Weal and Wolverines

Weal is an old word. It goes way back, to the days when a bunch of European tribes were squabbling over Great Britain: Roman invaders building walls to keep wild Celts and Picts from the civilized environs of their empire, Germanic and Scandinavian and Norman French invaders crashing onto the shores of an island where immigrants weren’t necessarily welcome, mixing up their genes and their languages and their culture. Whatever the disagreements of these groups as they contested over the British Isles, words akin to weal are found across large swaths of northern Europe, all related to a single concept: collective well-being. This is the word that gives us “well,” “wealth,” and “welfare,” as well as “Commonwealth,” a political entity that foregrounds the idea of shared responsibility and shared prosperity. Words with similar meanings are found throughout the world, so this is hardly an exclusively European concept; something in the human psyche acknowledges that we are, at our core, a social species responsible for our fellow creatures.

Today we understand wealth as relating to capital, material goods, and private property, but at one time wealth inhered in this shared investment in one’s community. When Puritans overthrew the corrupt monarchy of England in 1649 and decapitated Charles I – a man whose inflated self-opinion and dictatorial policies eventually became untenable to the British public – the nation’s briefly monarch-free government was referred to as a Commonwealth (This is about the time that the first use of the word “wolverine” is recorded in the English language, in customs forms related to fur imports). When those same English Puritans landed on the shores of North America in the 17th century, bringing with them all the good of their anti-monarchial ideals and all the ills of their colonial and religiously intolerant agenda, the land that they colonized eventually became the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American Revolution. And if there has always been a struggle between oligarchy and democracy in this country, if there has always been a tension between Enlightenment ideals and terrible colonial realities, the country’s values are nevertheless rooted in an understanding that we come to our community, and to its governance, in a spirit of both individualism and shared investment in the well-being of our fellow citizens.

What does this have to do with wolverines?

Wolverines, like all wildlife, are a public good. They don’t belong to any single person or interest group in the US, which means that we are collectively responsible for them. They are part of the weal of this country, part of the wealth we share. When we discuss what we know about wolverines, when we discuss management of wolverines, we’re talking about how to negotiate within a common-interest space for common-interest outcomes. This process is essential to democracy as well as to conservation of wildlife and the preservation of other environmental values that involve shared resources.

This reality rests uneasily next to a narrative that has gained increasing power over the past few decades, however: the narrative of unfettered neoliberal capitalism. The neoliberal narrative is a study in the privileging of special interests over the well-being of the collective of citizens known as society. It’s a deliberate turning of our backs on the idea that there is a reciprocal relationship between the individual and the world in which that individual lives and makes a living. Neolilberalism privatizes all profit, while socializing the risks and costs of profit-making. It consolidates capital among those who already have it, and denies the idea of the common weal by allowing those with capital to horde it without giving back and without taking responsibility for the ways in which  they impose on the public good. It puts a price tag on everything, and dismisses things that cannot be assigned monetary value. How much is a wild wolverine population worth to the public? This is hard to quantify. Easier to quantify is the value of profit made by oil industry executives and shareholders. The oil industry, in a world that extolls the neoliberal narrative, wins out over public interest. Neoliberalism is a powerfully destructive ideology, insidious and pervasive, and it is this basic set of values that will end up driving wolverines – and other climate sensitive wildlife – to extinction. Unless, of course, we have a massive society-wide awakening, immediately.

To that end, for those of you who are wolverine fans, I’d like to ask you to take a moment to reflect on your values. What are your priorities? How do these priorities potentially have an impact on society? What do you expect or feel entitled to in life, and what do you consider to be your obligations to the wider world? How do you define that wider world, and do you think are there limits to your obligations? If so, where are these limits? Likewise, if you feel like you are entitled to certain things, where are the limits on those entitlements, and do you extend the same set of entitlements to others? If so, which others?

These may seem like large and abstract questions, but I suspect that most people who are concerned with the persistence of wildlife fall within certain parameters when these questions are considered on a spectrum. There’s a lot of work out there in the social sciences on values orientation, the psychology of concern for in-groups vs. out-groups, and where environmental folks tend to fall out on these tests. For now, I’ll provide a couple of graphics and a set of questions to help you situate yourself within this conversation, because this issue of common interest vs. special interest will feature in upcoming posts and you’ll probably find yourself having gut-level reactions to some of what I write. You should know where those reactions are coming from.

Wolverine Quiz: What’s your in-group? 

First, let’s look at in-groups and out-groups. There’s a theory that people subconsciously define other people and entities as being relatively closer or relatively farther from themselves, and care about those people or entities to a degree that is dictated by that distance.

circleofconcern

Beings that are closer to the self get more care. Beings that are further get less. There are entities that are seen as being definitively outside of the scope of care; those beings are the out-group.

In a very restricted or self-centered worldview, the in-group and out-group might look something like this:

circleofconcern_conservative

In a very generous worldview, everything might be part of the in-group:

circleofconcern_generous

Note that these graphics should actually contain another dimension, which is time – for example, I consider living and non-living future generations, up to a certain point, as part of my ‘in-group,’ but I don’t really think about non-living past generations as part of my responsibility since – unless we really take it to a science fiction level – my actions can’t affect them. These are very basic graphics and very general explanations, but you probably get the idea.

Most people will fall somewhere in between the restricted and generous versions of the in-group/out-group dynamics above. Where do you fall? Who or what is in your in-group? If wolverines are in your in-group, why? (If they aren’t, what brings you to this blog?)

That question of why certain entities are included or excluded from our circle of concern leads us back to values. And that will be the topic of an upcoming post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monitoring vs. Snapshot

This winter, the states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington have teamed up to participate in a survey that will contribute to our understanding of wolverines in the US Rockies. This multi-state survey is a single season snapshot of wolverine distribution, using cameras and scent lures and some genetic analysis. Articles about this effort continue to pop up here and there; I haven’t highlighted them on the blog because most of the articles are rudimentary and don’t provide a lot of useful information. One trait that a lot of these pieces share, however, is a tendency to mischaracterize this effort as a “monitoring” program rather than a quick, single-season look at a highly dynamic population. Any effort to increase our understanding of wolverines is worthwhile, and the multi-state survey is no exception. It will potentially yield some interesting data. But the ongoing story about this being a monitoring effort that will result in “preserving” wolverines is misleading.

My personal obsession with clarifying all the minute nuances and details around wolverine science and the claims and counterclaims of competing interest groups has seemed, given the broader media landscape and socio-political trends, increasingly quaint and perhaps even Quixotic in recent months. Nevertheless, I’m going to carry on. So let’s take the latest iteration of the claim that the multi-state project is a monitoring project: a piece that appeared today on the KBZK Montana website. The headline states, “Wolverine Preservation Project Underway.” And then, in the space of a 265 word piece, the word “monitor” and variants are used four times. The words “conserve,” “preserve,” and variations thereon are used five times. At no point does the piece offer any substance with regards to what “conservation” or “preservation” entail, or how the survey connects to those objectives, or even what the source of threat is, with the exception of a quote in which Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks biologist Bob Inman talks about re-establishing populations in currently uninhabited former range.

Some earlier articles on this effort were more thorough and, in some cases, highlighted the snapshot nature of this winter’s survey. But even these articles tended to refer to it as a monitoring project, in both headlines and in the content of the articles, as in this piece. Monitoring, to be clear, involves the long-term observation of a process of interest to track trends or changes. A snapshot is a look at what’s going on with that process within a bounded period of time. A one-season survey is useful for offering insight into baseline conditions – but of course, we still have to keep in mind that the “baseline” is a fairly arbitrary moment, the significance of which hasn’t really been established. And with a highly mobile, sparsely distributed meta-population, in which habitat patches may move through cycles of occupancy and non-occupancy, we have to think critically about what the “baseline” information actually tells us about the population at large. The publicity around this project is interesting – the elisions in the narrative may just be the result of incomplete reporting, or they may represent intentional messaging, but either way, it’s a key example of a story being purveyed in the media in a way that doesn’t look closely enough at the scientific and policy contexts.

Again, any attempt to gain more information about wolverines is worthwhile and potentially valuable, and that’s true for the multi-state study, so my critique here isn’t necessarily of that effort (I’ll have more to say about that later, though). My concern is with the way media stories about wildlife science and policy create simplistic narratives about single studies leading to particular outcomes. Anyone reading these pieces should immediately ask whether the scope of the study matches the scale of the claims about the knowledge that will come out of it, and the level of protection and conservation that will be implemented as a result. Just something to consider as these stories continue to appear. I’ll be writing more on this topic in the future.

In the meantime, have a great weekend – hope it includes some good wolverine weather for all of you.

 

Wolverine Foundation Comments on Listing

I meant to put these up several months ago, but better late than never. Here are the Wolverine Foundation’s official comments on the listing proposal, submitted to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in November. These are already in the public record but I wanted to make them available here in case you don’t have time to sort through the Federal Register site in search of them.

The comments are in .pdf form and fairly extensive – I’ll be dealing with some of these topics piece by piece here on the blog in coming weeks, so if you don’t have time to read them all at once, stay tuned for more information. And as always, feel free to share your thoughts.

wolverinefoundationcomments2016

 

Wolverine Decision Ruled “Arbitrary and Capricious”

Judge Dana Christensen issued a ruling today finding the USFWS 2014 decision to withdraw the proposed wolverine listing rule “arbitrary and capricious.” His ruling vacates the decision and remands it to the USFWS. This means that the decision not to list is overturned, and the federal government must reconsider the science and issue a new decision. The court ruling does not require the USFWS to grant wolverines protected status under the Endangered Species Act, but it does find that the USFWS discounted the best available science and applied unnecessarily stringent standards of scientific certainty and precision in reaching the decision not to list.

I’ll get into some analysis in a future post. This decision came out fast, months ahead of what I anticipated, and so I haven’t even had a chance to publish the posts I was working on about the original scientific arguments for and against listing – so I have some catching up to do. In the meantime, the gist of the 85-page decision is summarized in Judge Christensen’s conclusion, for which I think he deserves a heartfelt thanks from future generations of wildlife enthusiasts who might value the opportunity to see wolverines and other climate-sensitive wildlife in the Rockies:

The Service erred when it determined: (1) that climate change and projected
spring snow cover would not impact the wolverine at the reproductive denning
scale in the foreseeable future, and (2) that small population size and low genetic
diversity do not pose an independent threat to wolverine viability in the United
States. By incorporating these determinations into the Withdrawal, the Service’s
decision against listing the wolverine as threatened under the ESA is arbitrary and
capricious. No greater level of certainty is needed to see the writing on the wall
for this snow-dependent species standing squarely in the path of global climate
change. It has taken us twenty years to get to this point. It is the undersigned’s
view that if there is one thing required of the Service under the ESA, it is to take
action at the earliest possible, defensible point in time to protect against the loss of
biodiversity within our reach as a nation. For the wolverine, that time is now.

The document is worth reading in its entirety, so I’m posting it here in .pdf format: Wolverine Ruling 2016.

The decision is detailed, but very readable, and contains a number of statements that made me exclaim out loud and sit up straighter – if you want a concise but thorough understanding of what was going on over the course of the writing of the proposed rule, the evaluation of the science, and the reversal, this is good reading. And those 85 pages are double spaced, so it goes pretty quickly. Enjoy!

The Argument Against Listing, As Summarized by the States

Last week, I posted about the court hearing on whether the USFWS decision not to list wolverines was “arbitrary and capricious.” During that hearing, the lawyers for the USFWS and the defendant-intervenors referenced a number of arguments against listing. Many of these arguments were heavily promoted by the states opposed to listing (per a USFWS email cited during the hearing, these arguments ‘originated’ with Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana). I referenced these arguments piecemeal as I summarized the hearing, but they were presented in a more structured way in the comments of various entities – including the states – on the proposed rule for listing. They were then succinctly and coherently summarized in September 2014 when the states published a letter, in various news outlets, in response to the decision not to list.

Before I delve into further analysis of the science and the conflicting narratives about what the research says, I’m going to post the letter so that readers can assess the structure and merits of the state’s contentions on their own. I’ll be discussing both the scientific details of these arguments, and the overall arc of the different narratives about wolverine conservation, in following posts. There are a number of other documents relevant to this set of arguments, but as the letter is the most concise, I’m going to use it as a point from which to elaborate and bring in additional details. Feel free to share your thoughts and impressions before I start with my own analysis.

Here’s the letter:

Wolverine fares well

The states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have noted the recent criticisms about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Aug. 12 decision to not list wolverine in the western United States as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. For the record, our states opposed the service’s original recommendation to list wolverines based on our concerns about listing a species that is at its highest population level in the past 80-100 years and still increasing. This fact supports the conclusion that state management works for the wolverine. The states also expressed our concerns over the uncertainty inherent in using projected changes in climate over the next 40-80 years to speculate about what might happen to wolverine habitat and wolverine populations.

The service, however, didn’t reverse its original proposal due solely to state input. The service chose, instead, to convene an independent panel of climate and wildlife scientists to review and discuss the science underlying the original listing proposal. Endangered Species Act listing is a complex arena that requires decisions based on imperfect data, and we applaud the service’s efforts to seek independent advice. It’s likely the model used for wolverines — a model based on cooperation with the states — will have utility for future decisions. Ultimately, the service made the right decision for wolverines for the right reasons. We thank the service for its willingness to listen, keep an open mind and utilize additional methods to fully explore science in its decision process.

Together we remain fully committed to the conservation of wolverines.

Virgil Moore
Director
Idaho Department of Fish and Game
M. Jeff Hagener
Director
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Scott Talbott
Director
Wyoming Game and Fish Department

 

 

 

Wolverine News From All Over

Wolverines have made the news fairly frequently over the past few weeks. Here are a few articles that just came out, and a few that I missed posting earlier.

First, another update on the Alberta wolverine research, which I discussed briefly last week, can be found here. This article is longer and does a much better job of discussing the varied factors that influence where wolverines appear on the landscape.

Second, DNA tests confirm that the wolverine recently spotted in California is the same wolverine first detected in 2008. An article in the LA Times contends that this means that the animal is nearing the end of its life, since wolverines are generally thought to average about a ten year lifespan, and this animal is at least seven. I’ve heard rumors that a wolverine known to be much older was recently recaptured on a project, however, so let’s hope that the Sierra wolverine proves to be equally long-lived – maybe by then a female will find her way to California as well.

In the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, forest biologists are continuing a project to assess the wolverine population, using DNA and Audrey Magoun’s camera techniques. This is one of the many wolverine projects that have sprung up over the past few years, indication of a heightened interest in a species that was once overlooked. Another ongoing project continues the work begun in Idaho to assess the influence of motorized and non-motorized backcountry recreation on wolverines. Operating for a second year in the Tetons, this study was featured in a June 2014 article that I missed posting because I was in Mongolia. It’s worth the read, and it’s great to think how much this project has accomplished since it started in 2009. Although this article has a typically controversy-generating headline (“Can wolverines and backcountry skiers coexist?”), the alarm is misplaced. The answer to the question is “yes,” so let’s dispense with the need to get people worked up. The real question revolves around whether either of these snow-obligate species will continue to prosper in the era of diminishing snowpack.

In Washington, researchers recently captured a 30 pound (!) male wolverine, as part of the final season of the decade-long North Cascades wolverine project. The article is fairly detailed and I’d like to focus a little more on this project in a separate post, but in the meantime, four observations. One – that’s an impressively large wolverine! Two, I’m so glad to hear that at least a few people did something interesting on Super Bowl Sunday – not just this year, but last year as well. Three, I’m assuming they named this wolverine “Special K” after the ketamine used in the capture, which betrays a somewhat dark aesthetic on the part of the researchers. Four, and most interesting, it appears that this wolverine is the son of Rocky, the original male occupying the area. Rocky vanished and was replaced by his son, Logan, who has now moved to a different location, apparently displaced by his half-brother Special K – the one named after the drug. Definitely some interesting social interaction data, but it also really piques my interest in how wolverines maintain enough genetic diversity to avoid fatal bottle-necks, since these males are taking over territories that most likely overlap with those of their mothers and/or their sisters.

Also in Washington, a news video and an article with a second video feature work on wolverines near Snoqualmie Pass. This is interesting, but the reporter does the same thing that generally drives me crazy when people talk about wolverines: he equates presence with a reproductive population, stating that wolverines are “moving south in spite of climate change,” which implies that there’s a resident population. I’m excited to see wolverine detections in new locations, but there are two things to keep in mind: first, as I mentioned, a wolverine or two is not necessarily a breeding population, and second, are these detections the result of wolverines moving in to new locations and expanding south, or are we finding them because we now have the motivation and the technology to look in places where we weren’t looking before? (I incline towards the former because I’m invested in the idea that wolverines are recolonizing, but that may just be my bias. It’s a question worth asking. Cameras and DNA make it easier to ‘observe’ the landscape in a sustained way that was unavailable to us until recently.) In any case, it’s nice to see yet another study utilizing Audrey Magoun’s camera technique.

Finally, for Montana residents, if you have ever felt the need to declare your allegiance to the conservation of climate-sensitive wildlife with a license plate for your (hopefully hybrid) car, you can now buy a specialty plate featuring a wolverine. The proceeds benefit the Swan Ecosystem Center and Northwest Connections, environmental groups that help monitor wildlife and work towards ecosystem conservation.

Wolverines may or may not be expanding their range, but interest in wolverines definitely is. It’s exciting to see.

 

 

 

 

 

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.