Wolverines in the NYTimes

A few weeks ago, I found myself standing outside a Bozeman bar at dusk, a file of topo maps tucked under one arm. I’m not the kind of person who hangs around bars (the file of maps should be a clue; I’ve discerned that these are not a usual drinking accessory) but I was waiting to meet Gregg Treinish, the founder and director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), an NGO whose name alone intrigued me enough to venture out into the introvert-unfriendly universe of college-town drinking establishments. Gregg’s credential as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year was intimidating, but when he showed up and spent the first fifteen minutes of our conversation talking about how inspiring he finds wolverines, I figured we were on equal footing in at least one respect. This was fortunate, since a mutual friend had contacted me in January to talk about putting together an exciting, wolverine-related adventure with Gregg and a few other people, and I wasn’t really prepared to spend time in the remote backcountry with someone who intimidated me with his athleticism. An athletic individual committed to wolverines, however – I could deal with that.

Earlier this week, an article about ASC appeared in the New York Times, putting the organization – and wolverines! – in headline news at America’s newspaper of record. The article and attached video feature gulos, and the narration and the interviews in the film segment contain solid information about the species (I’ve been told that it’s better to collect hair samples with tweezers rather than bare hands, since this minimizes the risk of cross-contamination of the DNA, but that’s the only very minor issue that I would raise), but the larger arc of the article is about the as-yet-untapped potential of citizen science among the outdoor set.

In his phenomenal book Annals of the Former World, John McPhee relates the story of geologist Jean de Charpentier, whose work influenced Louis Agassiz, the geologist renowned for pioneering the field of glaciology. In McPhee’s telling, Charpentier was climbing in the Alps one day in 1815 when he met a mountaineer and hunter who had spent most of his life tracking chamois and climbing peaks. This mountaineer pointed out to Charpentier that the boulders in the lower pastures had been placed there by ice that had melted off many years before, suggesting that at one time ice had covered much more of the mountains than it did in 1815. Although Charpentier didn’t believe the mountaineer, he reported the comments, other geologists picked up on the idea that mountain glaciers moved rocks around and shaped the peaks, and Charpentier himself eventually accepted the theory and published work on it. Agassiz expanded this notion one step further to realize that glaciers had once existed at far larger scales, and that much of the topography of the mountainous north had been shaped by glacial ice. He had the technical expertise to understand the implication of the mountaineer’s notion, but he hadn’t spent adequate time in the mountains to have reached this conclusion on his own. The scientific community needed someone who had been out in that environment over the long term to put the pieces together.

This story has stuck with me for years, as an illustration of the importance of being out in the world you’re studying, and of listening to people who spend even more time out there than you do. Scientists these days spend more time than we would like stuck at a computer, and Americans have reached a level of socio-economic development in which adventure has become its own endeavor, separate from either science or survival. Citizen science in general, and organizations like ASC, illustrate that the separation isn’t strictly necessary. The outdoor adventure community consists of smart, generous people who care about the environments in which they’re skiing, climbing, kayaking, rafting, and hiking, and most of them want to contribute to protecting those environments and are eager to share observations that they’ve made. Creating a vehicle to organize connections between these two groups is a great idea. I have some qualms about data-quality issues and the need for rigor, but perhaps the existence of such an organization will prompt adventurers to gain those skills, and perhaps it will also prompt scientists to figure out how to summarize what they do to a lay public.

Wolverines are especially emblematic of the potential for citizen science among adventurers, and adventurous climbers may be particularly important to scientific research in mountainous regions where wolverines and other climate sensitive species live. Like the mountaineer of the Alps – his name was Perraudin, to give him equal credit with his more celebrated contemporaries – hikers and climbers spend far more time than scientists do in high altitude environments, and their observations can be important. So it’s really great to see that more and more projects are working to tap this potential.

Dr. Charlie Love on Glaciers in the Wind River Range

The Wind River Range of Wyoming is one of the great unknown regions on the map of wolverines in the West. We know that there are gulos in these mountains, which extend southeast from the bulk of the Absarokas to form a high altitude peninsula pushing into the sea of sagebrush steppe, but no one has ever formally surveyed for gulos in the Winds. M56, the famous wolverine who traveled from Wyoming to Colorado, went down the Winds before jumping off into the hills and traveling down into Rocky Mountain National Park. So this region is important for wolverines.

Dr. Charlie Love has spent the past 25 years – in between hanging out with cannibals in Papua New Guinea and helping figure out how the famous Maoi statues of Easter Island were raised – studying the glaciers in the Winds. Most people know that glaciers around the world are melting back, and we can easily infer that the meltback derives from increased temperatures and/or decreased precipitation, but precisely why these things are happening involves an incredible amount of detail and variation at the local level. At one time, the major glacier in the Wind River Range was 75 miles long and 3500 ft deep; that was tens of thousands of years ago. The glaciers that currently adorn the high peaks are between 5000 and 6000 years old, and in the past several decades, these glaciers have begun to retreat at a rapid rate. The Wind River glaciers are melting by two vertical meters per year’ the Knifepoint Glacier, the focus of Dr. love’s work, has melted back by 800 ft since 1985 – a loss of 7000 acre feet of mass.. Since the 1920’s, timber line in the Winds has climbed about 100 ft, and a number of glacial lakes have drained due to weakened ice dams. The trend is clear. Why this happening is more nuanced.

Oxygen isotopes from ice cores from the Fremont glacier suggest that for most of the history of the current Wind River glaciers, the snow feeding the ice came primarily from the Gulf of Mexico. Within the glaciers themselves, distinct lines mark the summer melt; like tree rings, these demarcate annual snow accumulation. The orientation of these rings show the direction from which the snow was arriving. Sometime between 1780 and 1840, the direction from which the snow was coming shifted, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Northwest. These storms, says Dr. Love, bore less moisture than the storms from the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in less annual accumulation. And the loss of annual accumulation began to ‘starve’ the glaciers, resulting in the meltback that we are currently observing. Essentially, in the Winds, Dr. Love asserts, we are reacting to climate change already accomplished, rather than dealing with current climate change.

Does this mean anthropogenic climate change isn’t happening? Dr. Love deftly avoided addressing this question, sticking like a limpet to his own data, which suggest that whatever is happening in the Winds has to do with changes in prevailing weather patterns about two centuries ago.

Whatever is going on, the loss of ice at high elevations in the Winds will probably have consequences for wolverines, although before we can figure out what these will be, we need to do some formal surveys in the range.

Most striking to me, however, were the potential effects of the loss of Wind River glaciers on the Wind and Upper Green rivers. The Wind River is already at the center of a clash over water rights between the Shoshone and Arapaho on the Wind River Reservation, and surrounding non-native agricultural communities. This argument, on a very technical level, focuses on in-stream flow, which, Dr. Love says, is already far below the estimates. This means that the Wind River Reservation is fighting a battle over a resource that is even sparser than they thought. This stands to exacerbate existing social conflict, which is a very local example of how the loss of ice stands to effect human communities in real and alarming ways.

(Author Gretel Ehrlich is now speaking about the effects of climate change on the Arctic, emphasizing that the changes that are occurring in the climate are far wider-reaching than a single range, and that these effects will have a profound impact on human and wildlife communities at the most remote corners of the globe.)

Blogging Live from the GYC Meeting!

I’ve always wished – a dorky wish, to be sure – that things like really cool wildlife could garner as much attention as dippy pop stars and/or demented political candidates making asinine statements. Sadly, it seems that Sarah Palin’s enduring ability to behave stupidly, for example, or Hollywood’s most recent fashion choices at various awards ceremonies, always garner more tweets and live blogging activity than, say, the annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology. Why is this? Surely it’s a sign of a society with its priorities in the wrong place….

In an attempt to set American culture back on the right track, I am going to blog live from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition meeting here in Jackson Hole today. This year’s meeting focuses on climate sensitive wildlife, and Doug Chadwick, long-term volunteer with the Glacier National Park wolverine project and author of The Wolverine Way, will be the keynote speaker. He has recently spent time in the Gobi working with the mazaalai, the Gobi bear, another species under intense threat due to climate shifts, so I anticipate a great speech. In addition, we will also be hearing from Dr. Charlie Love on glaciers in the Rockies, Dr. Bob Greswell on the effects of climate change on cutthroat trout, Dr. Healy Hamilton on using biodiversity informatics for conservation, and author Gretel Ehrlich on how you sum all of these issues up in a compelling piece of literature that will move people to love and care for the places that they live. The who’s-who of the Yellowstone conservation world will certainly be here as well, so it promises to be a thrilling day.

By the way, I don’t think I’ve actually ever followed a live blog before, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to spoof appropriately. But I will be sure to let you all know what everyone is wearing. (Yvon Chouinard and his team are, rumor has it, the designers of choice for this event.) Blogging activity will be interrupted mid-day during a fire ecology field trip (I do not have a smart phone, and carrying my computer into a burn is probably unwise) but will resume in the evening.

Okay. So where do I start?

“Sunrise over pristine and gorgeous mountains emphasizing need to conserve inspiring natural places. About to head down to breakfast to get some coffee so that blog posts become more coherent.”

Stay tuned.