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.









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.

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.

Gulo Monitoring Through Citizen Science

In a follow-up to a New York Times article about citizen science among the outdoor adventure community, the Times‘ “Green blog published a great interview with Wild Things Unlimited’s director Steve Gehman, who has been tracking wolverines and lynx and organizing citizen science workshops in Montana for 15 years. I appreciated the first article and thought it was well-written, interesting, and accurate, but I was really pleased to see the interview because it focuses on some scientific particulars that the article was unable to address in detail.

I’ve never met Steve Gehman but his approach to research provides an interesting counterpoint to more technology-heavy work. Collaring studies are vital to learning more about wolverines, but for many reasons, they aren’t always feasible. When I began thinking about how to gather data on Mongolian wolverines, I knew that anything requiring a wildlife vet, a big budget, and lots of technology was out – in other words, for logistical and financial reasons, the kind of project I’d been involved with in the Yellowstone region would be impossible to duplicate in Mongolia. Mongolians, however, have a resource that we don’t: a human population that lives in wolverine habitat and knows wildlife in extraordinary detail. I needed a way to leverage low-tech human power and sophisticated local environmental knowledge, and mix it with a few targeted, high-tech, non-invasive tools like DNA analysis, camera traps, and GIS. Reading this interview, it’s clear that I should have gotten in touch with Steve Gehman, whose goals are similar and who has been working to create the critical element that America lacks in this scenario: a corps of individuals with reliable local knowledge of wildlife. I particularly respect his interest in creating a program that minimizes the stress on the animals he’s studying, while also building support and knowledge for conservation.

The objective of creating an inexpensive, scientifically robust monitoring project based on wildlife-smart laypeople and non-invasive technology shines on the horizon of wolverine research, but we’re still moving towards that horizon. We haven’t arrived yet, and despite growing attention to citizen science, we have a few more mountains to cross before we get there. Audrey Magoun’s meticulous work with camera traps and DNA has broken ground on the use of non-invasive methods, but aside from presence-absence data, we haven’t yet quantified what we can learn from general tracking surveys and collection of DNA samples by citizen scientists, let alone how to apply that knowledge to management. Finding wolverine tracks in a mountain range suggests presence, for example, but does the presence mean that the range is occupied, or that a wolverine is simply passing through? Are wolverines reproducing in that range, and if so, how many are there and how are they making a living there? And even if they are present and DNA suggests that there are several animals of both sexes, how do we translate that knowledge into something useful for conservation, for example a suggestion about reproductive rates or recruitment? On one level, knowing that a rare or elusive species is around is enough to suggest that something’s going right, but for those of us with a fixation on what that ‘something’ is, citizen science still isn’t quite enough. I have hopes for the future, though.

The ambiguity and uncertainty are part of the intrigue; I don’t think any of us would be involved with this work if we weren’t stimulated by intellectual puzzles and the challenge of figuring out stuff like how to translate track observations into concrete data. I’m not going to get into occupancy modelling right now, but if you really want to shock your brain with some wild statistical methods (or, alternatively, depending on how you feel about statistics, cure a long-running case of insomnia), go look it up.

In the meantime, here’s a basic but very useful piece of information that has come out of Gehman’s years of tracking. He mentions that he and his crew are finding wolverine tracks at much lower-elevations than we might have expected. Combine this data with anecdotal observations from Mongolia, the recent trapping of two wolverines in southern Ontario, and our suspicion that wolverines in the Rockies are still expanding their range and don’t represent a fully interconnected population or a fully occupied landscape, and we have an intriguing intimation that we still have a lot to learn about the species at the southern edges of its range. That might be good news for wolverines if it means that they can survive at lower elevations, and it’s definitely good news for those of us who love the idea of spending as much time as possible out in the wolverine’s habitat. I hope we never learn so much that we sit back and say that it’s not worth encouraging people to get out into the backcountry and help us learn more.