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.

The Den

Last week, a small crew on skis set out into the high mountains of the Montana wilderness. They were headed into wolverine country, their objective a series of scattered points close to treeline. The points had been obtained during telemetry flights in April, and they indicated that F3, a five year old female wolverine, was restricting her movements to a small portion of her usual range. Under normal conditions, F3 might be found anywhere within an approximate 300 km² sweep of rugged country. Over the past several weeks, however, she had limited herself to a few drainages in close proximity to each other. Her behavior unleashed a wave of excitement among the wolverine crew who had been tracking her since 2007; restricted movement is the classic indication that a female wolverine is in a den with kits.

Determining F3’s reproductive status has become an annual springtime ritual at the Absaroka-Beartooth project, fraught with trepidation, surges of hope, and, inevitably, disappointed resignation to the fact that, once again, the project’s sole instrumented female wolverine has failed to produce kits. We’ve been engaging in this ritual since F3 was first captured in 2007. For the first two years, she was young, and, as far as we knew, there was no male in her territory, so the absence of a den in 2008 and 2009 wasn’t such a surprise.

F3 in 2008, captured by an automatic camera at one of the project's live traps.

Then, in spring of 2009, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wolverine project took charge of a young male that had been accidentally caught in a bobcat trap in Idaho. WCS released the wolverine, M57, in Montana, and he promptly headed for F3’s territory. We knew that F3 and this male – notable for his white paws and his unprecedentedly relaxed attitude when captured by the project’s live traps – were traveling together throughout 2009, and the tension over F3’s status in spring of 2010 was palpable. For the first time, we had real grounds to hope for babies.

The question was especially urgent for the project because the work done so far had provided no evidence of reproduction in Yellowstone or the ranges immediately to the north, south, and east. In fact, those ranges seemed strangely vacant; the habitat appeared good, but the wolverine population was sparse even for a rare carnivore. Over the course of five years, the project had documented two immigrants to the study area – M57 and a female, F133, who was born in the Gallatins and who traveled across Yellowstone to take up residence south of the park. But there had been no births. This suggests that, at least in Yellowstone and its immediate surroundings, the wolverine population currently depends on dispersing wolverines from further to the north and west. With only a single den documented in Wyoming – in the Tetons – the data also suggest that Wyoming’s population might rely on input from populations in Montana. And with talk of reintroduction following M56’s trip from Wyoming to Colorado, the need for a healthy region-wide meta-population, with as many interconnected nodes of reproducing wolverines as possible, became even more urgent. Any further understanding of reproductive dynamics and denning characteristics – not to mention the sheer and simple fact of more wolverines on the landscape – would be invaluable.

In 2010, a series of telemetry flights eventually indicated that F3 wasn’t denning. We caught her in March of 2010 and were finally able to determine that she was not nursing, although she and M57 were still traveling together. Disappointed, we held out hopes for 2011, but by now the project was officially over and finding resources to keep it going was becoming more and more challenging.

This season, F3 went into the trap early, in January, and the crew noted that her teats were enlarged –  a real reason for hope. The weather remained ferocious throughout the spring, making flights difficult, but when a series of telemetry points finally came in after flights in April, F3’s apparent localization added further evidence to the argument for kits. Finding proof, however, was necessary, and the mission was urgent: wolverine kits leave the den in early May, and the dens themselves, dug in the snow, are ephemeral and nearly impossible to identify once the snow is gone. From the time the points came in, the crew had approximately two weeks to get to the area and figure out what was going on.

The trip in took three hours of skiing, over a steep pass and through heavy snow. At the outset Jason Wilmot, who was leading the trip, listened for F3 and M57 and picked up M57’s signal to the south. There was no indication that F3 was anywhere nearby, and the first point that the crew reached yielded nothing. Jason and the crew pressed on to the next point.

Here, at the pass, they picked up tracks, and then more tracks, and then an explosion of tracks. This, too, was strong indication of a den, and sure enough, backtracking the prints, they found a hole. And then another one. And another. Altogether, the crew discovered six holes in the snow, some apparently linked beneath the surface. The tracks were melted out and the crew were unable to determine whether they came from multiple animals, let alone animals of different sizes. But the evidence for a den and kits was strong.

The crew had already made the decision not to instrument the kits – without the funds for flights to monitor them, it would have placed unnecessary stress on the animals – so they didn’t dig to see if the babies were underground. Instead, they collected DNA samples from the tracks and the entrances to the holes. They listened for F3, but she was still absent. If there were indeed kits, the family might have already left the den permanently, but F3 might just as easily have been out on a foraging run, and the kits could have been curled up in a chamber in the snow beneath the crew’s feet, pondering the strange vibrations of skis and human voices.

Before they left the site, Jason listened again for M57. The signal came in, and it was loud – M57 was somewhere nearby. Employing a trick that wildlife biologists use to determine exactly how close an instrumented animal is, Jason removed the antenna from the receiver and held out the cord with its metal end. If an animal’s signal still comes in without the antenna, the animal is really close. M57’s signal continued to boom in. He was right on top of the crew, probably watching them from somewhere in the trees. As Jason and the remainder of the crew skied out, they crossed M57’s tracks coming into the basin; the wolverine tracks were overlaid on the ski tracks of crew members who had already skied out. From his position far to the south earlier in the day, M57 had traveled directly to the den site. This was further circumstantial evidence that this was indeed a reproductive den, and that M57 was coming to check in on his mate and offspring – a pattern detected on numerous occasions by the Glacier Park and WCS projects.

Without having seen the kits, we can’t confirm that F3 and M57 reproduced. But the evidence is good. From here, we’ll use genetic analysis to try to determine if there are kits and if so, how many. We’ll return to the den site in the summer to gather more DNA samples. If there are kits and if they survive the summer, they are likely to remain within their parents’ territories for the next year, and F3 and M57 are likely to show them all the good foraging spots – including the project’s live traps. We may have the opportunity to capture and examine the kits this winter, to at least determine sex. If we find the funds, we may be able to instrument them and monitor them as they approach dispersal age. This could provide crucial information about connectivity among the different populations, and the extent to which southern populations really are dependent on dispersers from Montana. Overall, it’s exciting and hopeful news for the project and for wolverines at the edge of their range.

Wolverines Beyond the Greater Yellowstone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wolverine Week in Review

A small avalanche of articles on wolverines has appeared over the past two weeks. From an enthusiastic write-up of Doug Chadwick’s Canadian tour promoting The Wolverine Way, to two pleas (here, a piece in New West, and here, in National Parks Traveler) for wider protection of the species in the US, to a synopsis in High Country News of new climate change research that suggests that wolverines are facing harder times ahead, to a recap of the adventures of the lone Sierra male, wolverines are becoming more newsworthy day-by-day. Average daily visits to this blog are about twice what they were six months ago, and attendance at wolverine talks in Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming has been standing-room-only for the past ten months. All of this indicates an increased interest, which is gratifying to those of us who have long hoped that the wolverine would gain a more prominent place in our collective awareness.

Sometimes, wider attention can be two-edged, however. Over the past few years, as we’ve prepared to induct the wolverine into the ranks of conservation darlings, I’ve had a few moments of panic over the way in which good intentions could go awry. There’s a thin line between reasoned advocacy and blind enthusiasm, and it’s easy for the former to tip over into the latter. The wolverine needs a constituency, but it needs a constituency that advocates for smart things, in a smart way.

Immediately following the listing decision in December,  the environmentalist reaction to the “warranted but precluded” designation was primarily one of disappointment and reproach. I was particularly taken aback by an editorial that lambasted the decision as “political” and called for immediate listing. I’ve struggled to articulate reasons for my reaction to this piece, because I too would have preferred to see the wolverine listed and offered endangered species protections, even while realizing that the ‘warranted but precluded’ status represents a huge step forward. But, after some reflection, after a lesser resurgence of frustration while reading some of last week’s articles, and partially in reaction to some recent discussions about Montana’s trapping season (about which more to come in later posts), I think it comes down to this:

The environmental movement gained its foothold in the midst of the crises of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and its narrative – its essential script – is always of crisis. Environmental advocates are caught in a perpetual reactive cycle that is fundamentally defensive, combative, and angry. And in order to be defensive and combative, one requires, of course, someone against whom to direct one’s anger – an enemy.

In reacting to the listing decision in December, some people chose to cast the federal government in the role of enemy. There have been murmurs within the environmental advocacy community and the growing wolverine fan base, seeking to assign that role to other groups – to snowmobilers, to trappers, to ranchers. It is to the credit of environmental advocates that none of these narratives of threat have blown up and taken off, but the risk is always there. And it is a risk, for two reasons. First, using any of these potent narratives against a specific identity-based group has the potential to evoke an anti-wolverine reaction from politically powerful people. Take a ten-second glance at the state of wolf conservation, and you will understand why this would be a disaster. Second,  re-enacting the ritual battles of cultural identity that characterize environmental disputes in the West distracts us  from the real issues surrounding wolverine conservation, which are climate change and habitat fragmentation.

This, then, is why calls for listing as a conservation solution for wolverines make my stomach flip. Listing has worked fantastically for a number of species, but it’s as if people have come to believe that putting an animal on the list is the equivalent of having conserved it. That’s not the case. The wolverine could be listed, and it would make little difference to its long-term prospects, because we lack the political and social will to tackle those big, looming issues, and the ESA, which doesn’t allow us to regulate for climate change, gives us no grounds to do so.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t list the wolverine, but that we need to stay focused on substantive as well as symbolic actions. We’ve become so accustomed to fighting for listing as the apotheosis of endangered species conservation that, in some ways, we’re floundering in confusion, and clinging to the comfort of those old successes, as we try to deal with the fact that wolverines – and polar bears, and other species threatened by climate change – call for something above and beyond the predictable strategies that have worked well in the past. We don’t yet know what those solutions will look like, but we know that they will have to be bigger and just as systemic as the problems that necessitate them.

And this brings me back to narratives of combat, crisis, and enemies. If we’re going to tackle these bigger issues, we need alliances, not battle lines. We need to use reasonable federal decisions as a jumping-off point instead of entrenching and employing limited resources to fight the government. We need better data on critical questions about reproduction,  dispersal, and genetic exchange so that we know how to take effective action – which means that we need to fund research and monitoring. We need to guarantee every single wolverine a fighting chance to successfully disperse and reproduce, with as few potential sources of direct mortality as possible. We need instantaneous action on climate change, although – as Synte Peacock’s recent paper on climate modeling in wolverine habitat in the Rockies points out – it may be too late for that already. We need a push for a new conservation narrative, more complex, more sophisticated, and ultimately more successful, that can build alliances for action on those larger issues.

So keep the interest in wolverines high, and keep calling for listing, but let’s make sure that we’re also talking about what we’re going to do beyond that to ensure that the wolverine stays on the ground in the Rockies. There is a crisis, but it’s not a simple crisis with a single solution – it’s worldwide and culturally embedded, and its implications extend far beyond wolverines.

That was something of a rant, and I apologize for any sense of negativity. I deeply appreciate the increasing interest in wolverines and the sincerity behind people’s desire to see it protected. But I hope we can direct energy and resources in the most effective fashion, without getting distracted by protracted legal or media battles unless they are necessary.

To bring things down a notch, I’ll leave off with a series of camera-trap photos from Banff National Park in Canada, which includes some photos of a wolverine gnawing on a moose carcass, and a great action shot of a wolverine in mid-air, chasing a raven. Enjoy.