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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Wolverene Woman

Here is a story from the Blackfeet (also known as the Blackfoot, Piegan, Blood, and/or Pikuni, depending on where and during what time period they are being referred to) of northern Montana and southern Alberta. The current Blackfeet Reservation lies just to the east of Glacier National Park, which was originally the heart of Blackfeet territory. For wolverines, too, Glacier is the heart of home in the US. This short tale is taken from Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians, by Clark Wissler and D.C. Duvall, first published in 1908 by the American Museum of Natural History, and republished in 1995 by the University of Nebraska Press. The story is found on page 162:

The Wolverene-Woman

These Indians have a belief that there are animals with power to change into human beings. Of these the wolverene is one. It often happens that when a man is out hunting, or sitting alone by his campfire, a very handsome woman will come up. Now if he offers her some of the entrails from his butchering, she will take them daintily between the thumb and the forefinger and then throw them away. This is the sign by which she may be known. Should the man take up his gun, the woman will run away as a wolverene. On the other hand, should he allow her to come into camp and engage in familiarities, evil will follow. As soon as he gets home and smells the fire of the lodges, he will fall down dead. Sometimes he will only faint when he smells the fire of the lodges; but even then he will never be the same person again. When men go out to hunt, they are often reminded to keep a lookout for the Wolverene-Woman. When a woman is out alone, the Wolverene-Woman will appear as a fine young man. If the woman permits herself to be seduced, it will be bad for her. As a rule, her people will never hear of her again; but, should she start back to camp and smell the fire of the lodges, she will surely die.

Footnote: ….This is not a formal narrative. While the wolverene is a well-known mythical character, there are no specific myths in which it appears. The Deer-woman of the Dakota and the Wolf Woman of the Pawnee, described by Bush Otter, seem to embody the same conception as is expressed in the above….

Wissler was an anthropologist, and Duvall was half-Piegan and was Wissler’s agent in the field; together, they spent many years collecting and analyzing stories from Montana and Alberta. This is the only mention of the Wolverene Woman, however, and it is tantalizingly brief, with no explanation aside from the footnote. Why wolverines? Among the numerous stories of men or women who fall in love with and marry non-humans (star people, bison, bears), why are wolverines uniquely dangerous creatures with whom to – in the polite Victorian idiom – “engage in familiarities?” How is it that the Wolverene Woman may also become a man? (And as an aside, Blackfeet women must have been admirably adventurous if they were hanging out alone in high mountainous regions where they might have been in danger of seduction-by-gender-bending-shape-shifting-wolverine. Wissler does mention the egalitarian nature of Blackfeet society, but it would be nice to know more about this, too.)

To apply my own biased, acontextual lens, perhaps it simply speaks to the fascination that the species can evoke. I’m struck by the assertion that once a person associates with a wolverine – never mind the precise nature of the familiarities; these days, photographing or collaring or even just seeing one in the wild probably counts – s/he “will never be the same person again.” I know too many people for whom this has proven true. The lesson of the Blackfeet story stands: be wary of the wolverine. One way or another, the animal can change your life.

 

Wolverine World Tour, and Wolverines Near Glacier Park(s)

It’s mid-March, the grizzlies are up and about, and wolverine research season is drawing to a close. Wolverine kits all over the Rockies (and presumably the world) are marking their one-month birthdays, and wolverine researchers are gearing up for the tasks that can be accomplished during the snow-free months – investigating GPS collar food sites and exploring possible den locations, trekking back to Mongolia to interview herders and explore summer snow-patch methods for finding tracks, writing up the winter’s results, and, of course, preparing for next season’s work.

Among the interesting projects in store this summer, Evergreen College student Dallas LaDucer is preparing for a Wolverine World Tour to study the interactions of captive wolverines in zoos around the world. As a researcher and as a writer, the wolverine fixation can be challenging, because we have very few opportunities to interact face-to-face with wolverines. The animal’s elusiveness is part of its mystique, but it also leaves us with big gaps in both scientific understanding and compelling narrative about individual animals. Dallas, on the other hand, is one of the fortunate people who get to spend a lot of time with actual wolverines. From raising a captive female kit, to working as a zookeeper, to his current senior project investigating the interactions of wolverines to better understand their body language and social life, he’s spent a lot of time with gulos, and has observed that interactions vary according to the individual personalities of the animals, as opposed to strict gender or age hierarchies. He has looked at only a very small sample, however, because so few zoos in North America have more than one captive wolverine. His senior project will take him to Europe to watch wolverines in zoos in Russia, Finland, and Sweden. The major application of the work may be to help zookeepers better understand how to care for captive animals, but more knowledge about wolverine sociability could also inform conservation efforts. And, from an authorial perspective, I simply want to know more about what makes individual wolverines tick, because that information helps make good stories. So there are a lot of reasons to be interested in this project, and I am eager to hear how things go. Dallas is fundraising for the project here, so if anyone is interested in contributing, check it out.

A few other news items of interest have, as usual, slipped by me in the rush of activity that comes with spring. Skiers at Whitefish outside of Glacier National Park, Montana, should keep their eyes open for a wolverine that was spotted there earlier this week. Keep a camera handy too and maybe someone will be lucky enough to get a photo of a wild wolverine. Meanwhile, in Glacier National Park, British Columbia, Canada (not to be confused with the previously mentioned Glacier National Park, Montana) a wolverine photographed and videoed itself playing with a rope or cable that was part of a camera-trapping effort. It’s a brief glimpse of the wolverine’s playful side, although one of the scientists involved with the Trans-Canada Highway study, of which this particular camera-trap was a part, apparently takes issue with the notion of anthropomorphizing wolverines to the point of admitting that they play. In an article on the project in the Revelstoke Times Review, scientist Kelsey Furk states that she thinks that the rope was just smelly and therefore drew the wolverine’s attention, although no one seems to object to the repeated reference to the wolverine “dancing” with the rope. Play behavior has been demonstrated in many mammal species and I’m pretty convinced that wolverines not only enjoy messing around with stuff for the sake of messing around with it, but that they also have a particular mustelid sense of humor. I’m spending enough time playing with a 20-month-old human boy these days to understand that flinging a smelly rope around in the snow is no less intellectually edifying (and, in fact, is perhaps more so) than repeatedly plugging in and unplugging various electronics. Bottom line: if the kid’s behavior counts as play, so does the wolverine’s.

On a more serious note, the article about the Trans-Canada Highway project highlights an important study that will help us better understand the effects of transportation corridors on wolverines. The journalist repeats a few things as fact, however, that are actually still speculative. The most important is the idea that wolverines are disturbed by recreation. There are limited anecdotal suggestions that this might be true, but there’s also an intimation from on-going research that it might not be true. We still don’t know.Until we do, we need to be careful about the claims that we make.

Parks Canada is asking people who see tracks in this area to report them to wolverine2012@pc.gc.ca You can find a copy of the NRCC track ID info and other details about the study here.  A downloadable version of a pocket-sized track ID card is available at the NRCC website (.pdf)

Wolverine News and Volunteer Opportunities

A quick review of wolverine news over the past week, as well as a volunteer opportunity for the coming weeks:

Wolverines made the news in Calgary, Canada, with a short video piece on a study of the impacts of the Trans-Canada highway on the species. The segment contains some photos of camera-trapped wolverines, and highlights a different camera-trap method from the one employed by Audrey Magoun in Oregon.

Earlier this week, I had an interesting conversation with Forrest McCarthy, who is the public lands director at Winter Wildlands Alliance and who has worked with several wolverine projects in the past. He pointed me to two interesting sites.  Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is an organization dedicated to combining adventure in the wild with intellectual stimulation and exploration. In association with Wild Things Unlimited, ASC is hosting a wolverine and lynx tracking workshop from February 3-5.  Information is available here; at last glance, they still had room for volunteers. The work will take place on the Gallatin and Helena National Forests and requires solid backcountry skills.

Forrest also suggested that I check out Bedrock and Paradox, a blog maintained by Dave Chenault, who works with the ongoing Glacier National Park DNA and camera study. Some of the entries deal with the wolverine work (the most recent here), and the rest with interesting questions about outdoor gear and existential crisis (not necessarily always linked….) He’s a good writer and an interesting thinker, and since Doug Chadwick doesn’t have a blog, this might be the best way to keep up with events in Glacier gulo land.

The Idaho Panhandle wolverine project has stepped up its PR with regular blog updates every Wednesday – be sure to check these out, as they also offer the opportunity to keep up with an on-going project, as well as  insight into such esoterica as how to deal with a gigantic shipment of skinned beavers. Another account is available from the Idaho Conservation League. All of these pieces on wolverine work are heartening; it’s great that people are so inspired.

Finally, here’s an article from the New York Times on why introverts need solitude in order to do their best work. Is this related to wolverines? Kind of, because wolverines are the Solitary Creature par excellence, and, as a raging introvert, that’s one of the reasons I fell in love with them immediately. I’ll avoid the very long exploration of these connections and my own personal feelings about people who don’t understand the introvert mode of creativity, but suffice to say that this is on my mind because I’ve been having some issues (from the time I first went to kindergarten right on up through last week….) with people who think that doing good work and being a decent human being rely on formulaic group interactions and enforced collegiality. For people who truly are introverts, the choice is clear: do mediocre work by engaging in these enforced situations and keeping your own impulses suppressed, or do brilliant work by embracing the gulo model of existence and scaling the peaks that need to be scaled. I am not a creature of the lowlands, and I am not a herd animal, so I really appreciate public attention to this issue of different ways of getting things done. I know that associating this issue with wolverines is purely totemic, but once in a while it’s okay to admit that our fascination with the natural world is about the reflections and lessons that its features (and creatures) invoke.

Doug Chadwick on Wolverines in the Lower 48

As a quick foreword, I completely failed at this live blogging experiment. I’m too meticulous (neurotic?) a writer, I suspect, to respond to circumstances unedited. The below was written in real-time, but a medical incident in the middle of the speech threw everything off and I didn’t get around to posting until today. If you never have a chance to see Doug Chadwick speak live, hopefully this will give you some idea of how entertaining he is. 

With promises to catch up on the two remaining talks that occurred earlier today, I’m going to cover Doug Chadwick’s speech, which is about to start. He and I had a great conversation earlier this afternoon, during which I promised that if he got anything wrong, I would mercilessly make fun of him on this blog. So he’s under a lot of pressure….

Beginning with a reading from his book, Doug speaks first to the desire that many of us have to be humbled by our experiences in the natural world, and then adds that you don’t know what it is to be humbled by nature until you’ve tried to follow a wolverine. He tells the story of his background with the project, how he got involved as a way to be outside in the landscape he loves, and how he eventually became so compelled by the species that he decided to write a book about them.

A pause. Then, looking towards the GYC staff, “Can I say badass? I like saying it.”

Now the humor ramps up and the slide show kicks in. We are hearing the story of the traditional view of wolverines – their awful reputation, the lack of scientific data, the adoption of gulo identity by a badass superhero with anger management issues.

“The things that are true about wolverines that seem like myths – they bring down full grown caribou…and they’ve been reported bringing down full grown moose. It’s like you open your curtain in the morning, and look out, and your housecat has got a deer. But they do that. The other thing that’s been reported by reliable people is, they will drive a grizzly off a kill. That’s scientifically known as ‘unmitigated badass behavior.'”

We are hearing the story of F5, the young female who climbed Bearhat Mountain in Glacier National Park in the dead of winter for no apparent reason. We are seeing photos of researchers in wild conditions – blizzards, blowing snow, 90 mph winds. The audience is rapt, leaning forward, some with their mouths literally open. (Though one guy, across the table, appears to be asleep; either that, or he’s closing his eyes to better envision the deprivations of wolverine research…) Doug describes the sound of a wolverine growl: “It’s like a Harley Davidson is mating with a chain saw, and you’re pretty sure that whatever is in the trap is the size of a velociraptor. Okay, I’m kidding, but these things are designed to intimidate.”

Doug goes on to describe conversations about wolverines with trappers in the region.

“So, we’d talk with these trappers, who didn’t believe that we were catching them. They’d say, ‘these creatures are so secretive and so wily, we can’t even catch ’em once, and you’re saying that you catch them multiple times?’ And we’d say, “Well, we have a trick.” And the trappers’d say, “Yeah? What’s that?” And we’d say, “It’s easy. When we catch ’em, we don’t kill ’em.””

This gets a round of applause.

“So, what is this animal?…It’s a member of the weasel family, but I don’t like that name, because unfaithful lovers and hedge fund managers are giving weasels such a bad name.” More laughs. Doug is going on to explain the physiological characteristics that make wolverines so unique – enlarged thyroid glands, enormous feet, and so on.

Now we’re on to climate change effects, not only the issue of snow denning, but the apparent preference that female wolverines show for locating den sites among whitebark pine downfall. Whitebark pine is, of course, suffering a massive die-off in the Rockies due to beetle infestations and disease, part of which can certainly be attributed to warming temperatures.

The compelling story of Jeff Copreland’s hunch that gulo dads were getting a bad rap draws exclamations, and then further exclamations, and then we realize that some of the exclamations are from a table where a woman has collapsed. 911 is called, we all take a break, and I sit with my fingers crossed that in the excitement of picturing all of the crazy activity that Doug’s been describing, wolverines haven’t actually killed someone after all. The paramedics arrive and the woman responds and we all breathe easier as the presentation resumes.

Doug picks up with the full-on climate change segment, referencing Dan Fagre’s work on climate change in Glacier National Park, monitoring of retreating glaciers and climbing tree lines. “So the wolverine is going to tell us the same thing, but maybe in a more dramatic way, as the pika and the mountain goats and the hoary marmots. Their range is going to be constricted.”

“What makes Glacier whole is the knowledge that it is animated by wolverines traveling the landscape, bears sleeping under the snow….it’s not just a list of animals, it’s the fact that they’re all interacting with each other, that there’s a full carnivore community in place.”

The story of M1 climbing Mount Cleveland, 5000 ft in 90 mins, draws the usual gasps and laughs of disbelief. And then the statistics on how few wolverines a place like Glacier, with 1500 square miles, will hold. 350 grizzlies live in Glacier; by contrast, there’s room for about 40 wolverines in the same area. The Tetons are saturated with wolverines; we think that there are maybe four residents adults. The Centennials, according to WCS biologist Bob Inman, hold two adult females. The Cascades hold eight wolverines of which we are aware. The point that Doug is making is that connectivity between these tiny population nodes is critical for the long-term survival of the species.  Isolated parks will not be enough; there must be connectivity throughout the mountain ranges of the West. “This is the scale on which [wolverines] need wildness to be preserved.”

This is the ultimate message of Doug’s speech – that we need to push conservation to a scale that is meaningful for wildlife that evolved in the vastness of the unbounded, unfenced, undeveloped North America, and that still needs that space today.

Healy Hamilton asks what we know about historical densities of wolverines, whether wolverines have always been so rare or whether their current sparsity is “an artifact of the way we’ve treated the landscape.” Doug says he’s not sure, that there’s really no way to know because, “we rolled across the continent so quickly.”

One gentleman asks what the body temperature of a wolverine is. The answer: “Around 100.”

Someone asks whether there are wolverines in the Wyoming Range. Doug turns the microphone over to me, inducing a sense of panic and a long, babbling story about the female born in the Winds who traveled to the Wyoming Range for a while but then went back to the Tetons.

Judging by the long line of people waiting to buy the book – not to mention the excited crowds of people who come to share stories of wolverine sightings with me – people are inspired by the talk and ready to learn more. Which is exactly what we were hoping for.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Wolverine Events in Colorado

For Boulder and Denver-area wolverine enthusiasts, two events next week offer the chance to meet Doug Chadwick, author of The Wolverine Way.

In Boulder, Chadwick will speak on Monday, December 6th, at 6 p.m. at the Integral Center on 2805 Broadway Ave. In Denver, he’ll speak on Tuesday, December 7th, at 6 p.m, at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California St. Copies of the book will be available, and the author will answer questions and sign books after the presentation.

A short video about the book features some great shots of majestic Glacier country, not to mention fantastic footage of wolverines being goofy and playful. Doug is a very entertaining speaker, and the book is excellent, so if you happen to be in the Denver area, be sure to attend.  If not, stay tuned for more information about wolverine events across the West this winter and spring, including opportunities to learn more about tracking and reporting track sightings, as well as a chance to participate in tracking field trips, with Jason Wilmot of NRCC and the Absaroka-Beartooth Project.

To whet your appetite for wolverine information, check out Conservation Media’s new short film on the Wolverine Foundation’s work, featuring an interview with Jeff Copeland –  a nice three-minute synopsis of what TWF does, and why wolverines are amazing. It’s great to see more multi-media information out there.

And speaking of tracks, here’s a post from Conservation Media from back in April, 2010, documenting a sighting of wolverine tracks crossing a highway in Montana. Note the inclusion of the author’s hand for scale, and the multiple photos of individual tracks as well as the gait – including some great shots of the distinctive three-by gait. This is excellent documentation. I thought I’d bring it to the attention of any citizen scientists out there, as an example of how to photograph wolverine tracks in a way that can be considered verified.

How to Help

Last night my sister and I watched the PBS premiere of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom with a handful of friends who were involved with starting the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project. Seeing wolverines on national television was fantastic, especially with a crowd of people who recognized every mountain and were full of jokes, stories, and the deeper history behind every incident.

The show was the highest-rated of the PBS season, and in the 15 minutes following the end of the show, visits to this blog increased 300% over the previous all-time high. Many were searching for pictures of Jasper and Banff, the captive Alaskan wolverines featured in the documentary. Others expressed interest in learning more about wolverine ecology and biology, and some wanted to volunteer with wolverine research projects. Still others were looking for information on threats, and, alarmingly, a few had googled things like “how to adopt a baby wolverine.” (If it seems slightly Orwellian that I know all of this, all I can say is, writers are all gluttons – pun intended – for knowing who’s interested in our work, and WordPress stats are addictive.) After initial delight over the sudden surge of interest in wolverines, I returned to a much-discussed question among wolverine researchers: how do you channel the enthusiasm generated by a wonderful film into conservation benefits for the species you research, care about, and – yes, I admit it – identify with?

This seems like an opportune moment to address the big question of newly-minted wolverine enthusiasts: what can you do to help?

First of all, keep learning about the species. The more you know, the better for wolverines. The best source of wolverine information remains The Wolverine Foundation, which is run by a coalition of wolverine researchers, including Jeff Copeland and Audrey Magoun, whose projects were featured in the documentary.

Second, do not try to raise a wolverine as a pet. Jasper and Banff are extremely engaging, but they are still, as Steve Kroschel points out in the movie, wild animals.  Wildlife rehabilitation and ambassador animals play an important role in conservation, but wolverines are not pets and most people don’t have what it takes to give one the kind of life it deserves and needs. If you want to adopt a wolverine, consider doing it by making a donation to a research project that monitors wolverines in the wild. Wolverine research projects are able to keep close track of each instrumented animal, and even via GPS collar, the unique personality of individual wolverines shines through. We also do a great job of keeping our donors informed about what “their” wolverines are up to, so it’s a nice way to have all the fun and adventure of having a wolverine in your life, without chewed-up furniture and potential puncture wounds.

Third, the biggest long-term need for wolverine conservation is better data. The wolverine has been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act three times since 1994; the first time, it was denied protection due to lack of data. The second time, in 2008, it was denied protection – arguably – because the evidence of threat was not convincing enough. The third decision is due out in December of 2010; Jeff Copeland’s snow model paper, published earlier this year, may provide compelling enough evidence of threat due to climate change that wolverines will be listed. Or it may not. In any case, if the wolverine is listed, it’s only the first step in figuring out how to protect it, and as the documentary illustrated, finding out anything about these animals is time consuming, expensive, and not for the faint of heart.

After the showing last night, my friends lamented the end of funding for the wolverine project in Glacier National Park. The five year study revolutionized our understanding of wolverine ecology and demographics. There’s a long way left to go, however, and understanding the meta-population dynamics of wolverines at the southern edge of their range could provide important information about how wolverines can survive in a warmer world. Wolverine research is critical to wolverine conservation. I don’t usually do this directly, but I’m going to do it now: if you are inspired by the film, by wolverines, by the researchers who push forward through every hardship to learn about these animals, then give directly to a research project. A quick breakdown of costs: $25 buys supplies for non-invasive DNA sampling. $60 analyzes a DNA sample. $150 buys immobilization drugs. $250 covers a flight to determine whether a female is denning. $3000 buys a GPS collar. Any amount – whether it’s $5 or $5000 – shows an interest in and commitment to the species, and we appreciate it.

I work for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, which maintains the Absaroka-Beartooth study, and if you donate to us, I’ll be thrilled (and if you want, I will personally send you updates about what the project wolverines are up to.) But there are several fantastic projects out there; you can find summaries of global research projects on the Wolverine Foundation site, to learn more about which one you want to contribute to. The Wolverine Foundation, as the organizing research body, is also in need of support.

Fourth, help out by becoming a citizen scientist if you live in wolverine territory. If you’re a backcountry skier, a snowmobiler, a hunter, a backpacker, a climber, or anyone else who spends time in the high country, let us know if you see a wolverine or tracks. You can find a pocket-sized card to download and take on your next trip here.

Finally, don’t panic. So many of our narratives about species conservation have been built around a sense of urgent threat that we default to that story whenever we are trying to figure out how to do something good for a newly-fascinating species.  I’ll write more about this over the next couple of weeks,  but the short story is this: there’s no single activity that’s directly threatening the survival of wolverines as a species, and there’s no single action – aside from reversing global warming – that will help them. Instead, it’s going to take innovation and creativity to create a new conservation model that will work for wolverines and for montane ecosystems as a whole.

Thanks to everyone who watched last night, and for those who missed it, you can see the entire documentary online at the PBS website. To writer/producer Gianna Savoie and her crew, many congratulations on a great film, and to Nature, thanks for continuing to fund and broadcast high quality work.

Wolverines on the Red Carpet

Jasper and wildlife rehabilitator Steve Kroschel set the scene during the filming of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom. Photo copyright Gianna Savoie.

PBS Nature’s Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom premieres in less than 24 hours, at 8:00 pm on Sunday, November 14th. I’m entertaining a vision of a Hollywood event, with wolverines strolling down a red carpet to the fanfare of adoring crowds and the flash of paparazzi photography. Of course, one of the many things that makes wolverines so amazing is the fact that they’re charismatic enough to win a legion of devoted fans without the drama and glamor – they’re simply so compelling that you can’t help but be fascinated.

If wolverines can’t have a real red carpet, the way to the premiere is being paved by the cyber equivalent; the PBS website has several new goodies, including an interview with Doug Chadwick, author of The Wolverine Way, and a photo gallery with shots of the captive wolverine stars. PBS has also done something I’ve always wanted to do: walked around with a video camera asking people what they know about wolverines, and recording the answers. The result is entertaining testimony to the fact that the documentary is a much needed addition to wildlife education.

This week also sees the premiere of The Wolverine Network website, which serves as a portal to other wolverine sites. The group is a coalition of wolverine-interested groups and individuals hoping to build support for research, and awareness about wolverine conservation needs. The Wolverine Foundation, the nexus of worldwide wolverine research and, for many years, the sole online gulo presence, remains the place to go for synopses of research projects, monthly wolverine art features, great kids’ pages, and some pretty awesome wolverine hats. Rumor has it that this website will soon receive a multimedia makeover, making the content even more accessible while maintaining the commitment to covering every facet of wolverine ecology and lore.

Wolverine researcher Jeff Copeland, director of the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project, interviewed during a typical day at work. Photo copyright Gianna Savoie.

So tune in on the 14th at 8:00 pm, and then check out the Wolverine Foundation, the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative’s wolverine ecology page, the Wolverine Network, and the other information out there. And let me know what you think, of the film, the animal, and the researchers who pour so much effort into obtaining such scarce data about such an incredible species.

Jasper. Photo copyright PBS Nature.

The Phantom and the Filmmaker

When PBS Nature called Gianna Savoie in 2008 and asked if she’d be interested in making a film about the wolverine, her first reaction was exhilaration at the thought of creating a documentary on a little-known animal. Her second was trepidation: how do you make a movie about an animal that is impossible to find?

The tensions between the mystery, the quest for knowledge, and the intense personality of wolverines hold together the film that Savoie eventually created. From the extraordinary commitment of the scientists who track wolverines through Montana and Alaska with barely a hope of ever seeing the animal, to the quirky and energetic antics of the two captive kits who provide most of the film’s footage of actual wolverines, Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom is an hour of pure gulo charm. Getting to an hour, however, was nearly as epic as some of the wolverine feats the film documents.

Savoie’s initial instinct, as the film took shape, was to build the story around the non-appearance of the wolverine, allowing the very fact of its absence to speak to the rarity of the species and the difficulty of studying (never mind filming) it. But during research for the documentary, she became more and more interested in the lives of individual wolverines, and then she had a transformative encounter with captive wolverines in Washington state. She says that she can’t exactly explain the feeling, but whatever it was, it was unexpected. “They were really curious, intense…I got this feeling that they were thinking something, and they were thinking something about me…there was something that inspired me on every level. They’re tenacious, smart, good moms, survivors – I just respect them.” She knew that wolverines had to be characters in the film.

 

Jason Wilmot is filmed discussing wolverine diet in the early iterations of Chasing the Phantom. The final cut focuses on only two of the multiple wolverine projects in the US; we didn't make the cut, largely because F3 proved camera-shy.

 

That still left her with the problem of how to bring wolverine charisma to the screen when they remained so difficult to find. In August of 2008, Jason Wilmot and I led a cameraman into the remote Absaroka wilderness as we attempted to locate a GPS cluster from one of F3’s collars. The payoff for our pains, a full day of bushwhacking and a near tumble off a cliff, was a single mountain goat mandible. Throughout the ensuing winter, the cameraman in Montana was on high alert as we monitored our traps, hoping to film a capture. But between December and March, F3 went into the trap only once, and the collaring was called off when a blizzard closed the roads to the site. Getting a wild wolverine on film was proving even harder than anticipated.

Fate intervened when a fellow filmmaker and wildlife rehabilitator in Alaska, Steve Kroschel, was left with two orphaned male kits. Raising and educating these kits provides one of the central story arcs of the documentary, and their vibrant personalities as they romp, tumble, and wreak periodic havoc through the Alaska landscape instantly transform wolverines from the ferocious devils of myth to engaging wilderness spirits that you might not mind meeting.

Jasper and Banff – as the two kits are eventually named – give a face to the phantom, but the brief glimpses of wild wolverines are equally compelling. The documentary opens with home footage from a capture of M3, the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project’s superstar male, who later climbed  the nearly vertical 5000 foot face of Mt. Cleveland, the highest peak in the park, in the space of 90 minutes. M3’s growl resonates through the opening scene – nothing can replicate the experience of hearing this sound in real life, but the documentary gives a good idea of what it’s like to feel that rumble shooting through your very bones – and when he charges the camera, you have to admire the spirit of a 30 pound animal willing to take on the multiple humans converging on the trap.

As the film follows the Glacier Project and expands to encompass research in Alaska, the story of M3, his father M1, and M1’s mate, F4, becomes as compelling as the story of Jasper and Banff, even though there’s almost no footage of the animals themselves. The film illuminates the unexpected family dynamics of wolverines, the dedication of gulo mothers, the role that fathers play in raising kits, and the tenacity required for a young wolverine to make it in a rugged world. With shots of shrinking glaciers juxtaposed against snowbound wilds, the film also highlights the dependence of wolverines on snow, and the threats that they will face in a warming world.

Interwoven with the stories of the wolverines are the stories of the researchers – Jeff Copeland, Rick Yates, and Doug Chadwick on the Glacier Project, and Audrey Magoun in Alaska – whose dedication to the species transcends even the most rigorous work ethic, approaching something akin to faith. As Copeland, Yates, and Chadwick push forward through blizzards and up vertical scree slopes, as Magoun battles overgrown forests and scours the vast Alaskan wilderness for a sighting of a wolverine, the audience gains a brief glimpse of the great wolverine paradox: these animals are incredibly, almost indescribably compelling for the people who follow them and want to learn about them, and yet part of what draws us to wolverines is the very mystery and unknowability of the species. If it sounds mystical and over-the-top coming from me, just listen to the scientists as they talk about what wolverine research means to them. Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom won a well-deserved award for scientific content, but even for the scientists, it’s about more than hypotheses and methods and numbers. Magoun speaks of wolverines as the embodying spirit of wilderness, and Chadwick sums it up when he confesses that he and, he speculates, most of the other researchers and volunteers on the project secretly want to be wolverines. In a question-and-answer session after the screening in Bozeman, Rick Yates told the audience of his own initial foray into wolverine work: “Jeff Copeland told me I should work on the project. He said, ‘If you work with wolverines, it’ll change your life.'” Yates paused, let this sink in, and added, simply, “He was right.”

Savoie draws this passion out of her subjects with skill, perhaps in part because she comes from a biology background and understands the connection that can exist between a researcher and a subject species. She speaks with enthusiasm of her own academic research on bats, talking about what amazing animals they are, and lamenting the spread of the whitenose fungus that is wiping out bat colonies throughout the US. Part of the way through her master’s research, Savoie says, she realized that she was as interested in communicating the science as she was in doing the science. As she put it, “There’s a gap between the science and the story,” and she was interested in bridging that gap. She worked for Nature, and then went freelance, producing the award-winning Life in Death Valley and several other projects before being asked to make a documentary about wolverines. On her website, she refers to the wolverine project as the ‘most ambitious and important’ of her career. If her choice of species seems heavily weighed towards the disreputable – there’s a smooth trajectory from the misunderstood and culturally suspect bat to the misunderstood and culturally suspect glutton – you have to admire her for undertaking and succeeding in redeeming overlooked but fascinating creatures.

The film brings to light the world of an extraordinary animal, but for all of that, wolverine researchers are left to wonder what good a single hour long film can do. Savoie’s commitment to conservation outcomes is as evident as her commitment to making good films, but how do you harness the enthusiasm for wolverines that the film will undoubtedly generate? One obvious potential pitfall is the fact that Jasper and Banff are so interesting that a horde of people will want wolverines as pets. (Savoie, in an interview in April, said that she was utterly opposed to this as an outcome of the film. One hopes that Jasper and Banff’s tendency to chew through everything they encounter – gloves, power cords, frozen-solid dead moose  – would serve as further discouragement.) Another, more subtle potential pitfall is a sense of futility. The wolverine is up for listing under the Endangered Species Act, with a decision due in December of this year, but even if it is listed, mitigating threats will be a challenge. In past species conservation efforts, the barriers to recovery have been relatively easy to identify and deal with. For wolverines, though, the biggest long-term threats are most likely your car, your neighbor’s car, the thousands upon millions of cars zipping across America, the power plants and the factory farms – in short, the entire infrastructure of our country. And that’s not something that can be changed with a $50 donation to wolverine research.

Nevertheless, in the short term, the wolverine needs an informed constituency to support research and conservation. Jason Wilmot, who helped start the Glacier project and worked on it as a volunteer before becoming the field director for the Absoroka-Beartooth Project, says, “We’ve come a long way. Ten years ago, no one even knew what a wolverine was. This film is going to raise the level of awareness to a point that’s never existed before, and that’s a good thing for wolverines.”

As for Savoie, her own hope is that people become interested, get informed, and figure out what needs to be done to keep wolverines on the landscape. So far, generating interest seems to be working, as she engages with audiences across the country to help raise awareness and sort out the basics of what a wolverine is and what it needs to survive (she describes a favorite moment, when she asked an audience of children what they thought a wolverine was. One girl said, “An orange wolf,” imagining a cross between a wolf and a tangerine.)

Savoie is talking about a sequel, too. Her commitment to wolverines has only grown deeper in the aftermath of making Chasing the Phantom, and she explains that she wants to play a role in their conservation. An upcoming semester teaching wildlife film-making at Montana State University in Bozeman will allow her a full winter in wolverine habitat and a chance to investigate topics and regional wolverine research projects that didn’t make it into this film. Frustrated by the limits of an hour-long show, she wants to create a second piece that will focus on conservation and research and raise the serious questions of ‘what next?’ in a more direct way. At the same time, of the secret lives of wild wolverines, she says, “I don’t know if I want to know. I like the fact that there are some animals that are able to keep us at bay. We need to find out their status, but they do embody the wilderness – if they’re still out there, the wilderness is still okay.”

In one of the climactic scenes of the film, the camera catches a flashing glimpse of F4, the matriarch of the Glacier wolverines. She pauses, looks over at the camera, and you have to hope, for F4’s sake, that Savoie is right. Then, with a flick of her tail, the wolverine is gone.

 

Jasper, who frequently took creative license during filming. Trying to create a final shot of a wolverine crossing the rugged wilderness, Jasper's adopted human father, Steve, buried himself in the snow, hoping to call Jasper to him so that the cameras could catch him running. Instead, Jasper repeatedly dug Steve out of the snow. Never imagine that you can tell a wolverine what to do.

 

Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom airs on PBS on November 14th.