbia. Her journey was longer than those of most females, and biologists were tracking her progress as she looped back south towards Washington, covering at least 300 miles in total.

Then, in April or May, Eowyn apparently got on the wrong side of a cougar, perhaps by feeding on its kill. Her skull was found buried with deer remains; cougar scat, along with the collar, was nearby. The skull appeared to have been punctured or crushed. We know that young wolverines die in encounters with other predators, that despite their reputation for being able to scare a bear from a kill, it takes not only raw gulo courage, but sheer luck to come out on top in that sort of encounter. Eowyn’s luck was up. The death was disappointing for fans who were following her progress, and repeated a pattern that seems an essential part of the wolverine researcher’s life: catch an animal, come to know and respect its individuality, maybe even experience awe at its feats. Pin your hopes on this animal, pour your spirit into rooting for her or him, and then – the animal is killed. Or it disappears. This happens to a disproportionate number of research animals, especially dispersing juveniles, emphasizing how dangerous the world is for a young wolverine.

Earlier this year, the wolverine biologists on the North Cascades project caught another female, nicknamed Mattie. They believe she might be pregnant, although the article doesn’t specify why they think so. If she is, her kits would be the first documented wolverine reproduction in the Cascades – again, contingent on being able to confirm that she denned and produced young, the notoriously elusive holy grail of wolverine research. It’s exciting to think that we might have another confirmed breeding population of wolverines in the Lower 48. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Mattie as well as F3.

In addition to the winter recreation study in central Idaho, Idaho Fish and Game is undertaking another study in the Cabinet Mountains of northern Idaho. They are trying to assess wolverine population in this region, although so far their array of camera traps and bait stations haven’t detected any wolverines (they’ve gotten some great pictures of fishers, though.) Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness is partnering with IDFG to provide volunteers for this project. We frequently get questions about how people can volunteer on wolverine research, and unfortunately there are few opportunities. But if you live in northern Idaho, you might be in luck, so check it out.

If you prefer to experience gulo research vicariously, Doug Chadwick will also be speaking in northern Idaho in March, with talks on the 17th in Sandpoint, the 18th in Trout Creek, and the 19th in Troy.

Also from last week’s gulo news, an article appeared in a Colorado newspaper with the disappointing headline “State has no plans to bring back wolverine.” The article can only be read if you have a subscription to the paper, so lest people are convinced by the headline that the Colorado reintroduction plan is scrapped, this is simply a case of a poorly-chosen and misleading title. The article states that plans for wolverine reintroduction are subject to legislative approval and to a thorough consultation with all stakeholders, and that therefore we are unlikely to see wolverines on the ground this year. Since we always knew that this was a proposal that would work over a longer timeline, and that the earliest date for wolverines on the ground was likely to be 2012, the article offers no surprises, and simply reaffirms Colorado’s commitment to considering the social and political process.

Finally, from even further afield, Igor Shpilenok, the Russian conservationist whose photos of wolverines in the wilds of Kamchatka have impressed every gulo fan who’s seen them, has posted a couple of new images on his blog, here and here. Shpilenok manages to capture the spirit of these animals – he gets the intelligence, the curiosity, the toughness, the mystique, and even some of the vulnerability of the species, frequently all in the same shot. He’s an amazing photographer (his work, beyond wolverines, is worth a serious, long look.) Previously, I posted translations of some of his posts; in those accompanying these new photos, he simply mentions that it’s his birthday, and that he considers seeing the wolverine an excellent gift.