2015 was a tumultuous year in the world of wolverine research and conservation. At the end of 2014, the proposed rule to list wolverines was abruptly withdrawn, and since then we’ve been waiting to see what will happen with a pending lawsuit and with several new research programs that could provide more insight into the wolverine’s status in the US Rockies. I’ve been pursuing another major writing project, so despite these important developments, I’ve been bad about keeping up with all the news.
2016, however, promises to be a different story, due to a phone call that I received one day back in August. That call was from Jeff Copeland, the renowned wolverine biologist and director of the Wolverine Foundation. He was calling to ask if I would be interested in taking over his position at TWF. I was speechless, which is not a good thing to be while on the phone, but I was overwhelmed with the feeling that you get when someone you admire and respect gives you a huge vote of confidence. When I found my voice again, I said yes. The thought of stepping into this role made my autumn shine, and working with Jeff, his wife Cheryl, and the board during the transition has been a pleasure. I officially began on January 1st. I’ve already shared some of my thoughts about the transition at the Wolverine Foundation website, and I encourage you to check it out. I also encourage you to follow TWF on social media (facebook here; twitter and instagram to follow soon, because yes, wolverines do need to share their photos and 140-character thoughts) to keep up with new research, publications, and policy development headlines. I’ll continue to blog, of course, to provide more in-depth analysis, and to share stories from the field. Yesterday, a judge in Missoula heard arguments for and against throwing out the USFWS decision not to list, and I was fortunate enough to be in the gallery, so I’ll be posting again soon. TWF is sponsoring the Badass Wolverine Challenge, a fitness event for wolverine fans that opens on February 21st, and I’ll also be updating about that shortly. And I’m looking forward to several other projects that I’ll discuss over the coming weeks. For now, though, after six weeks on the job, I’d like to reflect on TWF’s history, and the trajectory of wolverine research and conservation since its inception.
The Wolverine Foundation was founded back in 1996, after a number of the world’s wolverine biologists met in Whitehorse, Canada, and decided that the species needed an organization dedicated to advancing research and science. In the two decades since those biologists collaborated to form TWF, wolverines have gone from being on the extreme periphery of our awareness, to being at the center of research and conservation efforts in the US and beyond. This is not just a spurious claim. A quick search of Google Scholar for articles published prior to 1996 that reference wolverines reveals 1020 hits. Between 1996 and 2015, an additional 5330 articles have been added to the literature. Admittedly, some of those must be regarded with skepticism — interesting but probably not relevant to the topic at hand are articles such as “A content analysis of family relationships in six comic book series,” the truly mystifying “The grizzly and the wolverine: an alternative to an orchestrated ballet of farm implements,” and the intriguing but probably not scientific “A wolverine is eating my leg.” But even when the search is restricted to articles with “wolverine” in the title, and to remove references to X-Men, postmodern performance pieces, and other non-gulo topics, the trend is the same. Between 1900 and 1990, Google Scholar banks a grand total of 39 articles with “wolverine” in the title, not counting citations, and most of these are species descriptions or mentions in surveys of regional mammals. Between 1990 and 2000, we see 30 articles added to the literature, and between 2000 and 2010, 128 appear. In the past five years, an additional 76 have been published. Of the 273 articles with “wolverine” in the title, 249, or 91%, were published since the founding of the Wolverine Foundation.
The number of articles in Google Scholar is a coarse way of assessing the growing importance of a single topic, let alone the impact of a single organization concerned with that topic; there are many possible reasons for the exponential growth in publication. But it’s still indicative. Wolverines are more important to us now than they were twenty years ago, as measured by the time, attention, and resources devoted to them by the global research community. Here in the US, they’ve also become much more prominent in debates about conservation policy as the discussion about listing under the Endangered Species Act and wildlife protection in the age of climate change moves forward, so we can conclude that they’ve become more important to the general public. They are valued more highly, and more widely, than ever before.
During this period of growth in research and interest, the Wolverine Foundation has pushed to develop research and outreach, connect researchers, develop new methods for studying the species, and provide access to the science. In the past twenty years, TWF has supported around 30 projects, either by serving as a fiscal sponsor, or by giving small grants to projects, such as my Mongolia work, which would otherwise have had budget shortfalls. TWF has also played an important role in disseminating information to the broader public by providing scientific input to media, for example in the production of the PBS Nature special Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, and in numerous popular press and news articles. I can’t claim a direct cause-and-effect link between TWF’s existence and the growth of wolverine research and interest, but the organization has done a great job in bringing wider visibility to good wolverine science. This is how you raise the profile of a neglected species that you consider important. I’m truly excited to be stepping into a role that allows me to continue this work.
The Wolverine Foundation is not an advocacy group, and it will not become one. But saying that a species is important enough to warrant investments of time, research, and the money that accompany both is a vital first step in achieving conservation outcomes. Supporting research into important questions about wolverine ecology is the manifestation of the assertion that a species counts, that it is valued. That research allows the wider world to say, now we know something definite about this animal, and we know what it will take to keep it here in the decades to come. Then the task of creating policy begins, and along with that, the task of making sure that the policy advances the public interest. These last two steps are outside the scope of TWF’s work, but good science remains a critical foundational piece of the conservation process. That is where TWF will continue to position itself in the years to come, and that is how we’ll continue to expand our understanding of wolverine ecology and conservation needs.