Two Years Later, Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Two years ago, five of us emerged from the Sayan Mountains of northern Mongolia after 23 days of skiing around the Darhad Valley. In his pack, Jason Wilmot carried 33 samples – scat, urine, hair – that we had picked up in the backcountry. Our journals and GPS units recorded 28 sets of wolverine tracks. We were gaunt, ragged, frostbitten, filthy…and ecstatic.

Or I was, anyway. As the director and lead scientist of the Mongolian Wolverine project, and the first person to undertake a systematic survey of wolverines in that country, I’d shared many an anxious conversation with Jason about whether long-range ski surveys, even in areas known to harbor wolverine populations, would prove a valid technique for yielding data. We weren’t sure that the expedition would provide worthwhile information. We speculated that we’d be lucky to find a single set of wolverine tracks and a single DNA sample. When we found our first track 45 minutes after setting out on the first day of the expedition, we laughed and said we could just turn around and go home. Mission accomplished, our single track and sole DNA sample retrieved. I was giddy, that first day.

By day three, as I crawled into a hole where the wolverine that had left track #5 had stashed a chunk of elk and the wing of a capercallie, the giddiness had settled into a persistent hum of excitement. Deep down, I’d hoped, and probably known, that the reports of wolverines that I’d collected from the Darhad over the past four years, and the pelts that I’d seen, meant that the species was in the mountains in force. But when you study the animal in North America, it feels almost miraculous to find a single set of tracks. I’d found tracks in Mongolia before, in summer snowfields, and even pulled samples from those tracks. Still, neither Jason – the co-PI on the project since its inception in 2009 and a fellow veteran of the initial 2010 Darhad wolverine research (horseback, not ski) expedition – nor I were prepared for the abundance of tracks and samples.

Jason, Jim, and Forrest taking a break at a wolverine track site, 2013.

Jason, Jim, and Forrest taking a break at a wolverine track site, 2013

Jason, and wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland, originally conceived of doing wolverine work in Mongolia before I knew either of them. Jeff had taken an initial exploratory trip to the country in 2004, but, busy with work in the US, had done nothing further. When I met Jason in 2006, I was a grad student looking at wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem, but he and his wife discussed their wolverine work in Glacier and Yellowstone with me, and Jason expressed interest in doing work on the species in Mongolia, and I was immediately intrigued. I had been a Peace Corps environmental volunteer in Mongolia, spoke the language, and wanted to go back to study wildlife. A little bit of inquiry suggested that no one had ever done systematic work on Mongolian wolverines. Neither Jason nor Jeff had the time to dedicate to leading a project, but I did. What seemed at first like a pipe dream – go research the world’s most difficult-to-study species in a country with almost no infrastructure – gradually took shape as Jason, Jeff, and other wolverine biologists mentored me, supported my grant-writing, and shared my growing excitement as the pieces came together.

The major challenges were logistics and funding. It’s one thing to conceptualize a wildlife research project in the US, where helicopters, GPS collars, snowmobiles, and airplanes are available to those with the bank accounts to pay for them. It’s another thing entirely to conceptualize a project in a place like Mongolia, where technology that we’re accustomed to here in the States is absent even if you’ve got the funds.

Mongolia, however, has something that dominant American culture lacks – a human population that has been living with and observing their wildlife over thousands of years. A large part of that population continues to herd livestock through wolverine habitat to this day. My initial efforts focused on simply talking to people, using a blind interview technique that allowed them to identify wildlife species in the area without knowing which one I was looking for. I also took small clips from pelts of animals that had already been killed – emphasizing that under no circumstances was I asking people to kill wolverines for me – in order to begin to build a DNA database, to add to the five samples that Jeff Copeland had obtained from fur hats in 2004. Interviewing proved to be an effective method, and the extraordinary conversations about nature and wildlife that followed were both informative and inspiring. By 2010, we had quadrupled the samples from Mongolian wolverines. We had gone from an insane idea to a place where we were gaining increments of understanding.

Gulo tracks in the Altai, 2010

Gulo tracks in the Altai, 2010

I didn’t, however, want to be one of those obnoxious Americans who shows up in a place, does some research, and claims a bunch of “discoveries” for herself, so from the outset I viewed the work as collaborative and reciprocal. I kept in trust the particulars of cultural stories and practices that belong to Mongolians, shared the basic scientific data on distribution, and saw the project as a long-term investment in building research and conservation capacity with interested communities. By 2010, when Jason first traveled to Mongolia with me, I’d delineated the Darhad and the surrounding mountains as the most likely region for doing a longer-term project. For one thing, it was the largest region of modeled wolverine habitat in the country, and the interview data and the pelts that I saw confirmed that they were there and that people saw them pretty frequently. For another, there was one protected area already in existence in the mountains, and another two were being proposed, which meant that we would have the structure of a dedicated conservation entity to work with. My particular objective – find out what wolverines are up to – could be combined with building conservation capacity amongst rangers and protected area staff. This made it the ideal location for a sustainable project. And finally, this region had robust existing ties with the Yellowstone ecosystem through programs such as BioRegions International, affiliated with Montana State University, and several tourist companies and conservation outfits. So the potential positive outcomes were manifold.

The big challenge, however, was moving from the efficient, low-cost, first-cut interview and basic survey techniques, to a more scientifically rigorous assessment of the Darhad population. Jason and I had discussed and tentatively planned ski surveys for DNA samples as an intermediate step between interviewing, and camera and collar work that would allow us to obtain demographic data and test hypotheses. I’d taken a year off to work for the Clinton Foundation in Cambodia after our 2010 expedition, so we’d just started to discuss these things again in 2011 when Forrest McCarthy, a renowned mountaineer, wolverine researcher, and friend from my time in Jackson, got in touch to ask if I wanted to collaborate on a proposal to National Geographic. He wanted to do ski surveys for wolverine in the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia, where I’d previously interviewed people and found some tracks. Forrest had a friend who had been working on the Chinese side of the Altai and who had picked up a number of wolverine tracks there. Forrest imagined an expedition on the Mongolian side of the range, and floated the idea to an acquaintance, chance met at an outdoor gear expo, who had some connections at National Geographic. The two of them decided to try to organize an expedition. This dovetailed perfectly with the ski surveys that Jason and I had been discussing.

In the conversations that followed, I suggested that for the sake of long-term scientific and conservation impact, we shift the proposal to the Darhad, since I intended to continue to work in the region, and the ski expedition could help us refine baseline data in preparation for more serious research. We already knew that there were wolverines in both the Darhad and the Altai, so simply detecting tracks and picking up DNA wasn’t very useful unless those efforts were placed into the framework of more comprehensive work. Hence the Darhad was a better target than the Altai for a one-off ski survey, since a National Geographic sponsored trip would be one among many mutually-reinforcing research activities.

Forrest, at some cost to his personal interest in the Altai, agreed to the change. Jason and I wrote the grant based on our previous work, tweaking pre-existing proposals, and Forrest and his acquaintance, Gregg Treinish, added expedition details. Forrest was instrumental in assessing the maps and terrain to develop a route navigable on skis and still useful to wolverine research, since he’d run ski-based wolverine surveys before. Gregg proved adept at getting gear donations, and the staff of his organization – through which we submitted the grant – worked hard to make sure the logistics were in place. We were later joined by Jim Harris, a talented photographer with a background in wildlife biology. Thus the first Mongolian wolverine ski expedition was born, in conjunction with the scientific objectives of my long-term project.

So what is the state of Mongolian wolverine work, and the broader efforts to build conservation capacity, two years after we stumbled out of the snowbound mountains?

For various reasons, the road to hard scientific results from the DNA samples has proven as circuitous as the expedition itself. There have been a number of issues around this, which don’t bear examination here, but rest assured that the samples will eventually yield published results. There should also be a methods paper, examining long-range ski surveys as a technique for collecting data of a certain scope and quality. First, though, we need to assess whether what happened in 2013 was normal, or whether it was a fluke. To do that, we need replicate ski surveys to show that this is an effective way to obtain data and – perhaps – monitor over the long term. Those replicates are in the works.

In the meantime, however, I was able to spend last summer developing the other, probably even more important, piece of the project, which involves collaboration with the Mongolian protected areas administration and entities in the US that can help insure a long-term program for research and conservation in Mongolia. With the collaboration of BioRegions International, we built a summer workshop program for 40 staff, rangers, and local environmental officers in the Darhad. Two US National Park Service scientists from the NPS Inventory and Monitoring Program, and conservation biologist Lance Craighead of the Craighead Institute, served as presenters in an exchange that is the first step in what will become, over the next several years, a comprehensive inventory and monitoring program. I remained in the town of Ulaan Uul and the mountains around the Darhad for an additional eight weeks, training staff in GIS, and working with the rangers to set up a camera survey for snow leopards.

With all the rangers who have seen a wolverine, during workshop with park staff, 2014

With all the rangers who have seen a wolverine, during workshop with park staff, 2014

This summer, we will be returning to Mongolia for another round of workshops, with a focus on community-park interface, small business opportunities with a triple-bottom-line (human, environmental and financial well-being) orientation, and continuation of the programs started last year. We will be joined by staff from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and a conservation biology student from MSU. We’re working on developing an internship program that will allow Mongolian park staff and community members to travel to the US for more intensive training and exchange – perhaps even with a wolverine field research component.

Finally, I’m developing a field research program that will implement an intensive two-year wildlife survey in one of the three protected areas. The wildlife survey will be multi-species, since it makes no sense to nearly kill oneself in the backcountry for the sake of a single species – but of course, wolverines remain the animal of greatest interest to me, and closest to my heart.

So for all the work, all the excitement, all the hardship and frostbite and sweat and hunger and cold, the 2013 ski expedition gleaned a very small piece of a very large puzzle.

But wait. Did you catch that sentence where I mentioned replicate ski surveys?

Yes, those are part of the multi-species survey plan. A friend attempted to retrace our route this year – he ended up truncating it, but collected additional samples and track data, and is up for trying again next year. Despite the rigors of the endeavor, I’ve had numerous other volunteer offers. And the most important objective is to train the rangers on these techniques – whether they’re on skis, reindeer, or horseback, it’s their mountain range and their wildlife, and the fate of the Darhad and its wolverines lies with them. So as we develop a systematic monitoring protocol, we’ll be training – and learning from – them.

Two years out, that’s where we are – contemplating going back in for Mongolian wolverine ski expedition #2, and kind of relishing the thought. But this time, it will be one part of a survey that will look at wildlife populations in a much more comprehensive way. That bigger puzzle will be decoded, piece by piece.

Oh, and the collar and camera work – that’s out there too. There will be more to follow on this topic. We’ll be getting to know individual Darhad wolverines pretty well, I promise.

For making the expedition happen, I remain grateful to National Geographic and the expedition participants. Two years later, I also have to take a moment to reflect on how far the work has come. Since the expedition, certain players have shown the vision and cooperative spirit that make conservation projects like this effective. To the Wolverine Foundation for their financial, moral, and intellectual support, I’m indebted. To BioRegions and its directors, I owe great thanks for their openness to collaborating to develop a wildlife conservation focus with the parks in northern Mongolia. Sustainability is key to any ethical wildlife research project these days – there are no conservation outcomes without commitment – and BioRegions is key to achieving this. To Tumursukh, the  director of the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas Administration, and his outstanding staff and rangers, for their hospitality, eagerness to teach and to learn, and enthusiasm for conservation – mash ikh bayarlalaa. You’re an inspiration (and I’m psyched to see that huge photo of wolverine kits on the wall of the park visitor center.) To expedition members Forrest and Jim, who have in so many ways remained supportive of my work, and who got over their initial annoyance with my very slow ski pace – sorry, guys – and went on to develop a collaborative proposal for a second, summer expedition in the service of wildlife research in the Darhad – I’d gladly have you back on any of my projects, and I hope that both of you find time in between your even more amazing adventures elsewhere to return to Mongolia. To Jason and Jeff, my wolverine guides and mentors – words in a blog post will never be adequate. I’ll see you both in the Darhad. Bring your sense of adventure. It’s only going to get better from here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Haplotype C in the Cascades

The Cascades have a new female wolverine. She was camera-trapped in the Chiwaukum Mountains in the Weenatchee National Forest, about 100 miles northeast of Mount Ranier. DNA analysis suggests that she is not related to any of the wolverines yet recorded in the Cascades. The analysis also confirmed that, like other Cascades wolverines, her haplotype is C, which, in a 2007 study by the Rocky Mountain Research Station, was found only in wolverines from the Northwest Territories and Alberta, Canada. Here’s an excerpt from the project’s explanation of why the presence of this haplotype might be important:

Halotypes are a part of the DNA that can tell us a bit about the evolutionary history of the animal. All of the wolverines recorded in the North Cascades to date are halotype C. This halotype does not occur in the Rocky Mountains, where extensive genetic research has occurred on their wolverine populations. Because of this, researchers believe that our Cascades’ wolverine population comes from the north not the east, and that our Washington Cascades’ population is genetically unique from other US wolverine populations.

Look at a map, and this seems logical; the Canadian Rockies make a perfect travel corridor for wolverines dispersing into Washington. The fact that this wolverine is a female, at the southernmost tip of known resident wolverine distribution in Washington, is interesting, particularly if she is unrelated to other Cascades wolverines. Some people have suggested that female wolverines don’t disperse over the same distances as males, that they inevitably occupy territories as close to their mothers as possible; this wolverine might suggest that the hypothesis of more home-bound females is incorrect. It might also suggest that there are undetected wolverines in the Cascades, and that she is related to one of them. Either (or both) could be true. I’m curious about the haplotypes of the wolverines detected in northern Idaho, since they, too, could be easily influenced by animals from the Canadian Rockies, but are also in very close proximity to the Glacier population in Montana.

For people who enjoy the occasional visual of a wolverine, here’s a short video of a wolverine feeding on a brown bear carcass in Alaska. This is on a hunting site, and I had to endure an advertisement for four-wheelers before getting to the wolverine, but there’s some reasonable footage of the wolverine running, illustrating that unique gulo gait that might help you determine that you’re looking at a wolverine if you see one in the field.

For people looking for a consistent social-media stream of wolverine images, I’d also suggest “liking” the Scandinavian Lynx Project’s facebook page. In addition to images of wolverines, you’ll get some insight into how wolverines are interacting with the rest of their ecosystem in Scandinavia. And also, of course, don’t forget to “like” the Mongolian Wildlife and Climate Change Project’s facebook page, where updates on my own work in Mongolia will be posted.

note: In an earlier version of this post, I stated that this was the southernmost confirmed sighting in Washington. Wolverines have been confirmed near Mt Adams, which is further to the south – for some reason, I tend to confuse Mt. Hood, which is in Oregon, with Mt. Adams, which is in Washington. This wolverine has been sighted as recently as January of 2012. Thanks to Jocelyn Akins for some updated info on the Mt. Adams work. 

Controversy, Camera Traps, and Unlikely Love in Michigan: A Review of “The Lone Wolverine”

 

The Pretty Girl emerges from obscurity with the help of science teacher Jeff Ford, as documented in “The Lone Wolverine.” Photo copyright Jeff Ford.

 

The Lone Wolverine: Tracking Michigan’s Most Elusive Animal. Elizabeth Phillips Shaw and Jeff Ford. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor. 2012.

The Lone Wolverine begins with an ending – the discovery in early 2010 of Michigan’s only known free-living wolverine dead in a ditch – and the rest of the book is tinged with a sense of impending loss. The sense of loss is oddly elliptical, because before this wolverine appeared, Michigan had no wild wolverines, and after she was gone, it returned to wolverine-free status with no actual loss to global wolverine populations. Instead of sadness at the implications for the species – the sort of chronic depression with which conservation biologists cope every day – the sadness is for the loss of a unique relationship between an individual man and an individual wolverine.

At the core of the story is Jeff Ford, a high school science teacher who, along with his friends Steve Noble and Jason Rosser, conceived a plan to track and photograph a wolverine that showed up in the Michigan Thumb in 2004. Although the Michigan Department of Natural Resources confirmed that the animal was a wolverine and issued a rapid order protecting her from harm, they remained unable to invest in documenting her activities, and Ford and his colleagues’ initiative alone provided the impetus – and funding – to gain insight into her life. Over the next six years, Ford used baited camera traps to photograph and video the animal, and tracked her through the boggy terrain of the Minden City State Game Area. He wrote a series of articles for the popular press, keeping interest in the animal alive. Initiating contact with the wolverine research community, he read through the wolverine science and painstakingly collected DNA samples for the scientific community. A heart condition requiring two surgeries slowed him, but nevertheless he returned to hauling venison to the camera site a scant few weeks after his operation. By the time the wolverine’s body was discovered by hikers, Ford had become the wolverine’s protector, spokesperson, and amateur scientist in his own right. Following her death, the book and an upcoming Michigan-wide tour will allow Ford to continue educating people about their state animal.

Despite Michigan’s renown as the Wolverine State, the species has been extinct there for at least 200 years, making the appearance of this animal especially startling. Did she disperse naturally from Ontario? Or was she a released captive of Alaskan genetic stock? The question of his gulo’s origin drove much of Ford’s work, particularly his quest to obtain DNA samples in order to ascertain both sex and source population. In the first endeavor, the evidence was conclusive – the Michigan wolverine was a female – but in the second, the evidence was not. The question of the origin of Ford’s “pretty girl,” as he called her, remains a subject of controversy. Despite placing this controversy at the heart of the narrative, the book doesn’t resolve the question, nor does it really explore the complicated methodological issues surrounding wildlife genetics research, relying instead primarily on Ford’s explanations and copies of email correspondence between Ford and wolverine researchers.

As disappointing as this is to a scientist whose obsessions lie in educating the public about nuance and uncertainty and all the gritty details of wolverine research, the treatment of the controversy highlights the fact that this is not a book about hard science. It’s the story of Jeff Ford and a tough little wolverine who stuck it out in a tiny home territory, hemmed in on all sides by people (and raccoons, not to mention a pack of carnivorous hares that sound worthy of Monty Python), for six years. If the book isn’t a scientific work, it  does succeed as a story of outdoorsmen and their passionate relationship with landscape and wildlife.  The book is oriented towards this audience, and just as Ford’s popular press articles served an important purpose in reaching a constituency beyond the research community, this book reaches out to people unlikely to read scientific papers and who might shy away from self-proclaimed “environmentalist writing,” but who would be interested in reading about a hunter who used his backwoods skills to orchestrate a monitoring project that no one else was willing to take on.

As a book about individual characters, the story contains some highlights, aside from Ford, Noble, and Rosser. The coyote hunters who first spotted strange tracks in February of 2004 and set their dogs onto those tracks, thinking they might be after a cougar, deserve special mention. When Aaron and Ryan Shenk finally realized what they were chasing, word of the discovery spread, and by the time they treed the wolverine after an hours-long chase, other hunters, snowmobilers, and curious onlookers had arrived, vying for a glimpse and a photo of the animal. Several people in the crowd wanted to shoot the wolverine, but the Shenk brothers, exercising the prerogative of the hunters who had discovered her, forbade it; instead, they called the Michigan DNR, resulting in confirmation of the animal’s identity, and an immediate order protecting her. Ethical hunters with an interest in protecting rare wildlife are too often ignored in environmentalist circles, which tend to focus on poachers and unethical hunters. The Shenk brothers deserve recognition and credit for their role in this story.

Wolverine biologist Audrey Magoun and Wolverine Foundation director Judy Long also play important roles in the story, Long through her role as facilitator of contacts and information transfer, and Magoun through her open-mindedness to the potential contributions of an enthusiastic novice (full disclosure: I have communicated extensively with Judy Long and the Wolverine Foundation, and worked for three weeks in 2011 with Audrey Magoun as an apprentice to her camera-trapping study in Oregon, so I too have been in the role of enthusiastic novice in relation to these individuals.) Although all of these relationships experienced moments of stress – circumspectly referenced – they touch on the heart of an unarticulated but important theme of the book: the interface of citizen and professional science. If not for Ford’s initiative, the pretty gulo girl of the Michigan Thumb would remain nothing more than a confirmed wolverine outside of known range, with no DNA samples gathered, no information on her sex or age, and substantially less knowledge about wolverine biology and ecology among the Michiganders who followed Ford’s work. Despite some issues around scientific protocol – which probably seem arcane to outsiders but are absolutely critical within the profession – his contribution stands. And if citizen scientists like Jeff Ford are capable of making valuable contributions to work on rare and elusive species, the book pushes scientists and outdoorsmen to build a better process for navigating the interface of enthusiasm, methodological rigor, and communication with the public. Ford and the wolverine community were all in unexplored territory, but the glitches and the successes of their collaboration should help generate discussion of how to build on shared interests and passions.

The wolverine herself is, of course, the most important character in the book – next to Ford – and in true gulo character, she tantalizes us with brief glimpses and trickster antics. With a home range of barely 6500 acres, she survived in a tiny area in comparison to wolverines further north. Supplemental feeding probably helped keep her within the confines of the protected area, but she still disappeared several times, for days or weeks, before reappearing again at the camera site. She and Ford engaged in an intellectual tug-of-war as Ford sought ways to anchor the bait, test her ingenuity, and make it harder for her to vanish with her prize. She quickly solved each challenge, whether it involved freeing the bait from a cable or moving a 100-pound log to dig up venison buried beneath. Her obsession with caching food is evidence of a gulo survival strategy that relies on keeping meat cool and protected from other scavengers. Ford also caught on video a series of interactions with a local tribe of raccoons that were plundering the bait until the wolverine pinned one to the ground to demonstrate who was in charge. After that, the raccoons either hung back, or, dominance issues sorted out, occasionally fed side-by-side with her. Once in a while, she was videoed tossing an old bone or two around for fun. Wherever she came from, she was getting along pretty well in the woods, echoing Ford’s own love of being outdoors. After her death, an autopsy confirmed that she had never borne kits, and suggested that she was about nine years old when she died. Her cause of death was the same heart condition for which Ford himself had had surgery a year before, adding a spooky resonance to a description of Ford’s relationship with the animal: “They were the same.”

As a record of an anomalous, intriguing event in the annals of wolverine research, the book is valuable and fascinating. As an account of a unique relationship between a man and a wild animal, the tale is inspiring, providing an emotional core to a story that might otherwise succumb to occasional stylistic issues. As a narrative of the contributions of committed citizen scientists, the volume could serve as a ‘how-to’ manual, and as an implicit exploration of the relationship between citizen scientists and professional scientists, the book prompts us to think more broadly about the potential research role of interested and skilled constituencies. For wolverine enthusiasts, the book is well worth the read as an accessible window into the life of a single wolverine and the man who dedicated six years of his life to documenting her existence, and will undoubtedly become an important work in the limited canon of popular books about the species.

 

Wolverine the Creator

Here’s a brief legend about Wolverine the Creator, from the Innu tribe of Quebec:

” Long ago, Kuekuatsheu [wolverine] built a big boat like Noah’s Ark, and put all the various animal species in it. There was a great deal of rain and the land was flooded. He told the mink to dive into the water to retrieve some mud and rocks, which he mixed together to make an island. This island is the world which we presently inhabit along with all the animals.”

I took this from an article in the Boise Weekly about a Jeff Copeland lecture last week. Unfortunately I didn’t know about the lecture beforehand, or I would have publicized it, but the legend is nice. ‘Kuekuatsheu’ is the word from which one of the animal’s French names, ‘caracajou,’ derives; early French trappers in Quebec knew the animal by its Innu name and adapted it to a French pronunciation.

Closer to home, a writer in Washington state had an encounter with a wolverine in the Cascades, and if the author of the post wasn’t impressed enough to consider the wolverine a Creator God, the degree of excitement was a near miss. It’s nice to see people so amped up about gulos.

Closer still, dogs treed a wolverine in a campground just south of Glacier National Park. The wolverine, which the campground caretaker speculated was a young animal, was unhurt and later left the area. It might have been a dispersing juvenile who happened into the campground, but in any case, it’s further evidence that attractants such as garbage should be managed carefully at campground – not just for the sake of bears, but for wolverines as well.

Related to issues facing the wolverine, a recent study suggests that the consequences of species loss to climate change may be greater than originally thought. Up to a third of all species may go extinct, but even within species that remain, up to 80% of genetic diversity may be lost. In the case of wolverines, we might see this if gulos remained on the landscape in the Arctic, but populations with unique haplotypes were lost as populations further south died off. Mongolian wolverines, for example, possess an apparently unique haplotype (mng1) that would disappear if wolverines were knocked out of mountain ranges at the southern margin of their range. In turn, this would reduce the genetic diversity of the species as a whole, reducing options for the remaining wolverines and eventually leading to genetic bottlenecking and perhaps extinction further down the road. Not a happy thought, for wolverines or for the other species who might be affected.

And finally – just to end on a happier, although not-entirely-gulocentric, note – a grizzly bear with two cubs has been sighted near Shelby, Montana – the furthest east of any grizzly since they were nearly wiped out in the 19th century. The fact that the bear is a female is significant; like wolverines, a female bear tends to adopt a territory close to her mother’s, which means that the benchmark of population expansion is reproductive females (as opposed to the more wide-ranging young males.) Hopefully this bear and her cubs will stay out of trouble and continue to boost the grizzly population and range.

Non-invasive Methodology from Glacier to Mongolia

A great article looks at a new non-invasive wolverine monitoring effort in Glacier National Park. This effort, combining camera trapping and hair snaring, is a follow-up to Jeff Copeland and Rick Yates’ years of research in the Park, which were cut off just when the data was getting good. The Glacier Park study still represents the best dataset on wolverines in the Lower 48 – and it’s given us some of the most epic wolverine stories out there, including M3’s ascent of Mt. Cleveland and F4’s feats as the matriarch of Glacier – so it’s good to know that further efforts to obtain information about the animals are underway.  The project seems to accept volunteers, too, so if you are in the Glacier area and want to participate in a gulo study, this may be an opportunity. (Note that there are currently more volunteers – 50 – than the estimated number of study subjects in the park – 40. This seems a particularly stark illustration of the scarcity of the species.)

Posts here over the past few weeks have been sparse, and the Glacier article is a good introduction to the reasons for the paucity of writing: it’s research proposal season. I’ve spent the past three weeks with my mind in a knot, trying to work out some tricky questions about how to best collect information on Mongolian wolverines without ever touching – perhaps without ever even seeing – a live specimen. The crux of non-invasive work  lies in figuring out how to study the species at low cost, with minimal impact on the animal, and in ways that are appropriate to the study site. The work in Mongolia will build on Audrey Magoun’s camera work in Alaska, which, in turn, probably helped inspire the Glacier work. Except we’ll be doing it in Mongolia, where wolverines have never before been studied in even a rudimentary way, where infrastructure is non-existent, and where human cultural factors add a unique twist to wildlife research. This is why the process of adapting the methods has been so time-consuming.

After a 2010 summer field season that was successful beyond anticipation (albeit stressful as well) as we interviewed herders and hunters and got some solid information on Mongolian wolverine distribution, I’m excited about the prospect of returning to Mongolia to begin camera-trapping and DNA work. But a number of big questions remain. Time constraints last year meant that I was only able to visit three of five potentially important wolverine areas in Mongolia, leaving two to cover in summer 2011. And then, a week after I returned to the US, I received word that a London Zoological Society wildlife camera-trapping effort had caught a mother wolverine and two kits on camera in a location that I hadn’t previously considered. The images of the wolverine and her kits are stunning, captured at dusk as they rolled through a high, barren meadow, one of the kits pausing to put its face and paw to the camera. The wolverines were caught in the southern Altai, in the region where the mountains begin to shade into the Gobi Desert. It’s hardly what we would consider optimal habitat, and yet here we had conclusive proof that wolverines are actually breeding there. This site, too, warrants a visit. So one of the remaining tasks for getting the project up and running is to visit all three sites this summer and figure out which is the best – in terms of reported wolverine population, in terms of terrain, and in terms of social factors – for conducting a multi-year camera-trapping and DNA-gathering effort.

Site selection is the first step. Next, we had to devise a statistically defensible strategy for placing camera stations across the landscape in order to estimate wolverine population parameters. This sounds fairly straightforward but actually isn’t, especially when the size of your site is as-yet undetermined. The statistical acrobatics required to go from a camera-station grid, a certain number of photo-captures, and a bunch of DNA samples, to making even a rough determination of wolverine numbers in a given region, involve taking into account everything from the unknown size of wolverine use areas in the vicinity of the traps, to the response of individual wolverines to individual traps. This probably goes without saying, but it isn’t easy to turn wolverine personality traits into a mathematical equation.

If I’d had to figure this stuff out alone, I probably would have spent most of the last few weeks crying in frustration (or drinking heavily…). Luckily Audrey Magoun’s work in SE Alaska provided a starting place (information about the Alaska project is available at The Wolverine Foundation’s research page) for both the statistics, and for methods of constructing camera stations that will induce a wolverine to stand up and display its unique chest patch to the camera. A minor diversion involved figuring out what materials we would need to do adapt Magoun’s design to the realities of available goods in Mongolia; I spent a lot of time mentally touring Ulaanbaatar’s massive Narantuul market and trying to recall what was available.

The really challenging part of the Mongolia work is the social side, though. Mongolia has one of the lowest human population densities in the world, with something like 2.5 people per square mile (the average in the US is 87 per square mile.) But someone once pointed out that although Mongolians inhabit the landscape sparsely, they inhabit it very deeply – every mountain is sacred, every pasture is known and used, every remote route through the desert or the hills is traveled, every wildlife population exploited in some way. And wolverine habitat, which is  unoccupied by humans and rarely visited in the US, is occupied and utilized for livestock grazing throughout Mongolia.  Research and conservation in these habitats is as much a question of human behavior as it is of wolverine population parameters. Devising methods for incorporating communities into the work has also been a challenge, even though I’m confident that it can be done, and done well. And while we probably can’t count on 50 enthusiastic volunteers wanting to participate just because they think wolverines are rad, we probably can count on a degree of expert knowledge about the landscape and wildlife that is lacking in America. This will be a huge resource; we just need to determine how to utilize it in ways that are beneficial to us and to Mongolians.

The focus on non-invasive methods of wildlife research is new throughout the world, a shift away from the expensive, labor-intensive collaring work that’s traditionally told us about wildlife. Collar studies still have their place, yielding information that we simply can’t obtain from non-invasive work, and we do plan to eventually conduct a limited collar study in Mongolia. But in the meantime, I’m excited to be part of pioneering new methods, especially in a place like Mongolia, where low-input research methods will be necessary to keep track of wildlife beyond just wolverines.

So, research proposals submitted, and April almost here, we now have two months to plan for the June-August summer field season in Mongolia. Looking forward to getting back out there (though maybe not to being back in a Mongolian saddle, which are made of wood….) and continuing the search for Mongolia’s nokhoi zeekh, as part of a global effort that stretches all the way from Glacier to the Altai.

 

 

 

 

M56 Needs Some Friends

Imagine the plight of M56, the intrepid wolverine who made it to Colorado from northern Wyoming in 2009: alone, ranging through some of the most rugged territory in the Lower 48, wandering vast country in search of another of his kind, who most likely isn’t there. Wolverines were apparently wiped out of the Rockies, with the exception of isolated pockets of Montana and Idaho, by predator poisoning programs in the early 20th century, and when M56 dove off the edge of known wolverine habitat and struck out for the southern Rockies, he was recolonizing uncharted territory. Anecdotal reports of other Colorado wolverines exist, but as far as we know – scientifically speaking – M56 is the only gulo in the state. The nearest known breeding population is in the Tetons, which means M56 is adrift in an empty land. As Jason Wilmot said in a wolverine presentation in November, “If there’s a female wolverine in Colorado, he’s the one who’s going to find her.” The fact that M56 has not stuck in one territory, instead ranging throughout the Colorado Rockies, suggests he’s still looking. Poor guy.

But perhaps his quest will have a happier ending, thanks to a Colorado Division of Wildlife proposal to consider reintroduction of wolverines to the state. The proposal is still just that: an option to be considered, and not a definite plan. Some articles are quoting the proposed number of wolverines at 30 to 40, which would probably give M56 more companions than he could deal with. The earliest that the reintroduction would occur is 2012, and funding, among other details, has yet to be dealt with.

The inclusion of Colorado as wolverine range in the listing decision probably wasn’t coincidence; even without talk of a reintroduction, M56’s jaunt was attention-grabbing. Some people have suggested that female wolverines are incapable of making similar forays, but I asked Jeff Copeland about this back in November, and he said that it’s not necessarily true that female wolverines can’t make those epic excursions – it’s just that so far, they haven’t been documented doing so. Why? Female wolverines occupy the nearest vacant territory to their birthplace. They’re motivated to go only so far as they need to, until they find a territory that can support them and hopefully offer enough nutrition for reproduction. A male, on the other hand, will keep going until he finds a territory that encompasses a female’s, because life is going to be kind of pointless for him, in an evolutionary sense, if he doesn’t. The ratio of males to females is about 1:2; that is, a male tends to overlap with two females, so there’s a lot less room on the landscape for males. Hence, males have to go further.

Annie, a Teton wolverine who died in an accident. Another Teton female settled in the Wind River Range, a significant journey; her twin sister went back and forth between the Tetons and the Wyoming Range several times before a territory in the Tetons opened and she settled there. It's possible - though not certain - that a female wolverine could make it to Colorado even without a reintroduction.

But females do make impressive movements, which dim only in comparison to M56’s tremendous trek. To recolonize all of the US Northern Rockies, female wolverines have made some major journeys already, some of which we know about, some of which we can infer based on distance between occupied ranges. Females seem just as capable of continuing until they get to a good spot, and if the nearest good, vacant spot happens to be in Colorado, I wouldn’t be surprised if a female wolverine could make it. So put the talk of reintroduction aside, and you still have a distinct possibility of wolverines establishing a breeding population in Colorado on their own.

Still, that would leave a lot to chance, and the science, as summarized in the listing decision, highlights the risk of increasing temperatures and diminishing snowpack as a barrier to connectivity for wolverines in the Rockies. Year by year, wolverines of either sex will be required to disperse over greater distances in search of smaller patches of suitable habitat. Unfortunately, we still don’t have an assessment of the wolverine population in Wyoming – only the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park have been studied so far; the Tetons have a breeding population, Yellowstone has very few animals and no reproduction has been documented – so we don’t even know how many juveniles are potentially available to serve as a source population for a natural recolonization of Colorado. Coming to any conclusions about how and when a natural recovery might happen is difficult, and even if one or two females did make it, there would still be issues of genetic bottlenecks.

Reintroduction, proponents might argue, will give a boost to a natural process, and might stave off some of the effects of climate change by preemptively establishing a population node in a large chunk of suitable habitat. Significantly, according to local-scale climate models, the Colorado Rockies will retain spring snowpack in a hundred years, so the region could be critical to wolverine survival. Colorado hasn’t indicated a definite source population for the proposed reintroduction, but hypothetically, if they came from Canada or Alaska, which have the most robust wolverine populations in North America, the infusion of genetic diversity would be good for the overall Rockies population. (On the other hand, scientists estimate that a population node, in isolation and without connectivity to other nodes, would need 400 breeding pairs to maintain enough genetic diversity to survive. Colorado is not going to support 800 reproductive wolverines, so over the long term, unless there really is connectivity with Wyoming populations, we still have a problem.)

Scientifically, the reintroduction proposal is compelling. Endangered species, however, are among the most socially contentious topics in the Western US, and carnivores tend to raise the most heated passions on both sides of the debate. The on-going, wearying arguments about wolf and bear management are all the illustration one needs; no one wants to see wolverines disappear into the black hole of symbolic politics. M56 needs friends, but he needs human friends – or at least, people friendly to the reintroduction proposal – as much as he needs gulo friends. The ski industry and other individuals are already raising concerns about the impacts of a reintroduction.

Luckily for M56, we are dealing with an animal that is significantly different from wolves or bears, and the concerns that people might have can be addressed. But before we proceed with putting wolverines on the ground, or even advocating for the reintroduction, we owe it to M56 and wolverines throughout the Rockies to make sure that the social process is adequately carried out. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has been meeting with stakeholders to discuss concerns, as reported in the press, and so far, environmental advocates don’t seem inclined to make this into a rectitude-based battle of values. These are promising signs. If the reintroduction does go forward, I hope that it not only reestablishes wolverines in a crucial part of their historical range, but that it’s done in a way that can serve as a positive model of endangered species conservation in the West – something that’s as badly needed as  another thriving population node of wolverines.