Burning down the ecosystem

By now, it should be obvious to everyone that we have a problem with the discourse around facts and science in the United States.

Over the years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve sometimes felt sheepish about picking apart wolverine articles and coverage in the popular press, harping on nuances of language, word choice, and representation of the science. It felt like overkill, sometimes. But it also felt like the conversation around the facts and the science and the narrative was becoming more and more skewed as time went on, and it seemed important to try to counteract that.

Of course, anyone who even remotely dabbled in climate-related research knew that there was a concerted campaign to discredit climate scientists, and anyone who paid attention to politics and the media environment knew that this campaign widened into a broader anti-science stance by the right. But reality-based Americans understood which media sources were factually accurate and which outlets were propaganda-slingers. Correcting inaccurate reporting on wolverines involved assuming that someone from a reputable media outlet had, in good faith, made a mistake, and that the media ecosystem itself would value correction in the interest of its mission to accurately report the news. Still, the inaccuracies and errors seemed to get worse over the years, and that left me more and more perplexed as time went on.

If the span between 2009 and 2015 was spent contemplating the specifics of the wolverine situation, 2016 was like looking up from a single blade of burning grass and discovering that the entire forest was a raging inferno. For seven years I’d been asking, “Why is this piece of grass on fire?” but as it turns out, the whole ecosystem was going up in flames. In the space of a couple of months, my personal fixation on accurate representation of wolverine science became laughably quaint in the face of much larger concerns about facts and bias in the media.

I’d be lying if I claimed that this was anything less than wildly depressing, to the point of being incapacitating; every time I tried to write a post, I’d give up in frustration, because it seemed necessary to situate it within a larger framework of inaccurate messaging, propaganda, and outright self-serving lies that were being perpetuated across media platforms. Doing that seemed impossibly complicated. There have always been intense politics around wildlife conservation, but those politics have been relatively systematic and fairly easy to grasp. 2016 pushed the broader political discourse into the realm of the deranged, revealing a disorder and a breakdown that appeared impossible to make sense of, let alone surmount. It’s very obvious that this problem is not going away any time soon.

The wider media ecosystem is full of would-be firefighters ready to jump in with analysis and advice and off-the-cuff prescriptions for how to remedy the collapse of media sanity. It’s also full of ninja arsonists who gleefully throw fuel on the fire at the least provocation. And to make matters more complicated, sometimes the wannabe firefighters are actually serving the role of accidental ninja arsonists. This made me even more cautious about weighing in. Maybe it’s the anthropological background, but I felt the need to sit and watch for a while, to try to make sense of what I was seeing before becoming another voice claiming some kind of authority that I don’t actually possess.

More than that, though, I needed to answer questions for myself: Is it still worth it to write about wolverines? Is it worth it in light of the fact that the wolverine discussion is deeply embedded in these larger problems? And beyond that, do I still have anything useful to say on a topic I’ve been writing about for nearly ten years? Can an author write usefully from a place that has become, primarily and nearly purely, angry and grief-ridden? At one time this blog was a love letter to the species, to its landscapes. Now it feels like a requiem. And while things written from places of grief, depression, and anger can be cathartic, hand-wringing is seldom of much literary value. So again: Is it worth it to continue?

That question is still under assessment.

In the absence of a decisive answer, I will keep writing for now, but I want to make this more complicated context explicit for whoever is reading this. I’ve always aimed to make this blog clear and upfront about biases and standpoint, in hopes of encouraging the reader to consider their own, and to understand the point at which claims, assertions, and interpretation of the science become subjective and value-laden. I also believe that facts and science are real things, and that truth (with a small t) can be at least agreed upon, even if it can’t established in an absolute sense. The past year has been disruptive to many of my core beliefs – especially to my ever-tenuous but previously-persistent faith in the human capacity for enlightened thinking. (If people aren’t capable of logic and reason, if they do not love the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, then what are we all doing here anyway?) Nevertheless, I’ll keep putting forth my meagre attempts to clarify the wolverine science, because putting out one small fire probably makes some sort of contribution. But I hope the rest of you are out there putting on your fire-fighting gear, because we have a big, big job ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

How Not to Write a Wolverine Article for the Popular Press

As most readers know, there was an uproar following the death of M56 in North Dakota last month. A new article appeared on the Huffington Post on Monday, using the M56 incident as a jumping off point to talk about the urgent need to list wolverines. The article constructed a chain of argument that was factually inaccurate and flawed in its reasoning, with errors in nearly every paragraph, and an overall picture of the wolverine listing debate that sets us back by years, if not decades. This piece manages to encapsulate all of the  stupid things that advocates do when they push science into the narrow confines of their pre-existing agendas. It’s a perfect case study in how not to write about wolverines.

In summary, the author, Cristina Eisenberg, says that wolverines must be listed, and that the federal government inexplicably ignored documentation of a “plummeting” wolverine population when they decided not to list in 2014. I’m not going to nitpick over the numerous small inaccuracies peppered throughout the piece. Instead I want to bring attention to Eisenberg’s uninformed assertions about wolverine population trends, show how a biased and obviously cursory reading of the science can lead to the wrong conclusions, and make a suggestion about how this has negative repercussions for wolverine conservation down the line.

Recently, the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana used unfounded contentions about wolverine population trends to drive a narrative of “wolverines are doing fine,” which helped undermine the listing process in the latest round of ESA discussions. The states built their case on a paper by Aubry et al. on historic wolverine distribution and habitat associations. I discussed this paper when I summarized the February 2016 court hearing in Missoula, because it was heavily debated there. Let me recap: Aubry et al. 2007 is absolutely not a paper about current wolverine population trends. It’s a paper about historic distribution that tallies and ranks the reliability of different sorts of historic reports of wolverine sightings, posits a range retraction and possible extirpation of wolverines from the Rockies in the early to mid 20th century, and then suggests that they’ve recolonized large parts (but not all) of their former range (the extirpation-and-recolonization idea is reinforced by genetic analysis, described in a paper published in 2013). This speculated recolonization was the basis on which the states rested their case that the wolverine population is growing and healthy. This is also, notoriously, the paper that threw University of Michigan fans into depression by suggesting that the Wolverine State – and in fact all of the upper Midwest – had been largely devoid of resident wolverines since the mid-1800s. (“Our results and all published accounts by early naturalists indicate that wolverines were rarely, if ever, encountered in the upper Midwest….Historical records are sparse and haphazard in that area, and the habitat conditions that are associated with wolverine records in the western United States are generally lacking.”) The paper’s major argument is about habitat associations, but let’s leave it here for the purposes of this piece.

Here’s Eisenberg’s assessment of the situation:

In 1994 and 2000, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considered Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for the wolverine. However, each time it found listing unwarranted due to lack of data about this species’ historic range. To address this lack, ecologist Keith Aubry analyzed wolverine trapping and observation records and found that from 1801 to 1960, the species had occurred throughout the Intermountain West and Upper Midwest. Between 1961 and 1994, people continued to report it in the northern Rockies and Cascade Mountains. Then from 1995 to 2005, these reports declined. Nevertheless, in 2008 USFWS deemed listing unwarranted on a technicality (none of these wolverines constituted a distinct population, as defined by the ESA). Environmental groups sued and won…

By 2010, wolverine trapping had been prohibited in the US, except for Alaska and Montana. In October 2012, environmental groups litigated the ecological soundness of lethal wolverine trapping in Montana and prevailed. Meanwhile, wolverine numbers continued to plummet….

I’m pretty sure that Aubry et al. 2007 now officially qualifies as the most misunderstood scientific paper in the wolverine debate. No sooner have the states finished using this paper to contend that the wolverine population is growing, then someone appears using the paper to suggest that the wolverine population is declining. Eisenberg claims that Aubry et al. state that wolverines were resident in the upper Midwest through the 1960’s, and then says that a decline in reported sightings in the Rockies and Cascades between 1995 and 2005 is evidence for the wolverine population crashing. What Aubry et al. actually say is that wolverines may have been present in the 1800s in the Great Lakes states, but we aren’t sure. They also say that there were a number of reports from the eastern Cascades in the 1960’s-1970’s, and that these reports ceased in the 1995-2005 era. They posit that those 1960’s-1970’s reports reflect “extreme dispersal events that did not represent self-sustaining populations,” ie wolverines that were not reproductive resident adults and that were part of the inevitable source-sink dynamics of a meta-population.

Aubry does not report declines in sightings from the northern Rockies. Between 1961 and 1994, a period of 33 years, there were 326 sightings in total in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Between 1995 and 2005, a period of ten years, there were 215. Even without taking into account the biases and problems with using sightings data as a proxy for population trend, and the ways in which sightings are bound to fluctuate from year to year, there is no decline in sightings, since the periods measured are not comparable (three+ decades vs. one decade) – and I’m willing to bet that if the sightings of the last 11 years were tallied, we’d see an impressive overall increase.

As for the assertion that “the wolverine population continued to plummet” in the US Rockies following the suspension of trapping in Montana, there is no evidence of this anywhere in the literature. It’s hard to see where Eisenberg could be using even Aubry as a justification for this statement, since that paper was published in 2007 and wolverine trapping in Montana was suspended in 2012. Far be it from me to suggest that a self-professed scientist is inventing claims to serve her narrative – but I’d like to see the data on which she’s basing this. In short, Eisenberg misrepresents Aubry and the data to drive a narrative of crisis that is just as counter-productive as the narrative of complacency constructed by the states.

Why is it just as problematic as the states’ misrepresentation of these data? It’s a deliberate attempt to skew the facts to fit an agenda. In the states’ case, it was an agenda to keep wolverines off the list. In Eisenberg’s case, it’s an agenda to list wolverines. Neither the Wolverine Foundation nor I share this agenda a priori, but we do have an interest in accurate representation of the science, and the application of that science to policy and management. The existing science says that wolverines are threatened by climate change, and I believe that this science justifies a ‘threatened’ listing status. But starting with the science and arriving at a conclusion that listing is justified, and starting with a position that listing is necessary and then cherry-picking the science – or inventing incoherent fantasies that you pass off as legitimate interpretation of the science – are two entirely different things.

From the start of the wolverine listing debate (and, for that matter, the entire climate change discussion), we’ve struggled to stand our ground on the idea that near-future threats should be taken seriously, and that a species can be threatened even if we haven’t observed a population decline. Humans are notoriously bad at thinking about the future. We’re bad at anticipating even problems directly related to our personal well-being. Getting people to anticipate problems that affect that well-being of non-humans is an order of magnitude more difficult – but we’ve persevered. We’ve kept this debate alive. We’ve made a case for thinking about the future. It’s a case not just for wolverines, but for all climate sensitive wildlife. We’re entering an era when we won’t be able to show definitively that all populations of concern are currently declining. We’re entering an era when having an edge of a few decades before the decline starts is going to be critical.

Lack of documented decline is one of the big points that opponents of wolverine listing make, over and over again. Polar bears were listed, they say, because we could show that polar bears were dying. They assert that we don’t need to bother with wolverines because we can’t show a similar population decline, and therefore the population is fine. For years, both scientists and advocates have attempted to explain that this listing discussion isn’t about current and documented decline, but about climate effects in the near future. By inventing a population decline and using it to propel arguments for listing, Eisenberg reinforces the idea that we need to demonstrate a population crisis before we list. This is old-school thinking. It’s disheartening to see someone from an older generation of wildlife conservation come along and, from a pretty big national platform, air the same old narrative demanding a demonstrated population decline to warrant protection. Documented population declines should still be a reason to list, of course, but we need to expand our understanding of threat to include problems that we know are coming.

With the population decline fiction, Eisenberg also gets the policy story wrong. The USFWS did ignore good science in their 2014 decision, but they didn’t inexplicably disregard a wolverine population in documented decline. They ignored the science showing impending threat. She touches on this, but with the imaginary population crash in the first few paragraphs, and her statement that the 2010 warranted-but-precluded decision was due to the “plummeting” population (in reality, it was projected climate threats), she implies that this allegedly discounted piece of alleged science is the thing about which we should be outraged. It’s not, and in fact this never happened. There is plenty to think about when we contemplate the wolverine policy situation, and plenty of red flags about how that process went forward. By tossing this invention out to the wider world, Eisenberg distracts from the real story, which is about special interest interference, climate change literacy, and looming issues with how the ESA can be applied.

I’m not particularly familiar with the rest of Eisenberg’s work, but from what I can tell, she worked with wolves and puts herself forth as an advocate for and authority on carnivores. From skimming headlines and the summary of her book, she seems to favor of a “carnivores can fix ecosystems” narrative that focuses on trophic cascades as proof of the value of carnivores, and “carnivore corridors” as a way of connecting the landscape. Fine, but again, all of this is sort of old school and, at least in the case of trophic cascades, overly simplistic. In view of this approach, though, it makes sense that she would latch onto wolverines and try to bring them into her narrative – which presupposes that listing must happen, that it happens because of population declines (as it did with wolves and bears), that corridors are a panacea (regardless of the biology of the species in question – I’ll touch on this in a second post), and that crisis stories with a clear opponent (in this case, the feds who ignored the purported population decline) successfully rile people up and make them into better advocates.

The problem is, wolverines are not wolves or bears. The history, ecology, and biology of the species, the state of the science, and the social and political issues around wolverines are particular to wolverines. Of course carnivore conservation, as an overarching concept, can be discussed, but it’s important for advocates to know that each species has individual requirements, ecology, and socio-political context. It’s important to start with what we know, and decide the best course of action from there, rather than starting with an assumption about what should be done, and cherrypicking the science – or just making things up – to justify your position. It’s important for advocates to get the science and facts right, because when you start with a false claim, it’s easily disproved, and you and your cause end up looking lame.

Yes, the real story is complicated – but not so nuanced that it can’t be told accurately, even in a popular-press piece. And yes, there’s urgency to building wildlife constituencies – but that doesn’t justify spreading misinterpretations of the science in the national press.

When people come to the wolverine constituency, I want them to be informed, well-educated, and capable of understanding the science. I don’t want them to be automaton minions for a particular policy agenda. A decision to list, and any advocacy for listing, must stem from a thorough understanding of the science and the management options. We live in a complex world with multiple and intersecting complex systems (ecological, social, political, etc), and living in that world requires complex thinking, not simplistic – let alone false – narratives. Let’s dispense with the idea that the only thing that justifies listing is observed population decline. In the era of climate change, staying a few steps ahead of those declines is critical to conservation. And let’s all show how much we appreciate Keith Aubry’s wolverine work by making an attempt to use his science accurately from now on.

Full Disclosure and Meta-Commentary

Several years ago Cristina Eisenberg friended me on facebook. I’ve never met her but I accepted her request. For years, she’s posted her articles with an exhortation to “like and share widely.” I’ve never read the articles or interacted with these posts, although I did once point out that a lecture program that she’d linked used the title of someone else’s work and that she might want to check with that person to make sure it was okay. I also once submitted a piece to The Whitefish Review, where she’s an editor, and it was declined for publication – which was the right decision, as it wasn’t a great piece for that journal.

On Monday, Eisenberg linked to her article with the usual command to “like and share widely.” I read the piece and commented about the population trend inaccuracy on her facebook page. I identified myself as ED of the Wolverine Foundation, thanked her for bringing attention to the species, mentioned the lack of documentation of population decline, and offered to chat with her if she had any questions about wolverine research. Within minutes, the post was deleted. I was pretty taken aback by this, so I asked if my post had been deleted. She then defriended me.

For about an hour after this happened, I felt like I’d been coated in slime. I didn’t seek this woman out; she imposed herself on me, evidently with an expectation that I would be her uncritical cheerleader. In years of being her facebook friend, she’s never liked or commented on my posts. She obviously sought out people in the wildlife community to serve as amplifiers and advertisers for her work, and, given the censorship, doesn’t like it when someone demonstrates that they actually want to engage and discuss what she’s written in anything less than enthusiastically positive terms.

One of the purposes of this blog, from its inception, has been tracking press coverage of wolverines and critiquing the ways in which popular press authors report on and build narratives around wolverine research and conservation issues. Even if this facebook incident hadn’t happened, I would have critiqued this piece, simply because it provides such a fine illustration of where advocates go off the rails and become anti-scientific to push an agenda or indulge their preconceived narratives. But my commentary would probably be less extensive if I didn’t have this indication that Eisenberg knows what she’s doing. I find censorship and knowing dissemination of misinformation pretty disturbing.

On a basic level, stuff like this exasperates me because as someone who frequently lectures about wolverines, I end up having to deal with the fallout of inaccurate stories. I’m going to keep a running tally of the number of people who now ask me why the USFWS ignored the population decline, just to see how far this story spreads. Maybe it won’t be an issue. But maybe every question session will henceforth require a response about how this article is bad science writing. It’ll be interesting to see.

At a broader level, the interaction with Eisenberg crystallized something that I’ve been concerned about for the past year or so. I see more and more individuals and groups that ostensibly share my values – which are liberal, egalitarian, environmental, and oriented towards protecting common goods like public land and wildlife – willing to resort to manipulation of facts and data to get what they want. Frequently this involves a heavy component of narcissistic self-promotion or profit, and often it involves insulting “out groups,” entrenching conflicts, and rallying allies around a sense of crisis, persecution, or fear. Skewed clickbait headlines from groups that I used to support, attached to articles that misrepresent science or statistics about some social or political issue, are one very basic example. These are tactics I once scornfully associated only with Fox News and right-wing propagandists. How is this becoming common and uncontested behavior among people who once stood for a reality-based existence? I don’t know if this is an unavoidable consequence of the way we use media, or whether there’s still a point in making a plea for critical and scientific literacy. Regardless, I’m going to make that plea now, and again and again into the future: in the Age of Opinion, inform your opinion with facts and research. Embrace complexity. Consider systems. Engage in conversation. Suspend the need to judge. Indulge the impulse to think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Science Goes to Court

On February 9th, the US district court in Missoula, Montana heard oral arguments in the case challenging the 2014 USFWS decision not to list wolverines. The Missoulian published an article about the hearing, and it’s a pretty good outline, but since I was in the courtroom, I’m sharing my impressions and a more detailed synopsis as well. I’ll focus here on conveying what happened, and will share my own analysis later. I do have  opinions about the debate around the science, and those will probably come through, but I will explain my reasoning and, I hope, convince readers as to why that reasoning is sound, in a subsequent post.

First, a bit of background: Back in August of 2014, the USFWS abruptly reversed course following a 2013 proposed listing rule (Proposed Wolverine Rule), and issued a decision not to list the wolverine as threatened under the ESA. A leaked memo (Region_6_Wolverine_Memo_5-30-14) revealed that the reversal seemed to be the result of the opinion of the assistant regional director of region six, in contradiction of a process of several years that found that wolverines were warranted for protection and should be listed. Environmental advocacy groups sued, charging that the decision was “arbitrary and capricious,” and contending that the decision should be thrown out. The defendants included the USFWS, and a number of parties referred to as “defendant-intervenors.” In this case, these parties included the states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; state farm bureaus; several snowmobile associations; and – perplexingly- the American Petroleum Institute and the Montana Petroleum Institute.

To show that the decision not to list was in fact arbitrary and capricious, the plaintiffs had to prove that the reversal was not based on any sound scientific evidence, but rather on whims or machinations outside the bounds of the “best available science,” the standard tool used to determine whether a species warrants protection.

The notion of best available science is tricky. The ESA did not define it when the Act was written, and a definition added by amendment in 2005 – “…scientific data, regardless of source, that are available to the Secretary at the time of a decision or action for which such data are required by this Act and that the Secretary determines are the most accurate, reliable, and relevant for use in that decision or action.” – provoked ire from people who thought that it opened science to politicization by granting a government official the authority to decide what science counts and what doesn’t. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the larger debate about whether our process is effective for incorporating science into policy at all, or the even vaster debate, within the social sciences, about whether science that strives for neutrality is actually a practice of collective cultural self-delusion. Obviously, figuring out what defines good science is a complex issue.

Regardless, the question of best available science has plagued the latest round of the wolverine listing debate, just as the lack of scientific data plagued earlier rounds. The USFWS’ original proposed rule to list, like all such proposed rules, was subject to peer review. During this process, two out of the five researchers who were invited to submit opinions disagreed with the USFWS’ analysis of the science on the relationship between wolverine denning and late spring snowpack, and the models that projected decline in snowpack in wolverine range within the coming century. This dissent provoked an avalanche of further analysis and debate, which included, among other things, expert panels on climate modeling, rancorous attacks on various scientists and scientific institutions, the construction by the states of some fairly shaky arguments about wolverine population trends, and the sudden appearance on the scene of high-powered energy players with – we can speculate – a distinct interest in preventing the listing of a charismatic climate-sensitive carnivore. Months went by. The expert panel concluded that the climate modeling was sound. The decision looked like it would go forward. Then came the reversal; the leaked memo; a letter from the states commending the decision not to list but reiterating flawed arguments about what the science actually says; and the lawsuit.

The major scientific debates in this case – the points that were contended and argued over in the expert reviews, the letters, the memos, and the public forum – can be summarized as follows:

  1. What is the relationship between wolverines and snow, especially spring snowpack?
  2. What is the wolverine population trend in the US Rockies?
  3. Is genetic depression potentially a problem for wolverines?
  4. Are the climate models used to predict reduction in snowpack in the Rockies adequate, both scientifically, and as a justification to list?

The three papers most at issue in this discussion are Copeland et al 2010, which deals with the relationship between wolverines, late spring snow, and low summer temperatures; McKelvey et al 2011, which deals with projected retractions in wolverine habitat and dispersal corridors over the coming century; and Aubry et al 2007 (aubrywolverinedistribution), which deals with the historic and current range of wolverines. I’ve discussed these papers elsewhere on this blog and will dive back into them in subsequent posts, but for now, if you want to review them, there they are.

And thus we come to Missoula on Tuesday morning, February 9th, at 9:30 am. The courthouse gallery was packed – the lady who signed me in and gave me my visitor tag told me that there were at least 50 people, and opined that there were “a lot of people interested in wolverines.” There were also a lot of attorneys, arrayed around their tables facing the judge’s seat – Tim Preso of Defenders of Wildlife and Matthew Bishop of Wild Earth Guardians for the plaintiffs, and the USFWS attorney and the assortment of lawyers for the defendant-intervenors.

Judge Dana Christensen began the proceedings by recounting, with articulate and detailed enthusiasm, his three encounters with wolverines in the wild, and segued into expressing his familiarity with the case, the briefs, and the wider issues at stake. He discussed the prior listing petitions and their outcomes. He mentioned having read Doug Chadwick’s book about the Glacier Park project, and said that he understood from the book that, “The folks who are committed to gathering the science are dedicated…I’ve concluded that this is a hard species to study, and it’s not surprising that we don’t know how many there are….or the exact data about their response to climate change.” Wolverines are a pretty obscure topic and it would have been easy to end up with a judge who didn’t even know what they were. Judge Christensen was admirably well-informed.

The plaintiffs opened by invoking the concept of best available science, and putting forth the argument that the papers used to justify the original listing rule – namely, Copeland et al. 2010 and McKelvey et al. 2011 – were subjected to criticism and then discounted on the basis of speculation rather than definite scientific evidence that they were flawed or incorrect. These two papers have been at the crux of all of the debates, and most of the criticism lobbed at them has had to do with lack of precision rather than lack of broad accuracy. Preso invoked a 2009 case, Tuscon Herpetological Society vs. Salazar, which determined that the government cannot dismiss threats to a species based on inconclusive science. As he stated again and again, in numerous ways, “The ESA does not demand perfect science – it demands the best available science.”

Preso also spent some time on the USFWS’ assumptions about population growth, and the flawed reasoning of relying on Aubry et al 2007 to justify the idea that the population would continue to grow. He argued that the USFWS and its attendant intervenors were conflating range expansion with population growth, and that there was no evidence that the population is growing. He highlighted the dangers of assuming that increased sightings of wolverines indicates that the wolverine population is increasing, mentioning that it was not surprising to see that wolverine sightings had been substantially higher during the years of a wolverine research study than in the years when the study was not operating.

Connectivity and genetics also received attention. Preso argued that connectivity problems should have been considered a primary rather than a secondary threat, referencing the lack of apparent connectivity between wolverines in the contiguous US and wolverines in Canada. The judge questioned this, and Preso responded with the published information that suggests that the trans-Canada highway and Canada’s trapping management regime do serve as effective barriers to free genetic exchange with wolverines in the US Rockies. From here, he ventured into a discussion about widely-accepted biological rules about the problems with inbreeding and genetic bottlenecking, and suggested that these rules most likely apply to wolverines as well. He was referring specifically to the so-called 50/500 rule, which states that a minimum effective (breeding individuals only) population of 50 individuals is needed to insure population survival over the short term, and 500 are needed over the long term. The current effective population of wolverines in the US Rockies is estimated, based on genetics, to be between 25 and 50.

Preso’s next theme was climate change, and the criticisms made of the Copeland et al 2010 paper. The judge asked several questions as Preso launched into his defense of the paper, the first about whether or not there was any published information to contradict either Copeland or McKelvey (Preso: “No.” Judge Christensen: “So it’s basically just criticism….”) Later, as Preso continued to explore the issues around McKelvey et al. 2011 and the question of the scale of the modelling, and stated that, “We know that wolverines are snow-obligate – ” the judge interrupted and said, “That’s a given in this case, so the question is, do we need to know exactly why?”

There was some discussion about another case that had to do with abrupt changes in decisions, which the judge brought up in order to ask whether Preso wanted to rely on this case for precedent; Preso said no and brought the discussion back to the Tuscon Herpetological case. The judge went on to affirm that this was a case about “change in policy needing to be based on good reasoning and logic.”

Preso also spent some time reiterating that California and Colorado, with single male wolverines in each state, should not count as inhabited range. He brought up the fact that some of the estimates of available habitat included habitat in these states, and that that habitat should be removed from analysis because it was not relevant to the population in the US Rockies or the Cascades.

At the end of Preso’s arguments, the judge asked him what he wanted the court to do, and Preso replied that he wanted the judge to apply the arbitrary-and-capricious standard and set aside the rule, remand the decision, and “wait and see what will happen.”

Matthew Bishop then spoke, and in some senses he seemed to contradict Preso’s arguments about not considering uninhabited range as part of the analysis for listing. He made an argument that the retractions in range during historical time should in fact be taken into account in determining the degree of threat faced by wolverines. This discussion revolved around a specific provision of the ESA, and Bishop was arguing that this should be applied; I haven’t had time to research it, so I’ll leave this here for now. Bishop also mentioned genetic issues, and inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms (one of the categories of threat under the ESA). Like Preso, he stated that the best available science in this case had been ignored.

Then came the defendants’ turn to speak. Trent Crable was arguing for the USFWS, and stated that since climate change was ruled the major and only primary threat, the science regarding wolverines and climate change should be the only issue under consideration. The USFWS had found that McKelvey et al was not enough, on its own, to show threat in “the foreseeable future.”

The judge at this point asked whether there was any published research to contradict Copeland or McKelvey, and Crable responded, “If by published, you mean peer-reviewed, then no.” The judge then asked, “What then was Noreen Walsh [the region 6 assistant director] relying on in making her decision?”

Crable replied, “Her understanding of what is needed to list, and the report provided by Dr. Torbit, in consultation with Andrea Ray of NOAA, saying that the modeling was insufficient for us to know what will happen to wolverine habitat.” This was in reference to an internal study on downscaling of climate models that the USFWS requested after the expert review panel found that the the snow modeling in Copeland and McKelvey was adequate. I have not seen this report, but it is referenced in Walsh’s memo, and was the linchpin in justifying the reversal. Crable explained that the report highlighted difficulties in modeling what will happen with precipitation on local scales; he said that modeling temperature changes was comparatively easy, but that precipitation projections were much more difficult, implying that our ability to understand future snowfall is compromised.

The judge produced emails that seemed to suggest that Walsh had made the decision to reverse prior to the submission of the Torbit and Ray report, and asked several questions to try to clarify the timeline. Crable said that Walsh had probably seen earlier drafts and/or talked with Torbit, since they are colleagues. The judge asked whether other scientists within USFWS or beyond were given time to respond. I don’t recall a direct answer to this question, but the implied answer was no, and as the exchange continued, the judge said, “So the same people who were tasked with the listing rule were then tasked with coming up with the exact opposite decision? That must have been distressing, if not demoralizing.” Crable stated that it was not the “exact opposite view, just a different conclusion.”

At this point, Crable steered the discussion back to McKelvey, saying that although McKelvey represents sophisticated science, the question was whether that single paper was enough to list. The USFWS contended that it wasn’t because it doesn’t tell us what will happen to habitat in the future, which is the real issue. He then stated that the burden of proof is on the USFWS to show why a species should be listed, not why it shouldn’t be listed, and said, “This is the law for listing under section 4.”

Despite his contention that other arguments about secondary threats should not be at issue, population trend was a theme with both Crable and the other lawyers at his table. Most of their arguments relied on Aubry 2007, a paper about historic range; they were using this paper to build an argument that wolverines have recovered in the US Rockies following an early-20th-century extirpation. Crable did venture into discussing genetic diversity and the 50/500 rule, stating that this rule was difficult to demonstrate in reality and that “small population sizes don’t necessarily mean that there is a threat,” and – again, drawing presumably on Aubry – “Population size is probably not substantially lower than prior to European colonization.”

I found the breadth of assumption in this statement so astonishing that I was scribbling notes and missed the exact flow of the next few moments of argument, but soon thereafter, the issue of trapping was raised. Montana maintained a trapping season – at first unlimited and then, after 2008, much more carefully managed – until it was shut down by court order several years ago, pending the listing decision. Crable said that “no trapping of wolverines is allowed,” in response to a line of discussion about the potential effects of trapping on the population. The judge said that he understood that the closure was the result of a court order, and Crable confirmed this, but said that the court order was lifted and that trapping had not resumed.

This was the conclusion of Crable’s argument, and he took a seat, while the lawyer from Wyoming, whose name was Peterson, stood up to speak for the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. He talked about the environmentalists using whatever means necessary in “attempting to achieve their goal, which is listing the wolverine.” He argued an equivalence in uncertainty over population growth and the uncertainty in Copeland and McKelvey, saying that “environmentalists” were applying a double standard by invoking lack of evidence of population growth to justify listing, while ignoring uncertainty in Copeland and McKelvey that suggested that wolverines might not be threatened. He said that it was the responsibility of the USFWS to decide what represented an acceptable level of uncertainty for a particular decision. “At heart,” he said, “This is about a difference of opinion” – again, neatly implying a scientific equivalence between the two sides of the discussion.

Peterson brought up the fact that wolverines had been extirpated and then rebounded over the past century as evidence of population growth, in spite of a continuing trapping season, and then said that “there was no trapping when the decision was made,” reiterating Crable’s implication that trapping was not something to worry about. Here, Judge Christensen interjected, bringing up emails sent by the USFWS about potential reactions by various parties to the reversal of the decision to list. Among these, the section about the reaction of the states proclaimed that they were unlikely to object, since “many of the arguments for the withdrawal of the listing decision originated with the states.” The email also clearly said that Montana intended to reopen the trapping season. The judge questioned the intent of the states. Peterson quickly deferred to the lawyer for Montana, who stood up and stated that “We’d like to keep a limited and carefully controlled trapping season on the table.”

The states took a seat, and the lawyer for the “non-government defendant intervenors,” a coalition representing farm bureaus and snowmobile associations, took his turn at the podium. This was by far the wackiest segment of the hearing, because the lawyer, Blevins, argued that wolverines in the US Rockies should not be considered a listable entity since they are a subspecies with conspecifics in Eurasia, and in order to list them, we would need to do a review of the global population. I’m going to let my bias out to play here and get it over with so I can focus on more relevant discussions in subsequent posts – this argument was ridiculous, but in light of who the lawyer was representing, the absurdity may have an explanation. As I understand it, he was attempting to get into the record a nitpicking dispute over semantic ambiguity in the ESA, which is certainly an object of almost totemic hatred among farm bureaus in the western US. I’m pretty sure I saw people of significant stature rolling their eyes when he stood up. During the rebuttal, Crable disavowed association with Blevins’ line of argument. Enough said.

Next up were the “energy intervenors,” the American Petroleum Institute, and the Montana Petroleum Institute. The lawyer for the Montana Petroleum Institute, D’Angelo, stood up to present the energy industry’s arguments, but before he could begin, the judge interjected to ask, “Please tell me why the American Petroleum Institute and the Montana Petroleum Institute have a dog in this fight?”

D’Angelo responded by citing concerns about restrictions on operating in wolverine habitat if the species is listed, and then quickly went on to state that the USWFS started with a conclusion that wolverines should be listed, and then backfit evidence to that conclusion.

The judge here interjected again to ask, “Where’s the evidence in the record? That’s a serious contention.”

D’Angelo brought up emails from Shawn Sartorius, who wrote the listing decision. In the courtroom, Sartorius was quoted as writing that “wolverines will have a proposed rule,” and D’Angelo argued that this was evidence that the USFWS was biased. Again, I’m going to get this out of the way by contextualizing where the lawyer failed to do so. I don’t know what was going on in Sartorius’ mind when he wrote that, but these emails were sent at a specific moment in the listing debate. In 2010, wolverines were deemed warranted-but-precluded, which meant that a scientific analysis found that there was justified evidence of a threat, but that the USWFS did not currently have the resources to list the species, particularly in light of more immediate and habitat-based threats facing other species. In essence, and perhaps with some defensible logic, the decision said that the resources of the agency should be applied to species who are threatened by something that the ESA is capable of dealing with (in situ habitat-based threats) rather than something that the ESA is not authorized to regulate (carbon emissions). A warranted-but-precluded ruling places a species in limbo, which can last for many years. Shortly after the 2010 wolverine decision, environmental groups sued over undecided ESA cases, including warranted-but-precluded decisions, and won an order that all of these cases had to be decided within a limited time frame. The wolverine was one of the first to go up for consideration. The McKelvey et al 2011 paper that is the object of so much dispute had entered the literature in the interim, but beyond that there was no new peer-reviewed science to consider. Since wolverines had already been found warranted for listing, and McKelvey added substantiation to the idea of threat, Sartorius’ emails at this point are less evidence of a nefarious plot to rig scientific data to fit a pre-ordained, agenda-based conclusion, and more a logical outgrowth of the fact that a very recent review of the science had reached a particular scientific conclusion that suggested that a listing rule would follow.

The judge didn’t get into any of this, he let the matter sit, and D’Angelo went on to assert that, “It’s not reasonable to dispute that the population is increasing….and projected to increase.” He referenced an Inman paper from 2013 and Aubry 2007 to back his claim, but the judge again began to question him, saying that, “Within the [proposed listing] rule, scientists disagree [about population trajectory], I can’t see where everyone agrees that population will increase forever – maybe you weren’t saying that?”

D’Angelo replied, “I wasn’t. I apologize.”

The judge said, “It sounded like you were.”

D’Angelo managed to recontextualize his argument and put some time scale boundaries on his contentions about population growth. He then ventured into a criticism of Copeland and the snow modeling, stating, among other arguments, that the obligate relationship between wolverines and snowpack was “on a denning scale,” and that “Copeland describes where wolverines are, not what they need.” He said that the authors on Copeland et al “drew a line around the wolverine population” and then backfit the snow data. He concluded by saying that the paper was good for predicting where wolverines are found, but not as a premise for the McKelvey paper, which relied on Copeland to model habitat loss.

With this, the defendants concluded, and the rebuttals began.

During the rebuttal, Preso talked about modeling and uncertainty, saying that McKelvey was not a stand-alone, that the expert panel convened by the USFWS agreed with him, and then said that the USFWS had in the past relied on the same kind of modeling to conclude that pikas were not warranted for listing – that decision stands. Preso stated, regarding the contention that Copeland shows where wolverines live but not what they require, that it was unreasonable to assume that wolverines were living in places that didn’t provide what they needed. He again talked about uncertainty in population trend, citing a number of studies including Inman 2013 to highlight the lack of any kind of evidence about current demographics. He reiterated the lack of connectivity with Canada, and said that the 50/500 rule was “basic biology” and that it should apply to wolverines. The judge briefly questioned him about the uncertainty in modelling precipitation versus the relative ease of modeling temperature. Bishop then spoke again, briefly, about the fact that trapping was “still on the table” by the admission of the lawyer for Montana. The judge sought some clarification about the concerns over trapping, saying that he understood that incidental take was a possible source of mortality on top of the prospect of a managed season, and Bishop confirmed this.

Crable then gave his rebuttal, drawing again on Aubry to contend that the population is increasing and will continue to do so. He said that decline in snowpack doesn’t mean that wolverines are threatened, nor does inbreeding or genetic depression, and that there was not enough evidence of any of it to warrant listing, He again came back to population growth, saying that “estimates have gone up in published literature,” that there was no evidence that the population was declining, and that – again – there were no grounds to list.

He then ventured into the trapping discussion, saying that Inman had argued at some point – I missed the paper reference – that trapping was not a problem and might even be good for the effective (breeding) population, “because if you take out a male and he’s replaced by multiple other males, it will increase the effective population.”

The judge intervened here and said, “I don’t suppose that you’re suggesting that we resume trapping in wolverine habitat to increase the population?”

Crable looked somewhat sheepish and said no, that wasn’t what he was suggesting.

He concluded by saying that this was not “a coin flip” between equally robust sets of evidence. He emphasized again that a single study (McKelvey) was not enough to justify the listing, and said, “just because they [the USFWS] said that there was another way to do this doesn’t mean it was a coin flip.”

With that, the hearing concluded. The judge stated that he had “a lot of work to do” on this decision. We will probably have to wait at least six months for a ruling.

Thoughts and comments welcome. Stay tuned for some analysis over the next week or so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Game of Wolverines, Part Two: A Clash of Analyses

In the previous post in this series, I outlined the major scientific papers that are at the heart of a discussion about both wolverine ecology, and the proposed listing rule. The USFWS is obliged to use “the best available science” in creating decisions for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In this post, I’ll talk about the conflicting interpretations of the papers explored in the previous post, and contentions that each interpretation represents “the best available science.” Those conflicting interpretations create different stories about what is going on with wolverines in the Rockies. Some of the stories clearly justify listing. Others suggest that either everything is fine, or that trapping is fine, or that there’s too much uncertainty out there and we ought to give up on listing because we just don’t know what’s going on. I’ll discuss these stories in a third post.

During the review process, two of the seven reviewers opined that the listing decision was not valid because it was not based on the best available science. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks also submitted comments expressing disapproval of the decision to list and offering arguments that the science used in the decision was erroneous. These different reviews and comments were largely in agreement with each other, but with some significant variations in the scientific arguments that they emphasized, so I’m presenting them individually. The reviews were detailed, and I have summarized them here, so some precision is lost. I apologize in advance for any errors, omissions, or accidental misinterpretations.

Audrey Magoun

Audrey Magoun’s concerns, expressed in edits to the language of the listing decision as well as a separate 33-page analysis, revolve around the fact that there are recorded instances of wolverines denning outside the snow model, denning in shallow snow, and weaning kits prior to the May 15th date used in the Copeland et al 2010 snow model paper. She uses this to argue that Copeland et al, which defines wolverine habitat in the Rockies, is invalid, and that the McKelvey et al 2011 paper, which is based on Copeland et al and is the foundation for the finding that wolverine habitat will diminish, is also therefore invalid. This, in Magoun’s assessment, invalidates the finding that wolverines in the US Rockies are endangered by climate change.

Although she is a co-author on the Copeland et al 2010 paper, she says that at the time of writing, she expressed concerns about the choice of May 15th as the weaning date for wolverine kits – and hence the snowmelt date for the paper. In her analysis of the listing decision, she cites an example of a den found outside the snow model in Ontario, gives a detailed description of the snow conditions in that situation, and then adds examples of den abandonment prior to May 15th to build a case that persistent spring snow (>1 meter depth and lasting until May 15th, as she defines it) is not necessary for wolverines to reproduce successfully. She suggests that the very high fit between dens and the snow model is an artifact of several biases in the data, including a search bias (ie, wolverine researchers look for dens in snowy regions, so this is where they find them) and a research bias (ie, and that most of the published literature is on wolverines in mountain and tundra habitat, leaving out populations in boreal forest regions where the species may behave differently). The critique includes a number of details on how MODIS satellites map snow cover (to argue that wolverines may be capable of utilizing small or remnant snow patches, which may be underrepresented in MODIS data, for denning) and on thermal thresholds for the insulating properties of snow (to argue that thermal cover, or the idea that wolverines den in snow partially to provide insulation and warmth for their kits, would not be necessary at the end of the denning period, when outside air temperatures are warmer, and also to argue that deep spring snow would not be necessary for insulation, since the maximum insulating properties of snow are achieved at 30-50 cm depth.)

Magoun also takes issue with the contention that wolverine dispersal will be inhibited or restricted due to climate change. Her arguments again rest on the idea that the snow model in Copeland et al was inappropriately parameterized and that late spring snow is not the governing factor in defining wolverine habitat. If female wolverines are not tied to snowbound home ranges, this argument goes, then dispersing juveniles will not have to travel farther to establish new home ranges. She points out that wolverines are not restricted to snowcovered areas in order to disperse, and questions whether earlier snowmelt would inhibit connectivity among wolverine population nodes.

With snow dependence and connectivity eliminated as concerns, the argument concludes, there is no justification for listing wolverines as endangered.

Bob Inman

Bob Inman’s stance echoes Magoun’s in the assertion that USFWS did not use the best available science to reach the listing decision. He begins with an analysis of a 2007 paper, Aubry et al’s Distribution and Broadscale Habitat Relations of the Wolverine in the Contiguous United States, which looks at historical distribution of wolverines and concludes that the Great Lakes and northeast never (within historical times) harbored reproducing populations of wolverines. The conclusion in the paper supports the idea that wolverines are constrained by snow, since these regions are outside the current snow model. Inman takes issue with this, suggesting that the paper engaged in faulty and circular logic by using historical records to define wolverine habitat, and then using that definition to determine which historical records represent reproducing populations and which represent dispersers. He adds that human interference by the time historical records were being kept (19th century) could as easily account for wolverine absence from the northeast and the Great Lakes as climate constraints. Inman advocates for a food-storage-based hypothesis for constraints on wolverine distribution, as opposed to an obligate snow-denning hypothesis, and by throwing the historical distribution into question, he builds a case for alternatives to the snow model.

Inman then goes on to reiterate a number of Magoun’s arguments about Copeland et al 2010 and McKelvey et al 2011. Inman explicates something that Magoun discussed in broader terms, namely that wolverines may be able to den in small snow patches and that the McKelvey et al paper, in looking at the entire area mapped by Copeland et al as wolverine habitat, failed to assess threats to the areas of the snow map that would be most relevant to wolverine denning – ie, high, northfacing slopes, where all Rocky Mountain wolverine dens have been found to date. In short, he contends that all the snow in the Rockies could melt out during the wolverine denning period with no effects on wolverines, so long as snow remained on these northfacing slopes.

In a 2009 paper, Michael Schwartz and the team at RMRS used genetic analysis to place the US Rocky Mountain wolverine effective population size – that is, the number of wolverines out of the population at large that are actually reproducing –  at about 35, with a range between 28 and 50, out of a total population of about 300. This low number has caused concern because it is a very low number, lower than the proposed minimum for long-term persistence of a population on a landscape. Inman suggests that the analysis in the 2009 paper intentionally excluded samples that would have given a higher effective population size. He also points out that we don’t actually have samples from the entirety of occupied or proposed-occupied range in the Rockies, which may also bias the effective population estimates downward.  This leads him to conclude that the concern about the low number is misplaced, and not a reason for listing.

Inman then addresses two human impacts on wolverines. The first is infrastructure development, which was ranked of relatively little concern in the listing decision. The second is trapping, which was found to be a secondary threat. Inman thinks that infrastructure development could have greater negative consequences for wolverines than climate change, and suggests that the proposed listing rule dismisses this potential threat without adequate reasoning, citing several studies that show that large chunks of wolverine dispersal habitat are in private ownership and that development could become a problem.

Trapping, on the other hand, is sustainable, in Inman’s view. The crux of this argument rests on determining whether wolverine mortality is compensatory – that is, wolverines that are killed in traps are excess, non-contributing members of the population who would die without reproducing anyway – or additive – that is, wolverine deaths by trapping remove more animals than would normally die, and therefore reduce the population below carrying capacity. Inman argues that trapping in Montana is compensatory, not additive. He looks at two papers that are frequently cited to suggest that trapping mortality is additive (Krebs et al 2004, Squires et al 2007), and refutes them on the grounds of statistics and some behind-the-scenes social factors that, he says, provoked trappers to a sort of revenge trapping frenzy in the study area after being insulted by a researcher’s anti-trapping attitude. He also suggests that survivorship estimates in researched wolverine populations are biased low because much of the research is conducted on “front country wolverines,” wolverines that are more accessible, therefore closer to humans, therefore likely to have higher mortality rates in traps (because trappers, like researchers, aim to make things easier on themselves by trapping in relatively accessible locations.)

Inman also offers detailed comments on the Colorado reintroduction plans and the 10(j) rule. Since those are not relevant to the immediate debate about the relationship between wolverines and snowpack, I’m going to gloss over this for now. He concludes that the rule as written doesn’t reflect the best available science and that conservation actions would be difficult because the decision identifies climate change (which cannot be regulated under the ESA) as the primary threat, while relegating infrastructure, development, and human activities (which can be regulated under the ESA) to a secondary concern, or not a concern at all.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks

MFWP criticized the listing rule on the grounds that it represents a repudiation of Montana’s management of wolverines, which MFWP contends has been responsible and conservative. Asserting that the population is healthy and still expanding, they advocate for an “adaptive management” approach that monitors wolverines until the population reaches a threshold that would trigger listing. They cite many of the same arguments and points addressed by Magoun and Inman, but frequently carry these arguments a few steps further. Harking back to the politicized and spurious argument in the 2008 decision against listing, they suggest that wolverines in the Rockies are not a DPS and therefore cannot be listed, since listing under the ESA relies on a determination that the listable population is distinct. They emphasize that the proposed relationship between wolverines and spring snowpack, as put forth in Copeland et al 2010, is simply a hypothesis, not a proven fact, and pluck at a statistical point that Magoun and Inman also reference: the fact that 69% of the dens in the Copeland et al paper were located in areas that retained deep spring snowpack in 6-7 years out of 7, which MFWP interprets to indicate that wolverines den outside of the snow model 30% of the time. They pose Inman et al 2012 as an alternative to Copeland et al 2010, saying that the discrepancies in the snow model can be explained by considering a food-based hypothesis for distribution. They also go so far as to suggest that earlier melt out will benefit wolverines because of increased productivity in wolverine habitat.

MFWP refutes the idea that observed wolverine expansion over the past few decades is the result of a reduction in mortality. It’s not entirely clear to me whether they think that recolonization following extirpation never happened, or whether they are taking issue with the idea that recent reductions in the trapping quotas led to accelerated expansion, but they do state that the listing decision offers no proof that expansion following reduced mortality is a true explanation for recolonization They state that wolverines in Montana are “at or near capacity” to indicate that there is an excess population that can tolerate  trapping. They emphasize, repeatedly, that wolverine populations have grown in “…size and distribution, concurrent with declines in spring snow cover and trends toward earlier runoff,” which they equate with conditions that will exist in the future. They also quarrel, however, with the predictive powers of the climate models that were used to determine that wolverine habitat is threatened.

MFWP concludes with the fact that the ESA cannot regulate climate change and says that therefore wolverines shouldn’t be listed, since status under the ESA wouldn’t do anything for them anyway.

Wolverine Stories

What are we supposed to do with all of this information? This is the question that faces decision-makers when they try to interpret science to create policy. Obviously, it’s not an easy task. In the next post, I’ll address the different stories about wolverine ecology that arise from these different scientific analyses, and then discuss the different policy prescriptions that would be appropriate if a given story were true.

In the meantime, a bit of media: here’s a story about the reopening of the comment period which also gives some details on the study in the North Cascades.

And perhaps of note, for the past week I’ve been keeping an eye on wolverine literature published in 2013. This morning I noted for the first time a paper by Inman and several co-authors, with an October 2013 publication date, proposing yet another habitat model and making suggestions for wolverine management at a meta-population scale. I haven’t yet had time to read this paper in detail, but will post more here in coming days, as my schedule allows. For anyone with academic access, the article is available here.

 

 

Game of Wolverines, Part One: Is Winter Coming? And Why Does it Matter?

So, what’s going on with the wolverine listing decision and the comment period being reopened? What’s the debate that warrants further comment from scientists and the public? I don’t know what prompted the USFWS to reopen to the comment period, but it is clear that there were disagreements over the science during the peer review and the comment process earlier this year. I’ll make an attempt to summarize the debate as I understand it, starting with the major papers (this post) and then looking at the scientific details that generated discussion (later this week.) Again, I do not know what’s going on, but for people who are interested in commenting, it helps to have a clear understanding of the state of the science. Since the discussion that occurred in the review reflects a bigger set of questions within the science, which I’ve been meaning to address for a while, the reopening of the comments provides an opportunity to look closely at the current state of wolverine research.

For background, remember that wolverines are hard to study; they’re a naturally rare, difficult-to-detect species living, here in the contiguous US, in some of the most challenging terrain in the country. Serious research on the Rocky Mountain wolverine population began only within the past two decades; prior to that, the state of Montana carried out track surveys and tried to monitor the population by assessing trapping take, but, while these activities provided insight into areas of presence, they offered no understanding of demographics or ecology. The scientific literature on wolverines remains comparatively sparse, and we still don’t have good information on demographics in the Rockies. Advocates petitioned to put wolverines on the Endangered Species List in 1994 and 2000; both petitions were denied on the basis of lack of adequate information. A petition denied in 2008 stated that Rocky Mountain wolverines were not distinct from the population in Canada and were therefore not a distinct population segment (DPS) listable under the ESA, an assertion for which there was no published substantiation; there was widespread speculation that this decision was based on the Bush administration’s ideological objections to the ESA. The current proposed rule relies on information that is finally within the body of published science, particularly a series of papers out of the Rocky Mountain Research Station that draw connections between wolverine dependence on snow and cold, and the future threat of diminishing snowpack. A number of other relevant, supporting papers exist, but the RMRS papers are at the heart of the finding that wolverines are threatened by climate change and warrant protection under the ESA. Trapping was found to be a secondary threat, in light of synergistic interactions with climate change. There is very little published information on the effects of trapping on wolverine populations, so this is a tricky topic.

Seven individual researchers participated in the peer review, all of whom are authors on papers that were considered as part of the listing process, and/or who have expertise in other areas. Five of the reviewers (Copeland, Aubry, Schwartz, Squires, and Zielinski) work or worked for the Forest Service; two (Magoun and Inman) do not, having worked more closely with state agencies and with research organizations.  All of these individuals are respected scientists with years of experience working on wolverines or, in the case of Zielinski, other members of the mustelid family. The first five reviewers found that the summary of the science and the conclusions reached in the listing rule were accurate and comprehensive, with minor adjustments to technical language. Magoun and Inman, however, questioned the analysis of the science and the conclusion that wolverines should be listed. In addition, the state of Montana submitted comments heavily critical of the proposed rule, and Wyoming and Idaho joined in to oppose federal protection. The alignment of the states against the federal government will surprise no one familiar with the script of carnivore conservation in the West, particularly since Montana was seeking to protect its limited trapping season, which is currently suspended under court order, pending the outcome of the listing decision. The critiques by Magoun and Inman, however, delve into some scientific issues that once again reflect on our limited knowledge of the species.

Here’s the background.

In 2010, Jeff Copeland and a number of his colleagues, including co-authors Audrey Magoun and Bob Inman, published a paper, The Bioclimatic envelope of the wolverine; Do climatic constraints limit its geographic distribution?, that tied global wolverine distribution to late spring snowpack. The paper correlated wolverine distribution with snow that remains on the ground until the period between April 24th and May 15th, proposing that the biological reason for this relationship lay in the fact that female wolverines den in the snow. The paper also suggested that the relationship is obligate – that is to say, wolverines depend absolutely on snow dens, are obligated to den in snow, and cannot successfully reproduce without snow. Despite some fluctuation in observed birth and weaning dates, May 15th represents an approximate date by which wolverine kits were weaned and out of the den, which was why this date was chosen as the upper limit on snowpack persistence. The researchers created a map of snow cover through the use of satellite imagery, incorporating seven years of real-world data on snow cover, and when den sites were overlaid on the map, the match was 97.9%, with 69% of the dens falling within areas that were snow covered for 6-7 years out of 7. Twelve dens (out of 562) occurred outside of the mapped snow cover; the authors stated that these sites were investigated and that they were snow dens, but that the satellites were unable to map the area as snow covered due to canopy cover and the percent of the area that was snow covered versus the resolution of the satellite images. The snow cover map encompassed 89% of telemetry points from wolverine studies worldwide.

The researchers also created a temperature map that looked at regions with maximum August temperatures of ≤ 22º C, and found that 90% of summer telemetry locations fit within this map. This suggested that wolverines could be limited by hot summer temperatures as well as by spring snow distribution. Since these two factors often overlap, especially at the southern edge of wolverine distribution, “….the relative importance of these factors for limiting wolverine range becomes increasingly difficult to assess.” The paper indicated, however, that cold and snow were definitely required for wolverine presence and persistence on a landscape. When I spoke to Jeff Copeland shortly after the publication of this paper, he emphasized that snow denning wasn’t meant to be a single explanatory factor for wolverine dependence on cold, but that it served as an umbrella for numerous other ways in which the species might be tied to frigid environments. In other words, he explained, you could add a bunch of other parameters to the habitat model, but since none of them offered any further refinement to the fit of the model and the data, it would simply clutter things up. As habitat models go, this one was streamlined and very elegant. It was also a clear link, the first in the published literature, between wolverines and climate change.

2011 saw a second paper on wolverines and climate change, McKelvey et al’s Climate change predicted to shift wolverine distributions, connectivity, and dispersal corridors. This paper relied on the 2010 paper to assess the possible effects of a warming climate on wolverine distribution by looking at what climate change would do to snow cover. It predicted that wolverine habitat and dispersal routes would shrink substantially through the 21st century, resulting in further isolation, both geographic and genetic, of wolverines in the Rockies. The bulk of this paper involves interpreting and downscaling global climate models and cross-fitting them to the MODIS data; I’m not going to detail the methods here, except to emphasize that this paper drew on the Copeland et al 2010 paper to reach its conclusions, and looked at the entire area of snowcover mapped in that 2010 paper.

In 2012, Bob Inman and Audrey Magoun, along with colleagues Jens Persson and Jenny Mattison from Sweden, published a paper, The wolverine’s niche: linking reproductive chronology, caching, competition, and climate, proposing several other ways in which wolverines might depend on cold environments to thrive. The paper details wolverine reproductive chronology, assessing cases from research conducted across wolverine range and showing that wolverines give birth across a range of dates, but usually from late January to mid-March, with weaning between April and May. The exploration of reproductive chronology draws connections between food availability and periods of high resource demand for females (pregnancy, lactation) and kits (first summer post-weaning) and suggests that wolverines give birth comparatively earlier than other non-hibernating mammals in order to take advantage of pulses of nutrition at critical times – cached ungulate carcasses see females through lactation and then the kits are weaned in time to take advantage of more varied and abundant summer food resources. The paper also puts forth some interesting hypotheses about competition and food caching behavior – namely that wolverines are able to thrive in a harsh niche because their physiology gives them advantages over other predators, and because they are able to cache and store scarce food resources, since low temperatures preserve meat for long periods of time. Taken together, all of these ideas provide interesting and compelling elaboration on the relationship between wolverines and cold environments – they add texture and intricacy to the broader strokes painted by Copeland et al in the snow map paper. The hypotheses about food storage, reproductive timing, and competition, however, have never been tested. They point to intriguing areas for future investigation, but there’s no evidence, yet, that these relationships are definite.

I’ve never seen these two papers as being in competition or contradiction; they address wolverines’ links to cold climates at different scales, but I’ve always perceived them as complimentary. The Inman et al paper doesn’t explicitly critique Copeland, it puts forth a food-based hypothesis for correlation of wolverine distribution with cold and spring snow. Also perhaps of note in light of the current situation, the first sentence of the abstract of Inman et al reads: “Wolverines are demographically vulnerable and susceptible to impacts from climate change.” There is no quarrel in this paper with the notion that snow is an important characteristic of wolverine habitat, or of the notion that climate change will be a problem for the species. Nor is there a hint of the idea that there must be only one biological reason for wolverines to be tied to cold and snow; food caching at cold sites, snow denning, and physiological adaptations that allow wolverines to outcompete other predators in cold, snowy situations are all part of the same story.

These are the three papers at the core of the discussion. All of them come out of a scientific process that begins with observation and intuition: we know that wolverines are creatures of the north, they’re only found in places that are extremely cold and snowy. Why? The two most important things for survival of any species are resources and reproduction, so the distribution pattern must have something to do with one or both of those factors. How? This is where hypotheses come in, as different scientists come up with possible explanations and test them. It’s also where one of the limitations of scientific inquiry is highlighted: experiments can only test one hypothesis at a time, and two published papers exploring different hypotheses about the same relationship can be perceived as being in competition or offering alternative, rather than complimentary or synergistic, explanations for a phenomenon. Ecology is especially tricky because it’s hard to design experiments and control variables at a scale that will offer conclusive evidence one way or another.

All of this is fine as long as you stay within the realm of dialogue about knowledge, but once you try to pull that knowledge into a decision-making situation that demands facts or truth, you start to run into problems. My father, who is a scholar of the history of science and technology, defines science as a process of human inquiry that makes natural phenomena incrementally more visible to our limited human faculties. It is a pursuit that is fundamentally tied to deep uncertainty and subject to constant revision. It represents our best current understanding of a given situation or process, but it’s never absolute. Unfortunately, in the popular mind science is seen as a way of uncovering Truth, and expressions of uncertainty are seen as negating the validity of an entire hypothesis. Most of the social issues around science – notably the campaigns against evolution and climate science, but also trends in some branches of academia that dislike and wish to discredit science – exploit this misunderstanding. The issue of how far science can generate unassailable Truth or Fact creates tension when we appeal to science to help create policy. That’s where we are right now.

Stay tuned for the next episode, Game of Wolverines, Part Two: A Clash of Analyses

(With apologies to wolverine fans who don’t watch or read fantasy epics, and to any Game of Thrones fans who may have ended up here thinking that this has to do with the actual series. I started watching the show while stuck in Ulaanbaatar for a week with nothing else to do, and I persisted in watching it – truly – because I was trying to figure out whether some of the characters were wearing wolverine pelts as they traipsed around fighting battles. Because mindless books are a great way to spend 24 hours of travel time between the US and Asia, I ended up reading the series to find out what happened, and discovered some wolverine references in there, too. My major preoccupation with these books is wondering how I would design a wolverine research project in a world where winter and summer last for years on end – is it even reasonable to assume that wolverines would persist in such a world, given that a years-long summer would disrupt their breeding cycles and melt out their favorite food-caching spots? I really wish George RR Martin and HBO would address this pressing question.

None of this is meant to draw parallels between specific people and specific characters (since almost everyone in the series is reprehensible), but simply to allude to the complicated human dynamics and loyalties that are at play in any wildlife conservation situation. And also because it affords a fun opportunity to play word games with some of the titles and key phrases from the books. Readers of the books will get the references. Others should just shrug and focus on the content.)