The Absaroka Beartooth Project: Captures

The Absaroka-Beartooth Project report was published two weeks ago, the culmination of a five year project to investigate the status of wolverines in and around Yellowstone National Park. The report could be summarized in a straightforward  way, but as I read it, I realized that a laundry list of statistics wouldn’t do justice to the project’s many facets. I’ve been involved with this project, off and on, since 2006, and I thought it would be more interesting to provide a narrative for each segment of the project. I’m starting with the very basic story of the wolverines that were captured over the course of five years, and what those captures tell us about the status of wolverines in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park is the wellspring of the idea of sacred wilderness in modern American consciousness. Our first national park, correctly or incorrectly, is perceived as a pristine stronghold of our most spectacular and intriguing species, which are supposedly free to function in the absence of human interference, and there to teach us what unfettered nature looks like. So it made sense, following the success of the Glacier National Park wolverine study, that the  investigation of wolverine status in Yellowstone was the next priority for a creature emblematic of the wild.  No one knew anything about wolverines in  Yellowstone; aside from sporadic sighting reports, data on the species was non-existent. The park and its surrounding ranges – hypothetically ideal habitat – were expected to provide one more piece in the puzzle of wolverine status in the US Rockies.

In 2003, the wolverine had been turned down for listing, for the second time, due to lack of data. The Glacier project began that same year,  aiming to fill some of the gaps that prevented the US Fish and Wildlife Service from determining  the wolverine’s situation. By 2005, the Glacier Project was yielding solid information and environmental groups were suing the government to reconsider the 2003 decision. The Absaroka-Beartooth Project began that winter with an initial season of live-trapping. The park was the core of the investigation, but the project extended beyond the park boundaries to encompass the Absaroka mountains and the Beartooth plateau to the east, northeast, and southeast. Complimenting on-going work by the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Montana ranges west of Yellowstone, the project established live-traps for wolverines in locations across the park and its eastern borders.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wolverine Project encompassed ranges in and to the east, northeast, and southeast of Yellowstone.

In March of 2006, I arrived in Sunlight Basin, a spectacular valley in the eastern Absarokas, to meet with Jason Wilmot and his wife Kate, who were stationed there to monitor traps through the winter and spring.  I’d come to discuss my upcoming summer research on wolves in Wyoming, but the conversation quickly turned to wolverines. Within 12 hours of meeting the Wilmots, I was traipsing up a steep slope, knee-deep in snow, carrying a duffel bag containing a skinned frozen beaver, and listening to Jason as he talked about all the things that made wolverines the most awesome animals on earth. Key among its attributes, for me, was the coincidental information that there was an unstudied population in Mongolia, where – it so happened – I had spent two years as a Peace Corps environmental volunteer. We reached a log-box trap buried in snow, and while I examined a small plaque that stated that the trap and its contents were part of a research project and should be respectfully left in peace, Jason attached the beaver carcass to the back of the trap in hopes that a wolverine would soon remove it.

He and Kate waited through the entire spring, but the beavers in all of the Sunlight traps remained untouched by gulo-kind. While the thought of Mongolian wolverines lodged at the back of my mind and began to germinate into what would become, three years later, a full-fledged project of its own, the Absaroka-Beartooth Project captured wolverines north of the park, and south of the park, but the rugged mountains within the park boundaries and just to the east seemed strangely devoid of the West’s most notorious mountaineer.

By summer of 2006, when I returned to Wyoming to begin my summer research on wolves, the Absaroka Beartooth Project was monitoring two male wolverines, M1 and M2. M1 made his home north of the park; he’d been captured twice over the course of the winter. M2 was captured, once,  in the southern part of the park. Researchers refer to ‘trap nights’ as the number of nights a single trap is open and baited.  The three captures of M1 and M2 represented the fruit of 1831 trap nights in 2006, for an average of one capture every 610 trap nights. In contrast, the Glacier project in its first year captured six wolverines – three males and three females – with an average of one capture every 12 trap nights.

If these numbers fazed him, Jason didn’t give any indication of concern over the course of my wolf research in summer 2006; he continued to talk about wolverines with so much enthusiasm that I became more and more intrigued. In August of 2006, tired of the squabbling over wolves and hoping for a chance to appreciate a species free of the weight of centuries of symbolic feuding, I joined an Absaroka Beartooth project expedition to investigate a cluster of GPS points from M2’s collar. By now, M2 was hanging out south of the park, in some of the most inaccessible territory in the lower 48, and it took two days to reach the site. At dusk on the first night out, a wolverine came into our camp. It wasn’t an instrumented animal, which meant that it was an entirely new wolverine. We were able to extract a viable hair from a snowfield, which later matched DNA from male M4, captured by the project months later in March of 2007. The project instrumented him and located him once in a flight following the capture, but he subsequently disappeared. We still don’t know if his transmitter failed, if he took off for Colorado or Utah, or if he died.

A month before M4 was captured, M1, the project’s first male, was legally killed by a Montana trapper. Then, the week before M4 was captured, the project caught a small juvenile female in the Absarokas north of the park, within M1’s territory. This wolverine was tagged F3, and she is probably M1’s daughter. A female wolverine was legally killed in the same region at the same time; this was possibly F3’s mother, and her death meant that F3 could take over the now-vacant territory. F3 became the center of the project’s hope and attention, a young female just coming into her reproductive years. These four wolverines – three males, one dead and one vanished, and one young female who, despite our hopes, remained stubbornly single and kit-less – were the entire captured population of the project’s five years. Over the course of the project, they were caught seven times – M1 was caught twice, F3 three times. All told, the average capture rate was one wolverine every 750 trap nights.

The enormous effort required to document such a scant population suggested something unexpected: Yellowstone National Park and its eastern borders – huge, rugged country that should have been ideal habitat – lacked a substantial population of wolverines. They simply weren’t there. Yellowstone, the great emblem of all things wild, was apparently missing the wildest creature of all.

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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.