The End of a Journey: Colorado Wolverine Killed in North Dakota

A couple of weeks ago, a wolverine was killed in North Dakota by a ranch hand who came across it, surrounded by cattle. He believed that the animal was a threat to his calves, even though he wasn’t sure what it was, and shot it. The North Dakota Department of Game and Fish confirmed the ID and took possession of the body for a necropsy and DNA testing. Articles about the incident, and the animal’s possible origins, have popped up over the past week, and I was in the process of writing a post about this incident, and how interested I was in the results of the DNA testing and the origins of this wolverine, when NDG&F released an update containing surprising news: the wolverine was carrying a radio transmitter. That transmitter belonged to an animal instrumented in Wyoming in 2008, and whose “last known location was Colorado in 2012.”

This leaves little doubt that the animal was M56, the wolverine who gained fame in 2009 when he traveled 500 miles from northern Wyoming to Colorado. He became the first verified wolverine in Colorado in 90 years. Colorado Parks and Wildlife tracked him until his instruments died, as he traveled up and down the length of the Colorado Rockies. He was spotted and photographed by hikers on several occasions, and prompted widespread interest in the idea of reintroducing wolverines to Colorado. I cannot enumerate the emails I’ve gotten from elementary school classes across the country wanting to know more about M56, where he is now, and what he’s doing. In fact, I answered such an email this morning, to a third grade class in Ohio, sending along cheerful speculations about how he was probably still alive and wandering around the Rockies. He was a genuinely famous wolverine, people were inspired by his story, and I’m caught between astonishment that he had gone all the way to North Dakota – North Dakota! – and sadness at his end.

I tracked this guy shortly after he was caught and instrumented, off Togwotee Pass in Wyoming, in early 2009. Once I took my sister, who was in town for a visit, and once I went by myself. I didn’t find his tracks, and the days were still too short for extensive trips, but I could hear him on the telemetry receiver, the slow, steady, tick….tick of the transmitter both soothing and exhilarating in the snowbound forest. I had no idea what he would go on to do, but I loved him even then simply for being out there, for his presence on the landscape, which, even before his tremendous journeys, seemed huge.

We lost track of him for a while, and then he was picked up traveling south down the spine of the Wind River Range in central Wyoming. We thought he’d stick there, but then he disappeared again. At that point, we began speculating – what if he kept going south, to Colorado? The speculation was half-joking, half hopeful. It picked up steam and tipped towards hopeful when he was spotted outside of Laramie by a rancher who saw him and called Game and Fish to report it. A flight ID-ed him. I remember thinking that I sort of loved that rancher, too, for calling the animal in, for being an ally of science and understanding and coexistence. His decision kept the story alive.

M56 crossed into Colorado in May of 2009. His journey coincided with the start of my work in Mongolia, and those two events catalyzed the founding of this blog. He made it clear that these animals had stories unlike the stories of other animals, at a scale that corresponded to my own interests. M56 made me realize that there was something to write about here, a compelling narrative, and his was the first story that I told.

I have an aversion to letting my emotions get the better of me, but it’s hard not to admit to grief over M56’s end. It’s extraordinary that he went from Wyoming to Colorado to (probably, since he was so close to the border) Montana to North Dakota – and who knows where else in between? Unknown animals die unmourned all the time, so it shouldn’t matter. But storied wolverines…they are rare, and they hint to us of all the wild and unseen and amazing lives that go on beyond our awareness. That’s something worth thinking about. So take a moment to remember M56, to consider his life, and those unknown lives, and what it means to have them out there. It means more than I can express, probably more than any of us can express – but let us keep trying.




CU Boulder Wolverine Event

For Denver and Boulder residents, tomorrow night, CU Wild will host a screening of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, followed by a question-and-answer session with a panel of wolverine experts. And me. I’ll be there too. The event will be held at CU Boulder, in Fleming Law room 155, from 6-8pm. It’s free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

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Wolverine Hearing in Colorado

This is a very brief alert for wolverine-interested people who are in Colorado. The US Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a public hearing on the proposed listing rule this coming Tuesday, March 19th. The hearing will be held at the Hampton Inn in Lakewood, Colorado beginning with an informational session from 2:00 – 5:00 pm, with a public comment session to follow in the evening. You must sign up to make a comment; sign-up starts at 6:00 pm.

Several environmental NGOs, including Defenders of Wildlife and Rocky Mountain Wild, will host an event at the same location to discuss wolverine science and conservation, the 10j designation, and the implications of the proposed listing rule and reintroduction. They will provide talking points and synopses of the major issues and opportunities for use during the public comment session.

I haven’t been involved with the development of these materials, and I don’t know what they say, but I have seen an alert from a snowmobile interest group asking for turnout at the hearing to counter the influence of “misinformed” environmentalists. I’m confident that the environmental groups in Colorado will encourage everyone to take a measured approach to the discussion. The snowmobilers are concerned that environmentalists will try to use wolverines to enforce restrictions on recreation, although as far as we know, motorized recreation does not have an effect on wolverines. We have two choices here: pick a fight over land use, based on scientifically shaky “feelings” that wolverines must be influenced by snowmobiles (despite lack of evidence); or try a different approach. I recommend that wolverine advocates take the opportunity to emphasize that wolverines, skiers, and snowmobilers depend on the same resource – snow – and that we have a shared interest in figuring out how to protect that resource, and the associated ecosystem. That means building broad-based coalitions to address climate change. Wolverines are a test case for a new era of conservation and we need to move that dialogue forward, immediately.

I wish I could be there, but I will be somewhere over the Pacific, en route to Mongolia, as the lead scientist on a National Geographic-sponsored expedition that we hope will collect DNA samples and establish some baseline information on distribution of wolverines within the Darhad region. More on this soon.


More Press Coverage for M56

Here’s another article about M56, Colorado’s lone (known) wolverine. Colorado papers seem to revisit this issue every few months, and this piece doesn’t contain much new information, although it does cite a definite date for the listing decision – January 18th, 2013. I’ve been way out of the Colorado loop and the listing loop since I went to Mongolia in July, so I don’t know if this is definite. Shawn Sartorius, who is in charge of the USFWS status review, also goes on record to say, “It does not look like wolverines are particularly sensitive to human activities.” This is good news for wolverines and for the ski industry. Bob Inman, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wolverine biologist, emphasizes the need to see ski resorts as endangered by the same factors that might threaten wolverines, and suggests that resorts might serve as allies in wolverine education and conservation efforts. If a Colorado introduction does go forward, it’s good to contemplate the prospect of a conflict-free carnivore – an anomaly in the West, but one that we should celebrate.

The evolution of certitude about how many wolverines are in the Rockies is interesting to watch; when I first started hanging out with wolverine biologists, those biologists refused to give numbers to reporters, even though that was inevitably the first question the reporters asked. These days, the numbers are raining down like particularly confusing confetti. This year alone I’ve seen claims ranging from 25 (this reflects a conflation of effective population and total population; the former represents the number of breeding adults contributing to the gene pool) to 300. This article claims that 250 ‘survivors’ (actually, they are probably recolonizers following a 20th-century extirpation) are clustered in the northern US Rockies. Does anyone really know how many wolverines are out there? No. And even if we did, wolverine survival on the landscape is not purely a matter of numbers. As we move forward with conservation plans, I hope people can detach themselves from commitment to a number, and start to talk about demographics instead.

In any case, I hope that if a reintroduction does happen, it happens in time for M56 to become part of the effective population. I know that’s sentimental on my part, and it’s just as likely that he’ll get booted out of his territory by some younger, stronger male, but… poor guy, he’s been hanging out alone for the past four years. He needs some company.




Wolverines Breeding in North Cascades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M56 Sighted in Colorado

A lucky hiker in Colorado ran into a wolverine a week ago, and managed to take some great photos, which can be seen here. The Colorado Department of Wildlife confirmed that this is M56, the same wolverine who traveled to Colorado from Wyoming in 2009. The photos are really good and the response, which reflects a lot of enthusiasm for the species, is heartening. It’s also great to know that M56 is still trekking around.

Wolverine Publicity in the Tetons and Beyond

Outdoorsman and mountain adventurer Forrest McCarthy has posted an account of six years of work on the Teton wolverines. McCarthy refers to his time on the Teton projects as “the best job I ever had,” and offers a great selection of stories and pictures. Also in the blogosphere, the Adventure Journal has a tribute to the toughness of wolverines, based on the recent study by Bob Inman of WCS.

Audubon magazine has posted online a story that they ran in print back in 2008. When I began this blog, in 2009, this article was one of the few popular-press items ever written about wolverines. We’ve come a long way in building awareness in the space of four years.

The Spokesman-Review offers an article about the wolverine research in the Selkirks, which, as of last week, camera-trapped its first wolverine of 2012. The article gives a well-deserved nod to the 40 (!) volunteers who showed up to participate in the research training. Citizen scientists are essential to so many of these projects, and the degree of interest is again indicative of growing awareness of the species.

Finally, for Colorado residents who are particularly interested in the Mongolia wolverine work, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is offering a talk on Mongolian wildlife research on Wednesday, January 18th. As far as I know, the talk will not focus on wolverines, but it will feature “remarkable tales of fermented mare’s milk, wild gerbils and hamsters, efforts to save the very endangered Gobi bear, an unexpected run-in with local shakedown artists, and bad combinations of snow in July and unreliable Russian vehicles….” The fermented mare’s milk, the shakedown artists, the unexpected snow, and the unreliable Russian vehicles all suggest that if you are interested in what wolverine research in Mongolia entails, you’ll get a pretty good picture from this talk. The lecture starts at 7:00, at the Gates Planetarium; admission is $10.

And for those who can’t get enough of Mongolian wildlife, check out this short film on Mongolian marmots. Marmots are of cultural importance and, by all reports from Mongolian hunters and herders, are most likely an important food source for Mongolian wolverines as well as Mongolian people. (Be forewarned that this film contains images of people butchering a marmot, which is tradition in Mongolia but may be upsetting to some audiences.) Thanks to the folks at Boojum Expeditions for bringing this to my attention.