Potential Change to Polar Bear ESA Rule

When the polar bear was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, the Bush Administration issued a rule stating that the ESA couldn’t be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions even if a listing was due to climate change. This rule represented a blow to conservationists, rendering the ESA incapable of being invoked to address threats to climate sensitive wildlife. The polar bear case was complicated by a number of other factors including the threats posed by energy development in the Arctic, the politics of hunting and indigenous rights in Canada, and the clear reluctance of Bush Administration officials to list any species without the threat of legal action, and even then to do so minimally and grudgingly. But reduced to essentials, the decision meant that the polar bear and its fellow climate sensitive species – notably, the wolverine, the pika, and the walrus, all of which have been considered for listing between 2008 and the present – would be excluded from the protections that the ESA offers to species threatened by in-habitat issues like point source pollution, destruction of habitat, and over-harvesting.

Last week, in response to a lawsuit by four environmental organizations, a district judge handed down a ruling that the government’s failure to conduct an environmental review before issuing the rule constituted an error, and sent the decision back to the government to obtain a review. This decision (summarized by NPR, detailed in an article in the LA Times, and commented upon by the environmental groups involved) opens a tiny window through which environmental groups might maneuver to obtain stronger protections for climate sensitive wildlife.

Unfortunately, though, the details of the decision suggest that this won’t happen. The judge ruled that the lack of an environmental review was a serious problem, but affirmed that the government has the right to decide what types of harm are allowable to species listed as ‘threatened’ rather than ‘endangered.’ The polar bear population, classified at this lower level of risk, is deemed robust enough to withstand further losses, and therefore a population reduction due to climate change is – officially, anyway – not a cause for concern. (The environmental groups sued to upgrade the polar bear’s status to endangered earlier this year, but lost.) The Obama administration has until November 17th to submit a timeline for writing the review.

What does this mean for wolverines? I’ve devoted previous posts to the paradox of the push to list the species, and although I believe that the scientific evidence states that the wolverine should be on the list, I’m torn at the thought of spending huge amounts of money on a species when only the proximate causes of the threat are being addressed; if that money could go to actually saving a species facing in situ threats, maybe it would be better to put the money towards that species. But if the polar bear rule is struck down and the ESA is enabled as a tool for regulating ex situ threats like greenhouse gas emissions, I can stop coping with this split-personality problem and cheer for listing without any reservation. (Or, of course, if we actually adequately fund the USFWS, we could work on saving all the species, thus likewise eliminating conflict over the issue….)

Gulos are currently candidate species for listing, with a final decision due by 2013. For so many reasons, I wish the decision on the polar bear rule had come down earlier, not in the run-up to an election year; the timing means that the decision will be more subject than usual to the pull of politics. Regardless, though, it at least represents an acknowledgement that the rule was made too hastily and warrants review. Hopefully by 2013, if the wolverine is listed, the listing will actually offer protection.

On the subject of climate change, a very short interview with climate scientist Synte Peacock highlights her interest in wolverines and her work modeling snowpack conditions in the wolverine’s North American habitat. In the ongoing process of building a chain of evidence that wolverines are threatened by climate change effects in the US, her work shows that snowpack conditions at the core of wolverine range are likely to decline over the next century. The study isn’t cheerful, but it does at least offer multiple scenarios (depending on how we act – or don’t – on the threats) and some are better than others. So that’s a (very) small bright side.


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.

Climate change meeting in Jackson

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an advocacy group based in Bozeman, Montana, will feature Doug Chadwick as the keynote speaker at its annual meeting in Jackson, Wyoming, on September 30th. The meeting will address climate change in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, a theme of obvious importance to wolverines in the region. With Chadwick as the keynote speaker, gulos will certainly feature in the discussions at the event, but wolverines aren’t the only creatures at risk – whitebark pine, bears, Clark’s nutcrackers, and a host of other iconic and less-well-known species are at risk. It’s a topic worth discussion and, hopefully, action. If you’ll be in the area, you can register for the conference here.

Further afield, one of the four wolverines that have allegedly killed a number of cats in Kitimat, British Columbia, was captured today. At nine kilograms and less than a meter long, hopefully the animal will help ease the fears of residents who worry that the marauding wolverines are capable of hunting down humans. In the photo attached to the article, the gulo looks small and bewildered. The glob of drool hanging from its jaw is fairly characteristic of wolverines in traps, lest rumors start that the animal is rabid – our wolverine frequently foam at the mouth when stressed. The captured wolverine will apparently be relocated, although this isn’t confirmed. In the meantime, if you are in the area – or if your pets share habitat with any wildlife capable of doing them harm – remember to keep your cats indoors, especially at night, and your dogs on a leash.

Wolverine Conservation from the Rockies to Cambodia

How does a mountain-loving, wolverine-obsessed northern girl end up in a sweltering, flat country where the monsoon floods the forests during the rainy season, and the sun bakes the land into a red brick shell during the dry season? Cambodia is small, densely populated, and poor; the generation currently in the workforce is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge and the years of civil war that followed. The country is known for the splendor of its ancient history and the unspeakable horror of its recent past – the temples of Angkor and the violence of the war are equally incomparable and breathtaking, although at opposites ends of the spectrum of human potential. These two poles dominate most people’s perceptions of the country. In popular imagination, it’s not a place for those who crave wilderness, solitude, and escape from human folly.

Less well known is the fact that Cambodia’s ecosystems once rivaled the Serengeti. Bas reliefs at the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom depict Cambodia’s forest in the 12th century, at the height of the Angkorian empire. Interspersed with scenes of war and daily life are scenes of Sarus cranes dancing in courtship, a rhinoceros parading through the forest, crocodiles consuming fish, monkeys stealing food from marching soldiers, wild peacocks spreading their tails, elephants tending their babies, a giant catfish with a half-swallowed deer between its jaws. The forests of Southeast Asia, deciduous dipterocarp interspersed with tracts of broadleaf evergreen and vast sweeps of open grassland, teemed – as recently as the 1960’s – with ungulates, including four species of wild cattle: the banteng, the gaur, the wild water buffalo, and the kouprey. Elephants, Eld’s deer, roe deer, leaf deer, and rhinoceros roamed the swampy grasslands. Tigers, leopards, leopard cats, fishing cats, dholes, sun bears, pythons, and cobras hunted through the forest, and binturongs, gibbons, macaques, civets, and giant squirrels leapt through the canopy. Pangolins and monitor lizards crept through the leaves and swam in the waterways. The forests and the seasonal pools were filled with countless bird species, and the waterways writhed with fish. Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake is still the richest freshwater fishery in Southeast Asia; once, it was once home to crocodiles and 600-pound giant catfish.

Rhinoceros, vulture, and wild cattle species, the Bayon, Angkor Thom, Cambodia.

The vibrant, sprawling ecosystem depicted on Cambodia’s temples exists now only in stone. The rhinoceros declined before the 20th century, hunted for the medicinal trade. The rest of Cambodia’s wildlife was nearly wiped out during the war, when hungry soldiers and villagers killed what they could for food. While the civil war raged, the Khmer Rouge logged the forest in order to finance their lunatic crusade. The remaining wildlife, valuable in Thailand and in China, was killed for body parts that were traded along the same routes as smuggled guns, drugs, and human slaves. By the time the war ended in 1999, a number of species were believed to have gone extinct. For some – the giant ibis, the Siamese crocodile – reprieves came when scientists discovered marginal populations holding out in remote locations. Others, like the kouprey, haven’t been seen since. Scattered populations of banteng and gaur still occupy the forest, and one small herd of water buffalo has been located in the east. There are perhaps a hundred wild elephants left, and maybe fewer than ten tigers. The giant catfish are gone from the Tonle Sap, but a few hold on in the Mekong, along with a tiny group of freshwater dolphins. Cambodians have big problems, and conservation is not an overarching concern for illiterate people struggling to feed their families. The rich, wild world of the ancient forests is grievously diminished, and there is little space for it to recover as long as the human population remains so desperate.

Forest scene, Banteay Srei temple, Cambodia.

I walked into the Cambodian conservation world in 2003, spending a year and half working on community-based conservation projects on the Tonle Sap and, later, in the forests of Preah Vihear province in the north. I picked up enough Khmer to get along, and although the country never captured my heart the way Mongolia did, I was in awe of the wildlife and of the small group of individuals struggling to protect it. With the exception of wolverine biologists, I’ve never met a more committed group of people.

By the time I left Cambodia in 2004, I knew that my place was in the north, where the mountains and the steppe and the boreal forest spoke to me in a way that the tropics never will. But in autumn of 2010, a few weeks after I returned from Mongolia, I got a call from an organization working on a climate change mitigation project in Cambodia. The Cambodian project partners included some of the same people I’d worked with in 2003, and the organization wanted me to consider a six-month position to facilitate the project. I told them no; I couldn’t imagine interrupting the momentum of my wolverine work to do something completely unrelated. But a few days later they called back, asking me to reconsider.

The project was a REDD effort, and this swayed me. REDD is an international program to create carbon markets in order to protect forests and lower greenhouse gas levels – the acronym stands for ‘reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation,” and includes protecting standing forest as well as reforesting degraded areas. REDD projects around the world are trying to bring monetary benefits from intact forests back to communities and governments that otherwise might simply log the forests.  Without getting into the gritty details of how REDD works (or has failed to work, so far…), the focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions through forest preservation provided the necessary connection to my broader objectives of wildlife conservation.

Some of you may have noticed a certain desperate tone in many of these blog entries; the wolverine narrative seems essentially hopeless, because the problem of climate change is so massive, and we as a society so utterly lack the will to address it. This sense of hopelessness extends to all of the climate sensitive wildlife out there, not to mention the snowbound landscapes of places like Glacier National Park and the high pastures of the Mongolian communities where I work. We are going to lose so much in the fallout from our political squabbles, and no matter how hard I try to maintain a rational, optimistic outlook, there are days when that huge question – why aren’t we doing something about this? – leaves me in despair.

I write about how we need to change things on a massive scale, but the precise program for doing that has never been clear, and that’s part of what makes conservation of climate sensitive wildlife so overwhelming. The organization was offering me an opportunity to be part of exactly what I’d been calling for – a global-scale effort to reduce emissions, to shift our paradigm to consider worldwide ecosystem effects, and to bring conservation benefits directly back to communities. I spoke Khmer, I had a specific skill set for working in Cambodia, and suddenly it seemed like an opportunity to actually do something about the problem I kept lamenting. A month later, I was on my way to Siem Reap.

Six months were enough to see that the creation of carbon markets isn’t going to happen quickly, but that it does have potential. If it’s going to happen, though, all of us are going to have to be content with playing small parts, and all of us are going to have to put aside our pet theories and prejudices if we’re serious about making it function. Carbon markets are a massive interdisciplinary effort, involving illiterate villagers, local and national governments, environmental activists, hardcore scientists, economists, stockbrokers, and global corporations. Stop and think, for a minute, about what it takes to get all of these groups to understand each other, let alone actually work towards a shared goal. Are these issues irreconcilable? Let’s hope not. But we have a long way to go.

Cambodia may or may not be the ideal test case for pioneering carbon sales, but with a large percentage of forest cover, it’s worth the attempt. It’s worth it for wolverines, pikas, polar bears, and all of our northern wildlife, and it’s worth it for Cambodia’s incredible array of species as well. It’s worth it for Cambodia’s many forest-dependent human communities too, communities that are too frequently steamrolled under the greed of those with access to natural resource concessions. Whatever the complexities and challenges, the push to create a new system of valuing ecosystem services is necessary for wildlife and for humans. I don’t know if the past six months have truly done anything for wolverines – maybe, over the long term, the preservation of the Cambodian forest will keep a few more inches of snow on the ground somewhere in the Rockies, or maybe not – but I’m glad to have been a part of it. Seeing the carvings on the Bayon evokes a feeling of profound grief for what has been lost, and something close to fury that previous generations were so careless with the creatures of this world. I hope that I’ve played some small part in reversing a terrible historical trend, so that future generations won’t have to feel the same sense of loss.

Giant catfish swallowing deer (or goat), the Bayon, Angkor Thom, Cambodia.

Still, noble intentions for the future of humanity and the planet only take you so far. My entire time in Cambodia was a massive countdown to returning to the work that I truly love. I’m glad to be back in Mongolia and I’ve reaffirmed that my part in this is to be on the ground in the communities and ecosystems where I am most inspired. So from here on, it’s back to the North.

Many thanks to all the people who made my Cambodian experiences so rich, fun, and rewarding beyond the parameters of work. You are a great community, I wish everyone tremendous success, and you are all, always, welcome in Mongolia, the American West, or wherever my work takes me next. Ahkon cheraan, teng-ot k’nia!

Young monk and pig-tailed macaque, confiscated from villagers and soon to be released back into the forest, Oddar Meanchey province, Cambodia. Buddhist monks can be a tremendous force for conservation, and many are working to protect the forest in Cambodia.

The Wolverine Week in Review

A small avalanche of articles on wolverines has appeared over the past two weeks. From an enthusiastic write-up of Doug Chadwick’s Canadian tour promoting The Wolverine Way, to two pleas (here, a piece in New West, and here, in National Parks Traveler) for wider protection of the species in the US, to a synopsis in High Country News of new climate change research that suggests that wolverines are facing harder times ahead, to a recap of the adventures of the lone Sierra male, wolverines are becoming more newsworthy day-by-day. Average daily visits to this blog are about twice what they were six months ago, and attendance at wolverine talks in Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming has been standing-room-only for the past ten months. All of this indicates an increased interest, which is gratifying to those of us who have long hoped that the wolverine would gain a more prominent place in our collective awareness.

Sometimes, wider attention can be two-edged, however. Over the past few years, as we’ve prepared to induct the wolverine into the ranks of conservation darlings, I’ve had a few moments of panic over the way in which good intentions could go awry. There’s a thin line between reasoned advocacy and blind enthusiasm, and it’s easy for the former to tip over into the latter. The wolverine needs a constituency, but it needs a constituency that advocates for smart things, in a smart way.

Immediately following the listing decision in December,  the environmentalist reaction to the “warranted but precluded” designation was primarily one of disappointment and reproach. I was particularly taken aback by an editorial that lambasted the decision as “political” and called for immediate listing. I’ve struggled to articulate reasons for my reaction to this piece, because I too would have preferred to see the wolverine listed and offered endangered species protections, even while realizing that the ‘warranted but precluded’ status represents a huge step forward. But, after some reflection, after a lesser resurgence of frustration while reading some of last week’s articles, and partially in reaction to some recent discussions about Montana’s trapping season (about which more to come in later posts), I think it comes down to this:

The environmental movement gained its foothold in the midst of the crises of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and its narrative – its essential script – is always of crisis. Environmental advocates are caught in a perpetual reactive cycle that is fundamentally defensive, combative, and angry. And in order to be defensive and combative, one requires, of course, someone against whom to direct one’s anger – an enemy.

In reacting to the listing decision in December, some people chose to cast the federal government in the role of enemy. There have been murmurs within the environmental advocacy community and the growing wolverine fan base, seeking to assign that role to other groups – to snowmobilers, to trappers, to ranchers. It is to the credit of environmental advocates that none of these narratives of threat have blown up and taken off, but the risk is always there. And it is a risk, for two reasons. First, using any of these potent narratives against a specific identity-based group has the potential to evoke an anti-wolverine reaction from politically powerful people. Take a ten-second glance at the state of wolf conservation, and you will understand why this would be a disaster. Second,  re-enacting the ritual battles of cultural identity that characterize environmental disputes in the West distracts us  from the real issues surrounding wolverine conservation, which are climate change and habitat fragmentation.

This, then, is why calls for listing as a conservation solution for wolverines make my stomach flip. Listing has worked fantastically for a number of species, but it’s as if people have come to believe that putting an animal on the list is the equivalent of having conserved it. That’s not the case. The wolverine could be listed, and it would make little difference to its long-term prospects, because we lack the political and social will to tackle those big, looming issues, and the ESA, which doesn’t allow us to regulate for climate change, gives us no grounds to do so.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t list the wolverine, but that we need to stay focused on substantive as well as symbolic actions. We’ve become so accustomed to fighting for listing as the apotheosis of endangered species conservation that, in some ways, we’re floundering in confusion, and clinging to the comfort of those old successes, as we try to deal with the fact that wolverines – and polar bears, and other species threatened by climate change – call for something above and beyond the predictable strategies that have worked well in the past. We don’t yet know what those solutions will look like, but we know that they will have to be bigger and just as systemic as the problems that necessitate them.

And this brings me back to narratives of combat, crisis, and enemies. If we’re going to tackle these bigger issues, we need alliances, not battle lines. We need to use reasonable federal decisions as a jumping-off point instead of entrenching and employing limited resources to fight the government. We need better data on critical questions about reproduction,  dispersal, and genetic exchange so that we know how to take effective action – which means that we need to fund research and monitoring. We need to guarantee every single wolverine a fighting chance to successfully disperse and reproduce, with as few potential sources of direct mortality as possible. We need instantaneous action on climate change, although – as Synte Peacock’s recent paper on climate modeling in wolverine habitat in the Rockies points out – it may be too late for that already. We need a push for a new conservation narrative, more complex, more sophisticated, and ultimately more successful, that can build alliances for action on those larger issues.

So keep the interest in wolverines high, and keep calling for listing, but let’s make sure that we’re also talking about what we’re going to do beyond that to ensure that the wolverine stays on the ground in the Rockies. There is a crisis, but it’s not a simple crisis with a single solution – it’s worldwide and culturally embedded, and its implications extend far beyond wolverines.

That was something of a rant, and I apologize for any sense of negativity. I deeply appreciate the increasing interest in wolverines and the sincerity behind people’s desire to see it protected. But I hope we can direct energy and resources in the most effective fashion, without getting distracted by protracted legal or media battles unless they are necessary.

To bring things down a notch, I’ll leave off with a series of camera-trap photos from Banff National Park in Canada, which includes some photos of a wolverine gnawing on a moose carcass, and a great action shot of a wolverine in mid-air, chasing a raven. Enjoy.

Colorado Wolverine Presentations This Week

Just a reminder for Colorado folks – Jason Wilmot of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wolverine Project will be giving four talks this week.

January 26th, 6-8pm
New Battle Mountain High School

January 27th, 6-8pm
American Mountaineering Center

January 28th, 7-9pm
The Denver Zoo

January 29th, 6-8pm

Also in wolverine news, a short film of wolverines in the Stockholm Zoo offers another glimpse of wolverines for those who think they might have seen one and are looking for material on ID-ing the species, and/or people who just like an excuse to watch wolverines. This film was apparently picked up by the AP, and I find the caption particularly entertaining: “Officials at the Stockholm zoo put extra snow into the wolverine enclosure after they discovered last year that the animals enjoyed digging tunnels, hiding food and playing.” No offense to the Stockholm Zoo, but did they really not realize prior to this that wolverines like snow? If not, I’m glad they figured it out, because the wolverines look like they’re enjoying themselves – especially the one in the beginning of the film, who seems to be contemplating starting a snowball fight.

About halfway through the film, look for a shot of a wolverine rubbing its belly across the snow – perhaps scent-marking the spot. Wolverines have a pale line of fur stretching down their lower abdomens; I’ve asked about this during collaring operations and no one is clear on exactly why that bit of fur is lighter. In this video, it looks like the wolverine is rubbing that precise spot across the snow, so maybe it has something to do with the chemicals used in scent-marking. We also get a few shots of wolverines digging, so you can see what a wolverine-excavated hole might look like, and, of course, the obligatory glimpse of a gulo hauling a gigantic piece of raw meat.

Another media piece that might prove interesting to gulo fans appeared in the New York Times this weekend. Wolverines are not mentioned, but a suite of other climate-sensitive species are. The article suggests that the effects of climate change on biodiversity are already observable in countries around the world, and are likely to get worse in coming years. It’s a depressing reminder that wolverines are in multitudinous company – up to 30% of the world’s species might be lost as the climate shifts. I dislike hopeless-narratives-of-environmental-apocalypse, but sometimes it feels like there’s no other way to tell it.

January Wolverine Talks in Colorado

To all Denver and Boulder area residents interested in learning more about wolverine ecology and citizen science: mark your calendars. Jason Wilmot of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, who has worked on the Glacier National Park and Absaroka Beartooth Wolverine Projects, will be giving a series of presentations in Colorado later this month. The talks will focus on wolverine science, and will provide information about how to identify tracks and sign of both wolverines and lynx. Bring your enthusiasm and your questions.

Here is the schedule so far:

January 27th, American Mountaineering Center, Golden

January 28th, Denver Zoo, Denver

January 29th, REI, Boulder

There’s also a possibility that he will be talking in Vail, although that is not confirmed. In February, Jason will be giving talks in Wyoming and Idaho, including lectures and field trips, so check back for more details about all of these events as the schedule is confirmed.

And finally, unrelated to the lecture tour, but of interest because the bighorn sheep shares the wolverine’s habitat, here is a short video from Conservation Media on the possible effects of climate change on sheep. This represents another instance of scientists wrestling with the question of how global warming will affect biodiversity. Gulos are not the only creature threatened; entire montane ecosystems will be disrupted. The topic is sobering, but the film is fun to watch because of the great footage. Conservation Media has done work for the Wolverine Foundation as well, and their films are consistently high quality and bring attention to wildlife and environmental issues throughout the West. If wolverines and sheep could make their own advocacy pieces, perhaps they would look like Conservation Media’s work.


Wolverine as filmmaker. One of the most devoted wolverine fans - and readers of this blog - is wildlife artist Jeff Cain of England. He was kind enough to share some of his work with permission to post it here. Thanks, Jeff! (Image copyright Jeff Cain.)