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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where in the World is the Wolverine?

And now, a confession – if any of my regular readers noticed a decrease in the number or quality of posts at this blog over the past six months, there’s a reason: I’ve been out of the country. I left in early December, just before the listing decision was announced, and since then, I’ve been getting my gulo news (and fix) vicariously, keeping up with wolverine happenings from afar.

How far is ‘afar?’

Very.

I left the US to take a job that was ostensibly unrelated to wolverines, but that, ultimately, does concern the species. I’ll explain how, exactly, once I get to Mongolia and have a little more attention to focus on the world of wolverines.

In the meantime, for those of you who don’t know where I am – and I guess for those who do, too – I’m posting some photos that might give you a clue, or may provide some entertainment value. If you feel like guessing where I (and my book) are, leave a comment. I’m curious to see if anyone recognizes the locations.

Double points to anyone who can name the closest thing to a wolverine inhabiting the ecosystem where these photos were taken.

Special thanks to photographer Amanda Watters for bearing with my crazy requests.

A book for all occasions...

...and all locations.

“No Greedier Rascal”

I was visiting my parents in Massachusetts around Thanksgiving and happened to drop by a neighborhood party, an affair which brought my childhood briefly back to life. The party was hosted by a woman who is a puppeteer and whose sense of creativity and storytelling – and commitment to conservation – were an influence on me from a young age. Her award-winning  work focuses on animal tales, and she is a fan of Thornton Burgess, whose writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created a host of animal characters that fostered a public sense of empathy for wildlife at a crucial time in conservation history.

A copy of Mother West Wind “Where” Stories, Burgess’ first book, happened to be on the coffee table at the party, and I happened to pick it up, and it happened to flip open to a story entitled “Where Glutton the Wolverine Got His Name.” After I got over being dumbfounded by a what-are-the-odds sense of coincidence at wolverine information falling into my lap yet again, I found myself smiling as I read the story. It so perfectly reiterates all the old stereotypes about the anti-social, mean-spirited, voracious animal of legend. And yet within the story lurks a grudging respect for the creature’s intelligence and independence, not to mention a fair amount of accurate detail about where wolverines fit into the animal kingdom. The link above leads back to the story, although it can be pretty much summed up by Burgess’ conclusion: “…there is no more cunning thief, no greedier rascal, and no one with a meaner disposition in all the Great Woods of the Far North than Glutton the Wolverine.”

I was struck that Burgess, who lived his life in Massachusetts and mostly wrote about creatures of the New England agricultural landscape, thought to include a story of a wolverine, even if it is told by way of rumor, a myth from a far-off northern land. He wasn’t the only New Englander to hear tales of the Glutton. Henry David Thoreau also gave wolverines (or, as he writes, “wolverenes”) some thought, referring to them as among the “nobler animals” (Thank you, Thoreau, for being probably the first human being to acknowledge the nobility of the wolverine!) and lamenting their passing. Sadly, I became aware of Thoreau’s thoughts in conjunction with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement that they consider the eastern cougar extinct, as of last Wednesday. I’m not sure this is true, but I leave that to discussion on someone’s mountain lion blog. For now, suffice to say that it’s easy to share Thoreau’s broader sentiment that without these species among us, we would be living in a sadly diminished world: “I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.”

Staying on the topic of rumors of wolverines in New England, a number of people end up on this blog looking for information on wolverines in New Hampshire, Maine, or Massachusetts. New England is not currently considered part of the wolverine’s range, and, Thoreau notwithstanding, we’re unsure that wolverines were in New England at any time after the Pleistocene. Ice age wolverine fossils have been found as far south as Maryland and Pennsylvania, but evidence for gulos south of eastern Canada in historic times, even during the colonial period, is scant. We get periodic reports of wolverines in New England, some of which are probably actually fishers, the smaller but similarly badass cousin of the wolverine (Fishers specialize in killing porcupines. Enough said.)  We do know that New England no longer has the necessary habitat requirements for wolverines – that is, deep snow through late spring – and so there is no possibility that the region hosts a breeding population. Released captives are another possible explanation for anyone who thinks they’ve seen a wolverine in New England. But let us know – or check out the the Wolverine Foundation’s wolverine ID page and then drop them a line – if you think you’ve seen one, and especially if you have photographic evidence.