More Rosomaha

I came across another Russian blog featuring stories of wolverines in Kronotsky Zapovednik in Kamchatka. This one is by Alexey Bezrukov, who encountered a mother wolverine and three kits sometime in March. There are some incredible shots of the kits, variously playing with items, hanging out with their mom, attempting to raid a cabin, and investigating the camera. My favorite features a wolverine making off with an apparently hand-made ski – two items high on my list of great things that the world has to offer.

Bezrukov says that he first encountered these wolverines while out skiing. He saw a mother with one kit, and then behind them, two more kits. When the wolverines first spotted him, they dashed into a nearby alder thicket and hid. Bezrukov continued skiing, and, looking over, realized that one of the kits was running alongside him, looking at him. The wolverine kit looked thin, the fur not in good condition, but the other wolverines appeared healthy. All three wolverines seemed to be making an effort to get in front of him and look him in the face. He stopped, took off his skis, and got out his camera.

The wolverines circled around, but quickly grew bored with Bezrukov’s motionless figure. When they started to leave, however, he whistled, and one of them came back. It became interested in the skis, and dragged one off into the bushes. Bezrukov was so enthralled that he simply watched – until he noticed chips of wood flying off the front of the ski. At that point, he intervened to save his means of transportation. The wolverine, looking at him “with round hurt eyes, like a child with a favorite new toy taken away,” turned its back on him and left. He whistled after it, trying to make amends, but the wolverine was too upset (or had simply lost interest….) and disappeared.

But the little wolverine got over its pique, and Bezrukov and various guests saw the wolverine family again. One morning he awoke to a scratching noise, and found the wolverine pawing the window sill outside his cabin. He stepped outside to see the entire area around the cabin trampled by wolverine prints. Later, the mother and all three kits also came into the yard, providing entertainment for Bezrukov and friends, “not just allowing a short glimpse from far away, but coming close.” The wolverines even took up temporary residence under the guest house when the guests left, and began climbing a ladder to access the roof.

A few days after the guests left, Buzrukov noticed that two of his three snow shovels had disappeared. He spent some time searching and trying to figure out what his guests had done with them. The answer became clear when he looked out the window to see two wolverines playing with the one remaining shovel, dragging it off. Eventually they returned it, and, having learned his lesson, he thereafter brought his skis, shovels, and other equipment indoors at night.

I am not sure whether these are 2010’s kits, or 2011’s. If they were born in 2011, they are out really early and were certainly born before February.  They seem to be last year’s kits, traveling with their mom (or, if they are yearlings, possibly their father.) But in a few shots, they still look too baby-ish to be yearlings. The presence of three kits suggests – yet again, as did Igor Shpilenok’s story of six wolverines at a carcass – that Kamchatka is an especially favorable place for wolverines, supporting a high density of the animals and allowing, at least in some cases, higher-than-average reproduction.

Bezrukov’s first encounter with this family reminds me of Jason Wilmot’s story of his first encounter with a wolverine, which was remarkably similar; skiing in Glacier, he looked over and realized that a wolverine was running alongside him, looking at him. I’ve heard several similar tales from skiers, and a couple from paranoid snowmobilers who were convinced that the wolverine in question was attempting to kill them. Many stories of wolverines “chasing” people with aggressive intent exist, and these stories are reiterated in the comments on Bezrukov’s and Shpilenok’s blogs, which seem to reinforce a Russian perception that wolverines are vicious and dangerous (both authors, thankfully, quickly dispel these myths, and also refute a figure apparently circulating in Russia, that wolverines are detrimental to hunters, since each wolverine is reported to kill 150 deer a year -a figure that, as Bezrukov points out, is absurd.) Wolverines are curious animals, and most of these tales of being chased probably stem from startled people realizing that an apparently fearless animal is pacing them, looking them in the eye. Don’t worry, folks – they aren’t sizing you up for dinner. They are probably just saying hello.


Wolverines Beyond the Greater Yellowstone

Wolverines made it onto NPR two days ago, with a short feature about projects in Washington and Idaho. The story offers solid, accurate information about two research endeavors to which I’ve dedicated far too little attention on this blog; the Pacific Northwest Research Station’s North Cascades Project, and the Forest Service/Idaho Snowmobile Association Central Idaho Wolverine-Winter Recreation Study. (More information about both these projects can be found on the Wolverine Foundation’s research page.)

As an aside, when I started this blog, I thought I was dealing with a manageable subject – after all, it’s not like I decided to cook my way through someone’s 1000-page cookbook every day for a year, or try to follow politics, or document my kids, my love life, or something else that’s ongoing and perpetually in front of me. Wolverines are one of the rarest critters on the face of the planet. How much news can a rare animal generate? I figured it would be just enough for one well-written, thoughtful post a week.

As it turns out, wolverine news, like wolverine attitude, seems to be out of proportion to the animal itself. Or maybe I just love the subject enough to delve as deeply as possible into limited information. In any case, I find things slipping by me, planned posts going unwritten, and deserving information being neglected. The neglect says nothing about my opinion of the projects or information, only about my ability to manage my time. With that in mind, I’ll try to summarize below a few interesting stories from beyond my Greater Yellowstone/Mongolia bubble. I’ve been following these, and meaning to mention them, for a bit.

In February of 2010, the North Cascades wolverine study captured a young female that they nicknamed Eowyn. She left the region shortly afterward, earning attention as her journey took her 150 miles to the north, into British Columbia. Her journey was longer than those of most females, and biologists were tracking her progress as she looped back south towards Washington, covering at least 300 miles in total.

Then, in April or May, Eowyn apparently got on the wrong side of a cougar, perhaps by feeding on its kill. Her skull was found buried with deer remains; cougar scat, along with the collar, was nearby. The skull appeared to have been punctured or crushed. We know that young wolverines die in encounters with other predators, that despite their reputation for being able to scare a bear from a kill, it takes not only raw gulo courage, but sheer luck to come out on top in that sort of encounter. Eowyn’s luck was up. The death was disappointing for fans who were following her progress, and repeated a pattern that seems an essential part of the wolverine researcher’s life: catch an animal, come to know and respect its individuality, maybe even experience awe at its feats. Pin your hopes on this animal, pour your spirit into rooting for her or him, and then – the animal is killed. Or it disappears. This happens to a disproportionate number of research animals, especially dispersing juveniles, emphasizing how dangerous the world is for a young wolverine.

Earlier this year, the wolverine biologists on the North Cascades project caught another female, nicknamed Mattie. They believe she might be pregnant, although the article doesn’t specify why they think so. If she is, her kits would be the first documented wolverine reproduction in the Cascades – again, contingent on being able to confirm that she denned and produced young, the notoriously elusive holy grail of wolverine research. It’s exciting to think that we might have another confirmed breeding population of wolverines in the Lower 48. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Mattie as well as F3.

In addition to the winter recreation study in central Idaho, Idaho Fish and Game is undertaking another study in the Cabinet Mountains of northern Idaho. They are trying to assess wolverine population in this region, although so far their array of camera traps and bait stations haven’t detected any wolverines (they’ve gotten some great pictures of fishers, though.) Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness is partnering with IDFG to provide volunteers for this project. We frequently get questions about how people can volunteer on wolverine research, and unfortunately there are few opportunities. But if you live in northern Idaho, you might be in luck, so check it out.

If you prefer to experience gulo research vicariously, Doug Chadwick will also be speaking in northern Idaho in March, with talks on the 17th in Sandpoint, the 18th in Trout Creek, and the 19th in Troy.

Also from last week’s gulo news, an article appeared in a Colorado newspaper with the disappointing headline “State has no plans to bring back wolverine.” The article can only be read if you have a subscription to the paper, so lest people are convinced by the headline that the Colorado reintroduction plan is scrapped, this is simply a case of a poorly-chosen and misleading title. The article states that plans for wolverine reintroduction are subject to legislative approval and to a thorough consultation with all stakeholders, and that therefore we are unlikely to see wolverines on the ground this year. Since we always knew that this was a proposal that would work over a longer timeline, and that the earliest date for wolverines on the ground was likely to be 2012, the article offers no surprises, and simply reaffirms Colorado’s commitment to considering the social and political process.

Finally, from even further afield, Igor Shpilenok, the Russian conservationist whose photos of wolverines in the wilds of Kamchatka have impressed every gulo fan who’s seen them, has posted a couple of new images on his blog, here and here. Shpilenok manages to capture the spirit of these animals – he gets the intelligence, the curiosity, the toughness, the mystique, and even some of the vulnerability of the species, frequently all in the same shot. He’s an amazing photographer (his work, beyond wolverines, is worth a serious, long look.) Previously, I posted translations of some of his posts; in those accompanying these new photos, he simply mentions that it’s his birthday, and that he considers seeing the wolverine an excellent gift.

True Tales of Росомаха, the Russian Wolverine

If there is one country that could, in terms of numbers alone, single-handedly insure the perpetuation of the wolverine as a species, it’s Russia. With nearly one eighth of the world’s landmass enclosed within its borders – a huge percentage of it boreal forest and taiga – Russia probably has the world’s largest wolverine population. Unfortunately, accessible information on this population is scant, and in making some initial inquiries, I’ve heard all kinds of rumors: that no one in Russia has ever studied wolverines; that people have studied Russian wolverines but that the methods were faulty and the data unreliable; that wolverines in Russia run in packs and bring down full-grown, healthy moose. Wolverines in Russia appear to be distributed throughout Siberia, from the Urals eastwards to Kamchatka, and in some areas, at least, from the Mongolian border north to the Arctic Ocean. Beyond basic distribution, however, all other information has been anecdotal.

In Russian, wolverines are “Росомаха” (pronounced “rosomakha”), a word I learned in Mongolia in 2009 when I stumbled across a Russian-dubbed bootleg copy of the most recent X-Men film. Some months before, I’d received an email from a fellow graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Laura Williams, who had worked for WWF’s Russia program, and married a Russian conservationist, Igor Shpilenok. Shpilenok, in addition to being a hero of the Russian conservation world, is an incredible photographer, and when I mentioned to Williams that I was interested in wolverines, she forwarded a photo that he had taken of a wolverine in Kamchatka. The photo is extraordinary, the wolverine gorgeous in winter pelage tinged by the first light of dawn, the massiveness of its feet emphasized as it walks across the snow.

Subsequently, as I traveled through Mongolia searching for wolverines in the Altai and the Altai Sayan, it became clear that any effort to research wolverines in either range was going to run up against the reality of the Russian border; the fresh tracks that I discovered in 2010 were an easy wolverine jaunt from the Altai Republic, and I nearly created an international incident two days later when I hiked up a valley to investigate a snowfield, only to discover at the last second that the snowfield wasn’t actually in Mongolia. Any work on wolverines in these regions is probably going to require transboundary cooperation, because what do we do if, when we get a collar operation going, a wolverine decamps and drops its hugely expensive GPS collar, containing essential data, somewhere in Siberia? It’s also more than likely that wolverines in Mongolia are genetically closely connected to and dependent upon Siberian gulos. So Russia’s wolverines are a matter of some personal interest.

With all this in mind, I’ve been easing myself into some background reading on Russian conservation and Siberia. Laura Williams has written a book, The Storks’ Nest, on her relationship with Russian conservation work (and, incidentally, with Igor Shpilenok), and although wolverines are not mentioned, the book gives a great overview of the struggles of Russian environmentalists since the collapse of Communism. Williams’ detailed writing about the wildlife in the Bryansk Reserve and the characters in her tiny Russian village makes the book a pleasure to read.  Another great resource on Russia and its system of zapovedniki – strictly protected areas that are reserved for research purposes only – are the writings of Fred Strebeigh; a piece from 2002 gives an overview of the zapovednik system and its history, and a more recent piece from 2010 documents some potentially hopeful developments in Russian conservation, including increasing engagement from Vladimir Putin, whose recent cuddling with tigers and polar bears may – hopefully – reflect an actual commitment to conservation as well as machismo.

In all this research, I stumbled across the photo site and blog of Igor Shpilenok, and thereby discovered that the photo that Williams sent me was one of several amazing wolverine photos. Unfortunately for gulo-loving Americans, the blog is in Russian, but luckily my friend Marissa Smith – veteran of the 2010 Altai Wolverine Quest  – is fluent in Russian and very kindly translated the wolverine-related blog posts.

Here, Shpilenok explains that he was awake one night, in a cabin in the Kronotski Zapovednik on the coast of Kamchatka, trying to find the source of some vermicelli that a rodent had left in his sleeping bag, when he heard a noise in the rain outside. Looking out onto the porch, he found himself face-to-face with a wolverine. Although he stepped outside and took photos with a flash, the wolverine remained on the porch, snorting at him, evidently more frightened of something out on the tundra than of him. Shpilenok speculates that the wolverine was feeling threatened, either by another wolverine or perhaps by a wolf, and that the company of humans was less alarming than the company of whatever was out there in the dark. The wolverine remained on the porch all night, disappearing at dawn. (Shpilenok never found the vermicelli, but he did discover a bottle of vodka under the stove.)

Here, about a month later, Shpilenok talks about discovering that a wolverine is living in a hole in the snow near the cabin. He speculates that this is the same wolverine that came onto the porch in December, and says that she shows signs of having been in a fight (clearly visible in the photo), probably with another wolverine, he says. Aside from the scratches, she appeared to be healthy and fat, and Shpilenok says that she will probably easily recover from her injuries. He watches her at the riverbank as she digs something out of the snow (kizhucha?), saying that she appears to be using her teeth more than her claws. (The idea of a wolverine “living” in a hole is contrary to what we find in North American wolverines, and it seems about two weeks too early for a female to be denning, so maybe the wolverine was simply hanging out near a food cache. Or maybe Siberian wolverines are doing things differently?)

Here, featuring the photo with which Williams originally intrigued me, Shpilenok discusses the habits and reputation of the wolverine, referring to it as “the demon of the taiga,” highlighting the boreal distribution of the creature, and mentioning its sparsity and massive home ranges. Trappers, he explains, dislike wolverines because of their tendency to raid traplines and spoil what they find. Despite the bad rap, however, wolverines should be seen as nature’s cleanup crew: “Its purpose – to clear nature of dead and debilitated residents ranging in size from mice to moose.” Despite common perception, he says, the wolverine should not be seen as a pest, and, like all other residents of the zapovednik, should be protected.

Shpilenok says that he had always hoped to photograph a wolverine, but given their distribution, the chances were low. He had staked out tracks before, but had always been spotted when the wolverine was still at a distance, and the wolverine had always run away. To get a good shot of a wolverine would take the utmost luck. Even luck, though, wasn’t enough to explain these amazing shots.

Some time before these photos were taken in March 2008,  a bear had died in Kronotskii Zapovednik, not far from Shpilenok’s cabin. He had been watching the carcass, which was drawing scavengers from near and far. After a few days, he began to notice wolverine sign as well, first of one animal, then of two. He dug himself a blind in the snow and stacked up some snow bricks, iglu style, and hid there hoping to photograph the animals. For four full days he sat in this blind, but the wolverines came only after dark. By the third day, four wolverines were showing up to eat off the carcass; occasionally they fought with each other. The nocturnal habits of the wolverines made them impossible to photograph, and by now the bear was nothing but a head, a spine, and some skin. On the fourth day, six (!) wolverines showed up at the carcass, and competition between them was so fierce, he explained, that the “weakest could come feed only just before dawn. It was possible to take photos at this time.”

By now, the cold, damp, cramped conditions of the blind had started to get to Shpilenok, so he moved the carcass, by snowmobile, to the yard of the cabin. Then he locked down the place, drew the blinds, and stuck his lens through a small gap in the curtains – a much more comfortable alternative to the makeshift iglu. All six wolverines showed up that night to feed on the last remains of the bear. Shpilenok says that the two foxes that lived nearby were “more afraid of wolverines than of fire,” and were “horrified” by this luring-of-wolverines-into-the-yard. But Shpilenok got his shots; at dawn, five of the wolverines disappeared, while one took a tour around the yard as the sun came up. He says that this photo illustrates the ability of wolverines to “paw ski,” which leaves them unafraid of the vast northern country. He concludes by saying that he is looking forward to further meetings with wolverines.

Throughout these entries, Shpilenok refers to the wolverines as “she,” but Marissa says this is probably an artifact of “rosomakha” being a feminine noun.

The 600+ comments that follow these posts provide an additional wealth of information on Russian views towards wolverines, from stories about old men who walk home from the forest backwards to make sure that wolverines don’t attack them from behind, to the usual “a friend of a friend of mine was chased and attacked by a wolverine,” (Shpilenok responds to all such stories with one word: “legendi.”) to the testimony of hunters and children of hunters about the wolverine’s ability to raid traps and chew off its own paws if caught in a trap, to the story of a Sami village where “rosomakha” is an insult for a sloppy and disorganized woman. The comments also address the question of whether Shpilenok should have moved the bear, or whether that constituted interference in the natural functioning the protected area. But the great majority of the comments express admiration for the photos, the animal, and Shpilenok’s conservation work. I only found one hostile comment, and that was from a guy who had been caught out reposting the photos, without permission, on his website about hunting wolverines.

Special thanks to Marissa Smith for her translations.