The End of a Journey: Colorado Wolverine Killed in North Dakota

A couple of weeks ago, a wolverine was killed in North Dakota by a ranch hand who came across it, surrounded by cattle. He believed that the animal was a threat to his calves, even though he wasn’t sure what it was, and shot it. The North Dakota Department of Game and Fish confirmed the ID and took possession of the body for a necropsy and DNA testing. Articles about the incident, and the animal’s possible origins, have popped up over the past week, and I was in the process of writing a post about this incident, and how interested I was in the results of the DNA testing and the origins of this wolverine, when NDG&F released an update containing surprising news: the wolverine was carrying a radio transmitter. That transmitter belonged to an animal instrumented in Wyoming in 2008, and whose “last known location was Colorado in 2012.”

This leaves little doubt that the animal was M56, the wolverine who gained fame in 2009 when he traveled 500 miles from northern Wyoming to Colorado. He became the first verified wolverine in Colorado in 90 years. Colorado Parks and Wildlife tracked him until his instruments died, as he traveled up and down the length of the Colorado Rockies. He was spotted and photographed by hikers on several occasions, and prompted widespread interest in the idea of reintroducing wolverines to Colorado. I cannot enumerate the emails I’ve gotten from elementary school classes across the country wanting to know more about M56, where he is now, and what he’s doing. In fact, I answered such an email this morning, to a third grade class in Ohio, sending along cheerful speculations about how he was probably still alive and wandering around the Rockies. He was a genuinely famous wolverine, people were inspired by his story, and I’m caught between astonishment that he had gone all the way to North Dakota – North Dakota! – and sadness at his end.

I tracked this guy shortly after he was caught and instrumented, off Togwotee Pass in Wyoming, in early 2009. Once I took my sister, who was in town for a visit, and once I went by myself. I didn’t find his tracks, and the days were still too short for extensive trips, but I could hear him on the telemetry receiver, the slow, steady, tick….tick of the transmitter both soothing and exhilarating in the snowbound forest. I had no idea what he would go on to do, but I loved him even then simply for being out there, for his presence on the landscape, which, even before his tremendous journeys, seemed huge.

We lost track of him for a while, and then he was picked up traveling south down the spine of the Wind River Range in central Wyoming. We thought he’d stick there, but then he disappeared again. At that point, we began speculating – what if he kept going south, to Colorado? The speculation was half-joking, half hopeful. It picked up steam and tipped towards hopeful when he was spotted outside of Laramie by a rancher who saw him and called Game and Fish to report it. A flight ID-ed him. I remember thinking that I sort of loved that rancher, too, for calling the animal in, for being an ally of science and understanding and coexistence. His decision kept the story alive.

M56 crossed into Colorado in May of 2009. His journey coincided with the start of my work in Mongolia, and those two events catalyzed the founding of this blog. He made it clear that these animals had stories unlike the stories of other animals, at a scale that corresponded to my own interests. M56 made me realize that there was something to write about here, a compelling narrative, and his was the first story that I told.

I have an aversion to letting my emotions get the better of me, but it’s hard not to admit to grief over M56’s end. It’s extraordinary that he went from Wyoming to Colorado to (probably, since he was so close to the border) Montana to North Dakota – and who knows where else in between? Unknown animals die unmourned all the time, so it shouldn’t matter. But storied wolverines…they are rare, and they hint to us of all the wild and unseen and amazing lives that go on beyond our awareness. That’s something worth thinking about. So take a moment to remember M56, to consider his life, and those unknown lives, and what it means to have them out there. It means more than I can express, probably more than any of us can express – but let us keep trying.





More Press Coverage for M56

Here’s another article about M56, Colorado’s lone (known) wolverine. Colorado papers seem to revisit this issue every few months, and this piece doesn’t contain much new information, although it does cite a definite date for the listing decision – January 18th, 2013. I’ve been way out of the Colorado loop and the listing loop since I went to Mongolia in July, so I don’t know if this is definite. Shawn Sartorius, who is in charge of the USFWS status review, also goes on record to say, “It does not look like wolverines are particularly sensitive to human activities.” This is good news for wolverines and for the ski industry. Bob Inman, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wolverine biologist, emphasizes the need to see ski resorts as endangered by the same factors that might threaten wolverines, and suggests that resorts might serve as allies in wolverine education and conservation efforts. If a Colorado introduction does go forward, it’s good to contemplate the prospect of a conflict-free carnivore – an anomaly in the West, but one that we should celebrate.

The evolution of certitude about how many wolverines are in the Rockies is interesting to watch; when I first started hanging out with wolverine biologists, those biologists refused to give numbers to reporters, even though that was inevitably the first question the reporters asked. These days, the numbers are raining down like particularly confusing confetti. This year alone I’ve seen claims ranging from 25 (this reflects a conflation of effective population and total population; the former represents the number of breeding adults contributing to the gene pool) to 300. This article claims that 250 ‘survivors’ (actually, they are probably recolonizers following a 20th-century extirpation) are clustered in the northern US Rockies. Does anyone really know how many wolverines are out there? No. And even if we did, wolverine survival on the landscape is not purely a matter of numbers. As we move forward with conservation plans, I hope people can detach themselves from commitment to a number, and start to talk about demographics instead.

In any case, I hope that if a reintroduction does happen, it happens in time for M56 to become part of the effective population. I know that’s sentimental on my part, and it’s just as likely that he’ll get booted out of his territory by some younger, stronger male, but… poor guy, he’s been hanging out alone for the past four years. He needs some company.




M56 Sighted in Colorado

A lucky hiker in Colorado ran into a wolverine a week ago, and managed to take some great photos, which can be seen here. The Colorado Department of Wildlife confirmed that this is M56, the same wolverine who traveled to Colorado from Wyoming in 2009. The photos are really good and the response, which reflects a lot of enthusiasm for the species, is heartening. It’s also great to know that M56 is still trekking around.