Delectable Sheep

I camped out last night, and ran across a herd of twelve bighorn rams as the sun was setting.

Bighorn ram (Ovis canadensis), Wyoming

It occurred to me, as I delighted in looking at these sheep for purely asthetic reasons, that a wolverine would probably have a different reaction, namely: yum! Jason Wilmot speculates that there’s an as-yet-unproven relationship between mountain goat distribution and wolverine distribution, and we know that wolverines seem particularly fond of snacking on beavers, but wild sheep, as one of the few ungulates capable of surviving in high altitude terrain, also play a role in gulo’s diet. The Glacier Park study observed instances of wolverines eating sheep and, half a world away, a friend of mine watched a Mongolian wolverine chase argali sheep in Tavan Bogd National Park. Whether wolverines are actually hunting sheep, or opportunistically scavenging sheep remains, members of the Ovis genus are likely an important food source.

Speaking of chasing things, both F3 and M57 dropped the collars that we put on them this spring. I’ll be headed out on Saturday to try to retrieve M57’s collar, a last hurrah for this wolverine season before I leave for Mongolia on June 17th. I’ve never been on a collar retrieval before, but I understand that they can become exasperating, even when the collar is still sending out a signal and you can use telemetry to help find it. So keep your fingers crossed for a successful hunt and useful information once we get the collar back to the office.

Face to Face (F3 Capture, part 2)

(The first part of this narrative is here)

The degree of devotion required of wolverine biologists in the service of gaining knowledge would put the most pious of religious adherents to shame. En route to Montana along the deserted dead-of-night roads, Jason told stories of his previous years directing field operations for the Absaroka-Beartooth Project – tales of crossing Yellowstone on snowmobile to reach a capture site while the roads were closed, performing the collaring operation, and then turning around and snowmobiling back, narrowly avoiding collisions with bison and wolves in the dark; tales of six-hour searches for dens in icy sleet with no real clue where the den might be (they found it); tales of sticking his head into dens without any assurance that the mother wolverine wasn’t inside (she was); tales of broken ribs in snowmobile maintenance mishaps; many, many tales of having to sacrifice time with his family in order to be in the field doing things that no one else was able to do, so that we might learn what a wolverine was eating, or whether or not she was denning.

When I first met Jason, in March of 2006, he and his wife were running a research trapping operation, living in a remote cabin in Sunlight Basin, Wyoming, with their two-year-old daughter. Kate, his wife, was eight months pregnant; on the day I met her she told me she was headed out to ski up a pass to look the carcass of a skinned mountain lion that some hunters had killed the day before. ‘Intimidated’ doesn’t begin to describe the feeling that this family evoked. I thought they were crazily obsessed. But within six months I was paying my own tithes to the quest for wolverine data – I became so sick on my first wolverine trek that I could hardly walk, and spent a night on the cold ground in the middle of the wilderness at 11,000 feet – and finding myself in a truck laden with capture supplies, driving through a snowstorm along deserted roads at 2:00 in the morning, seemed a natural evolution. Once you’re hooked, you’re really hooked.

We arrived in Montana at 2:30 in the morning, slept for three hours, and were up and boiling water for the hot water bottles by 6:00. At 7:00, equipment packed and requisite eight layers of insulating clothing donned, we headed to the snowmobiles, and by 7:30 we were at the trap, where two members of the field crew, in another act of dedication, had spent the night camped out in the snowstorm to make sure that F3 was okay.

Unlike her placid companion M57, F3 was in full gulo mode from the moment she heard us approach. That indescribable, spine-tingling growl rumbled up from the trap before we even lifted the lid. When we knelt down to peer into the trap, she paced and growled, rushing the opening and our flashlights, drool trailing from her bared teeth. She was smaller than M57, but about ten times as ferocious. She strode between the back wall of the trap and the entrance, lunged, bit the flashlight (three dents; paint scraped clean off), paced to the back wall, and began tearing a piece of bait to shreds, keeping an eye on us as if to make sure we witnessed this demonstration of her ability to demolish anything she chose. In 2007, F3 chewed her way out of a log box trap through six inches of solid wood.  We took the point, and lowered the lid to prepare the drugs.

By 8:40, she was out, and Jason lifted her from the trap and placed her gently onto the prepared bed of hot water bottles. The first and most pressing question was definitively answering whether she had given birth, and we combed quickly through the fur of her belly. Smooth, flat, teats so indistinct that we had trouble locating them. F3 had not had kits. She might have been pregnant earlier in the year, but wolverines mate in spring and summer and hold the fetuses in suspension until winter, when they know whether there are adequate resources for raising kits; if so, the fetuses implant and the wolverine will give birth. If not, the fetuses are resorbed into the female’s body and she waits for a better year.

F3 is probably about four years old, which is just on the cusp of reproductive age. We know for sure that M57 was in her territory during the summer breeding period, and all winter we’ve had conversations – we’ve practically broken out champagne and cigars – speculating about the addition of two new baby wolverines to the Greater Yellowstone population. Documenting any reproduction in a rare species is cause for excitement, but in this case, understanding by what routes and to where the kits would disperse could provide valuable clues to understanding the overall population dynamics of Rocky Mountain wolverines.  The failure of these kits to materialize is disappointing, but it raises some interesting questions. Did F3 and M57 mate but resources prove too slim to support a mother and babies? If so, why? We suspect that F3 herself was born in the Absarokas, which means that the range is capable of supporting a reproductive female and her offspring. Was the lack of snow this year a problem?

Alternatively, a quick first glance at the genetics suggests that F3 and M57 could be closely related, even though he was first picked up in a field in Idaho, hundreds of miles from his current location. He and F3 share enough DNA to be father and daughter (unlikely, given that we suspect that they are roughly the same age), uncle and niece, or brother and sister. After his release in the Centennials, M57 made a pretty quick and decisive trip to his current location in the Absarokas – was he returning to known territory, a territory that he couldn’t previously occupy because his father was still resident? And if so, do wolverines have some sort of incest taboo that precludes mating with a close relative?

On the other hand, given their relative degrees of ferocity, perhaps M57 – related or not – simply decided that trying to get friendly with F3 was too much of a risk (maybe that’s what happened to his missing toes?)

F3 weighed in at 8.5 kilos. Her mask and lateral stripe were more distinct than M57’s had been. Her teeth were in perfect shape, all her toes accounted for, her coat thick. She had a few fleas – the field crew spent some time tracking them through her fur and herding them into tiny plastic vials, to be sent for analysis – but was otherwise in excellent shape. We took vitals every five minutes, and with a steady temperature of around 102°F, she was doing well.

Jason had a hard time adjusting the collar because F3’s neck was so small, but there was still time afterward to attempt to take blood. Jason and the field crew jabbed around with a needle for about five minutes but, unable to locate a vein, eventually gave up. We were quickly approaching the 40 minute mark – the moment when she would, supposedly, begin to come out of the drug haze – but Jason had dosed her for 9 kilos, which meant that we had a little extra time. She remained so soundly out of it that we had time to pass her gently from hand to hand to take photos. Wolverines are slippery, their skin seems loosely attached, and when I gripped her by the scruff and tried to lift her, she seemed to fall. I had the same feeling I get with babies, namely that I’m about to drop and injure something that I probably shouldn’t be holding in the first place.

Reversal drugs injected, we put her back in the trap, where she remained utterly motionless long enough for us to open the lid and take more photos of her stretched out on the ground. Jason went back to the trap to check on her several times. Handling wild animals is always nerve wracking because no matter how careful you are, there’s a risk that something might happen. Within a few minutes, however, she was moving, so we shut the lid and sat down in the snow to wait the requisite two hours.

A daylight collaring operation offered a rare opportunity to catch some good photos and video, so before we opened the trap, we stationed three people with still and video cameras at different angles to the trap entrance. I was crouched behind a tree and a snow bank a few yards in front the trap, hoping that she would run by me. The lid creaked up, and a few seconds passed, and then, like a periscope, the collar antenna emerged, followed by F3’s head. We had waited for about ten minutes for M57 to leave the trap; F3 took one look at freedom and then she poured out of the trap’s mouth and, in a blur of snow, streaked towards me. I didn’t realize it until I looked at the photos and videos later, but she actually headed directly towards me before catching sight of me and then veering to the left, around me, and then off into the woods. She took about five seconds to disappear.

F3 emerges....

....takes stock...

....departs.....

.....(in a blur of snow)....

....and disappears.

That was it, the culmination of the trapping season. While waiting for F3 to come out of the drugs, the field crew had taken down the hanging bait and snowmobiled to the other nearby traps to prop them open. We’d tossed pieces of beaver carcass and roadkilled elk into the woods for the enjoyment of the martens, the hungry emerging bears, and, hopefully, for F3 and M57. Once F3 disappeared into the trees, we propped open that trap, took down the automatic camera, and hauled out all the extraneous pieces of the trapping operation.

There was something bittersweet about driving back to Jackson, stopping in Mammoth to drop off a collection of items that had been on loan from Yellowstone to the Project. Officially, 2009 was the last year that the Absaroka-Beartooth Project was funded in association with Yellowstone. But with instrumented animals on the air, it would be a wasted opportunity not to continue monitoring. With the urgency of the field season at an end, the lull between research trapping and my upcoming trip to Mongolia to look for wolverines there will be occupied with a search for grants and private money to keep track of F3 and M57 next year. Meanwhile there are many important, looming questions about wolverine conservation and even, possibly, recolonization of Colorado, the answers to which will be partially provided by studying the populations in southern Montana and in Wyoming. Jason reflected that he felt it was the end of an era, but I hope that it’s simply a transition to a new set of research questions about an animal that will – if we can answer those questions – expand our understanding of what needs to be done to protect the montane ecosystems of the West.

(A video of F3’s capture and release may follow, so check back.)

The Collar (The Capture, Part 3)

(the first part of this narrative is here; the second part is here)

Seven minutes, and M57, the growling devil bear, was reduced to a heap of snoozing fur. Jason crawled into the trap and pulled him out; a potent wash of wolverine scent – somewhere between sweat and expensive goat cheese – drifted over the assembled crowd as we weighed him (12.4kg) and then lowered him onto the bed of water bottles and blankets. Quickly, the field crew secured M57’s feet, while Bob, Mark, and Jason slipped the oxygen mask over the wolverine’s face and fixed the pulse oxymeter to his tongue. I was trying to count his breaths, watching the rise and and fall of his chest; a moment of intense panic as it seemed that he wasn’t breathing at all. I saw Jason lean quickly forward, pushing aside the fur on the wolverine’s torso as if searching for a sign that the animal was still breathing, and then the breaths came, rapid and shallow.

M57’s initial readings were good – a temperature of 101°F, heart rate of 56 beats per minute, respiration at 48 breaths per minute, and a blood oxygenation rate that was steadily climbing as the oxygen mask took effect – so the crew took its time looking him over. He was dark, but not as dark as some wolverines; the face mask and the lateral stripe were faintly visible, the white chest patch prominent. His left front paw was entirely white, and his right front paw bore a crescent marking. Since his capture in the bobcat trap in Idaho in 2009, he’d lost two toes from his right front paw – one of these toes had been dislocated in the bobcat trap – but the wound was old and well-healed. At 12.4 kg, he was smallish for a male wolverine, but his weight was about the same as it had been when WCS had taken him to Montana, which was a good sign. Jason checked his teeth: lower left canine broken, with apparent cavity; top right incisor missing. Later, Jason said that most adult wolverines were missing teeth or had broken canines, which probably limits the lifespan of an animal that lives largely by its teeth.

Taking pictures of the foot with the missing toes

Together, Jason, Bob, and Mark assessed M57’s neck, where the fur was worn slightly, presumably from the previous collar. The skin was healthy, though, with no sores or other signs of damage. Before we got on the snowmobiles to head to the trap, the scientists and field crew had held a quick meeting to decide on procedure, and there was unanimous agreement that if there was any sign of injury from the previous collar, we would release M57 without putting on a new collar. But he seemed fine

Jason, Bob, and Mark quickly fitted the collar around M57’s neck, punching holes, making adjustments, while I kept track of the vitals; all signs remained good, the temperature never dropping below 100°, but we were running out of time, with only five or six minutes left. The collar rivets tightened, Jason asked for the list of measurements that we were supposed to take, and I read them off from the capture form. Total length: 109 cm. Tail length: 24 cm. Chest girth: 44.5 cm. Neck circumference: 34 cm. Head circumference: 33.5 cm. Jason seemed impatient with some of these measurements, and thankfully cut me off before we reached the final item on the list: circumference of testes. Noting that they were descended was apparently adequate for our purposes (we had high hopes that he and the resident female wolverine, F3, had mated. The two had been spotted within a mile of each other a few days previously, and both were around 4 years old, the perfect age to start reproducing. In the circumstances, knowing that he was capable of fathering kits was a crucial point; the precise parameters of his capacity seemed less important. Back in the office in Jackson, reviewing the forms, I asked Jason what the circumference of testes indicates within the context of wolverine biology, and he thought for a second, and said, “No idea.”)

We untied the wolverine’s paws and gently flipped him onto his stomach so that we could check for parasites. Time was running out, and suddenly M57 shuddered and began to growl, this time an outright snarl that seemed much less placid than his rumbling in the trap. This was the signal that the procedure was at an end. Keeping a firm hold on the animal’s head, Jason lifted him, one of the field crew quickly injected M57 with a drug reversal, and the crew snapped a few fast photos. By the time Jason and M57 reached the trap, M57 was struggling, and Jason lowered him carefully into the interior and then the lid came down.

That was it. We would wait for two hours to make sure that the drug had been fully metabolized before we released him. Most of the crew headed out, and those who remained tidied up the supplies, loaded them back into boxes and backpacks, and rehashed the evening in hushed voices. We spent some time looking at the tracks around the trap, and Jason mentioned that M57 had traveled to the trap following the exact same route that F3 habitually took. No one was sure what this indicated. Wolverines have a reputation for being solitary, but biologists suspect that they are more social than we’ve previously believed, and there’s speculation that male wolverines play a larger role in raising their kits than we realized. M57 and F3 had been in close proximity to each other a few days before M57 was captured, and they’d been spotted in similar proximity over the summer. It was difficult not to spin off into wildly anthropomorphic tales of a budding wolverine family. February is denning season, and if F3 was pregnant, she would have just given birth.

Periodically, we lifted the trap lid to check on M57. First he was asleep, curled up where Jason had placed him. Twenty minutes later, he was sitting a few feet from the mouth of the trap, staring but not growling. Later, he was pressed against the mouth of the trap but still seemed woozy. We closed the lid again, sat or leaned against the couch, watched the snow drift down. A pair of eyes, caught in the beam of the headlamp, glowed piercingly green against the night, coming down the path towards the trap, and for a second my heart thudded and my head went light; I was convinced it was F3 (A momentary diversion, the thought of a wolverine marital dispute: “Where have you been? Oh, you were kidnapped by aliens, that’s a likely story! You’re acting completely stoned. Are you high? My god, we have infants back at the den!”) Then a second pair of eyes appeared, and when we pulled out a flashlight, two martens stood still for a second in the beam before scampering into trees. Their eyes blinked at us from around the trap; first uphill to the left, then on the path again, then off to the right. They were after a chunk of bait that was hung from one of the trees. They huffed and circled and seemed momentarily confused by the sudden presence of people at what was clearly a habitual nightly feast, but, being weasels, they quickly decided that we weren’t a threat. The director of the field crew showed us a video, on his cell phone, of a marten they’d caught in one of the traps earlier in the winter; the animal, weighing in at around five pounds, seemed twice as aggressive as our wolverine, snarling, growling, screeching, and throwing itself towards the camera.

“You’re twenty, thirty times its size, and it still wants to take you,’ said the field crew director, ” Amazing.”

The green eyes glowed at us from the tree, and then from the bait, while the field crew director frowned. The bait was suspended several feet from the trunk of the tree to prevent scavengers from getting to it, but the martens were regularly able to pillage the supplies, and no one was sure how they were doing it. Now, in the beam of the flashlight, we watched them walk the suspension wire as if it was a tightrope. The field crew director shook his head. “They’re on the wire,” he said, “Amazing.”

The martens animated the night, and the shockingly brilliant glow of their eyes, here and then gone and then reappearing someplace completely new, conferred a sense of living intelligence, as if the ecosystem itself was watching us watch it.

At midnight, we checked M57 again, and he was growling and pacing once more. Jason propped open the trap lid and we stood back on the slope of the hill overlooking the trap, cameras poised, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. My camera batteries died in the cold, but I didn’t dare move to retrieve my smaller camera. Finally, M57 poked his head out of the trap, tentatively. He turned to look at us, and then retreated. We waited. For the first time that night, my toes were beginning to feel cold. I didn’t dare stamp my feet or do anything other than curl my toes inside my boots.

M57’s head emerged again, and again he turned to look at us, a long, flat stare. He’d been in the trap for hours, and for all of that time, danger had approached from the very place that we were now expecting his to use as an exit. He put his front paws on the lip of the trap, stretched up, and looked out towards the forest, then back at us. He stood like that for a long time before finally climbing out of the trap and, with one last look at us on the hill, dashing away. Except that he had run directly into the maze of the operating theater, where the crew had dug a series of high-walled passages into the waist-high snow. We stayed still, and a few minutes later M57 reappeared, looking chagrined, trying to find a way out of the passage. He climbed one wall, turned to stare, then zigzagged towards the pines. He looked huge against the snow as he ran. He suddenly stopped, turned in two tight circles, rolled over and over on his back. Then he stood up, and moved into the pines, crested the hill opposite, and disappeared.

The Zen Wolverine (The Capture, Part 2)

(part 1 of this narrative is here)

The log box trap, nestled into the snow beneath the towering pines, sat like a gift waiting to be opened. M57 was inside, quiet.  The field crew had determined that he wasn’t wearing a collar. They’d also, while waiting, dug an outdoor operating theater into the snow. And a couch. The couch faced the trap, and the entire setup could have been a piece of installation art, a wry and clever commentary on the fact that Americans spend too much time indoors, glued to the television or the computer.

The log box trap, with M57 inside

We carefully raised the lid of the trap, and there, dark against the dark of the trap except for glowing eyes in the beam of the flashlight, was M57. A gnawed bone was visible beside him, the remains of the roadkilled animal that had been used as bait. Log box traps were first used in a wolverine study  by wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland in Idaho; he needed something made of native materials with which a wolverine would be familiar, solid enough to hold the animal without harming it. The trap functions like this: a carcass of something (preferably a beaver; Jason is fond of saying that beavers are like candy to a wolverine, their favorite snack) is attached to a wire that, when pulled, releases the trap lid and closes the wolverine inside. The traps attract dozens of other, smaller carnivores – martens, fox, coyotes, ermine, bobcats – so the trigger is calibrated to the strength of a wolverine. The wire is attached to a radio transmitter, whose signal changes when the trap is triggered. This allows the field crew to monitor the traps remotely and to check on the traps in person when a lid is down. Although the trap is specialized for wolverines, tenacious small carnivores have been known to trip the mechanism, and the release of a marten or a fox is the more frequent beginning of the day than the capture of an actual wolverine.

M57 wasn’t happy about his imprisonment, but by wolverine standards, he wasn’t overly irate, either. He employed minimal ferocity as he ventured towards the front of the trap, the low, spine-tingling gulo growl that seemed like the misbegotten offspring of a housecat’s purr and an approaching thunderstorm. Jason held the flashlight and M57 paced and growled, clearly wanting out of the trap, but not venturing too close to the humans. On other captures, Jason said, the flashlights emerged covered in wolverine spit as the animals charged and attacked. Wolverines have also been known to chew their way out of log box traps if they are left for long enough. This was one of the reasons the field crew had sat on their couch and kept watch throughout the day. M57 hadn’t chewed much, but if he had, they might have placed a radio on top of the trap to keep him away from the walls. Wolverines may have an overly-inflated reputation for berserker insanity, but they are definitely capable of impressive tenacity and a high degree of havoc when necessary.

We left M57 to his meditations in the trap, and prepped the theater for the collaring, laying out all the necessary equipment on the broad snow table – lights, wool blanket, hot water bottles, a thermometer, the collar itself and a leather punch and wrench for fastening it, ties for the wolverine’s legs, a wide sock to slip over his eyes to help keep him calm. Mark and Bob, of WCS, had brought an oxygen tank and a pulse oxymeter, which was fortunate because ours wasn’t working. The pulse oxymeter, by way of a clip that attached to the tongue, would measure pulse, heart rate, and blood oxygenation levels while the wolverine was under. One of the field crew would take the temperature manually; these vitals had to be recorded every five minutes. With the drug combination used in wolverine captures, there is a risk of hypothermia (the drugs that biologists use with wolves, on the other hand, create a risk of overheating) and if the animal’s temperature began to drop, we would reverse the drug and put him back in the trap to recover. We were fortunate that it was a warm night, but we still prepared the water bottles and several packets of hand-warmers, which could be tucked into the wolverine’s joints if necessary.

Preparing the collar

Jason had delegated the job of injecting the wolverine to the chief of the field crew, a big moment since this is a tricky maneuver and, according to Jason, the highlight of the whole capture. To effectively sedate a wolverine, you have to distract the animal so that it doesn’t see the person preparing to give it the shot; otherwise it will face that person directly and make it impossible to get a good angle. You have to deliver the drugs quickly, which means that they have to be highly concentrated. And of course, you can’t get too close – who wants to stick their torso head-first into an enclosed space with a thirty-pound weasel?  – so the entire procedure is mediated by a meter-long stick, to which the syringe is attached. The jab requires force and conviction and you only get one chance.

While Jason distracted the wolverine with the flashlight, playing with the light and attempting to turn M57 the way a bullfighter might turn a bull, the head of the field crew stood at the opposite corner of the trap with the jabstick poised, waiting for a clear shot at a flank. M57 paced and growled and I watched from a safe distance as the light caught specific features – the lowset ears with their line of white fur, the small, intelligent eyes, a dark cheek framed by a faint mask, the broad, low forehead. Then a flurry of movement, the jabstick flashing forward, the wolverine flinching back, so fast that I didn’t think it could possibly have been a hit, but the head of the field crew was saying, “I got him. I got him. The full dose,” as the lid was lowered. Jason and the head of the field crew examined the empty syringe, and then Jason said, “Seven minutes.” I had the watch; it was 8:43 pm. We had exactly 40 minutes before M57 would wake up.

The Capture, Part 1

The day might start off in any of several normal ways: you drive to work and, because your coworkers aren’t in yet, check for a new episode of The Daily Show online while making a cup of hot chocolate against the chill morning air, mentally composing checklists of grant applications to be completed, emails to be written, monstrous books on statistics to be struggled with.

Or you get a call from the day care center telling you that you need to come pick up your three year old son because he is sick, necessitating a change in the day’s schedule, a day of work from home.

It’s all routine, and then the phone rings, a Montana number, from the head of the field crew that runs the wolverine research traps. A call at 9:00 a.m. almost inevitably means one thing: a wolverine in one of the traps.

Jason was on his way out the office door on Tuesday morning, files and computer tucked under his arm, en route back home to attend to his sick son (I was surreptitiously hiding my web browser, sound on mute, so that he wouldn’t realize I’d been watching Jon Stewart before he arrived) when the call came. The shift from routine to excitement was instantaneous, as if a shot of electricity had been injected into the office and its inhabitants. The discussion  was quick – which animal was in the trap? M57! Was he still wearing a collar? They couldn’t tell, it was too dark in the trap and the field crew didn’t have a flashlight. But everyone would be surprised if M57 was still carrying a collar nearly a year after his original capture; wolverines are notorious for shrugging out of collars within days – weeks, at most – of being instrumented. And even if he was still wearing a collar, we’d need to take off the old one and put on a new one. As he talked, Jason was already pulling the wolverine capture kit, two big tupperware containers, out of its corner and into the center of the floor.

By noon, Jason’s wife Kate had made it back from a bison survey to take care of their son, and we were en route to Montana. The drive was a six-hour review of how to calculate drug dosages, what would happen once the animal was down, and speculation about M57 himself. He’s a mystery wolverine, caught in a bobcat trap just outside of Menan, Idaho, in February of 2009, 40 miles from the Sawtooths, 50 miles from the Tetons. Which way was he headed, where was he coming from, and what was he doing in a potato field in the first place?  Checking his trap that day, the trapper must have been shocked to find the animal; I imagine him pushing aside sagebrush, expecting maybe a bobcat, maybe nothing, and seeing a pile of dark fur, and then that pile of fur coming alive, rounding on him with that thundery wolverine growl, and the trapper shaken out of a sense of what was within the realm of expectation and possibility. I have no idea if it happened that way, it’s simply what I imagine. But the trapper irrefutably did the right thing; he got in touch with state wildlife biologists, who called the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) wolverine project, which took the young wolverine to a veterinary clinic in Driggs, Idaho, to check him over and to make sure he hadn’t suffered from his experience in the trap. The wolverine had been caught by his right front foot, a toe was dislocated, but he seemed fine otherwise.  He had a distinctive white sock on his left forefoot, and a crescent white marking on his right forefoot, uncommon but not unheard of, particularly in Sawtooth wolverines. M57 was instrumented at the clinic and then taken to Montana to be released.

Ten minutes outside of Jackson, Jason realized he’d forgotten to grab the antibiotic out of the fridge for the drug kit, and we stopped at the same veterinary clinic where M57 had had his check up to see if we could buy some. All they had was a 250 ml bottle, which was large but would have to do. The woman who helped us was professional and pleasant, but despite my giddy excitement and less-than-subtle attempts to get her to tell us about the several wolverines that had been through the clinic, she seemed blandly unimpressed at the fact that we were off to collar an emblem of the untamed wilderness. I experienced an uncomfortable moment of recognition that not everyone shares the conviction that wolverines are a reason for getting out of bed in the morning and continuing to be amazed at life. Under the circumstances, it was a moment of recognition that I chose to ignore.

We followed M57’s route north to the Centennials, where he had been released just over a year ago. He’d spent a few weeks in those mountains before heading east, crossing Yellowstone National Park, and eventually settling in the Absarokas. By the time the Absaroka peaks loomed into our view through the windshield of Jason’s truck, it was already dusk, and it was pitch dark when we finally got on snowmobiles to head up to the trap. There were ten of us altogether; five field crew members, who had spent the day watching the trap and making sure that M57 was okay; a visiting intern from the Netherlands; the Wildlife Conservation Society’s lead wolverine biologist, Bob Inman, and their field director, Mark Packila; and Jason and me.

The collection of participants jolting through the night by way of snowmobile emphasized the way in which  jurisdiction loses meaning when you deal with an animal like a wolverine. M57 had been caught in Idaho, instrumented by WCS, a non-profit research outfit, and released into the territory that WCS monitors, but he had then moved into the territory of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wolverine Project (ABWP), which was a cooperative effort that involved Yellowstone Park, the Gallatin National Forest, and a second research non-profit, NRCC. The ABWP officially ended at the end of 2009, but NRCC and the Gallatin are cooperating to maintain the research operation. Technically, this was a Gallatin-NRCC capture because it involved our trap, our crew, and a new GPS collar that we were supplying, but WCS had a claim to M57 and was a vital part of the effort as well. And the state of Montana also had an interest, since M57 is now a Montana wolverine, although at the last minute the state’s representative was unable to make it to the capture.  The presence of so many people from so many different agencies illustrates one of the unique challenges of wolverine conservation: there is no way to study or manage these animals without cooperation across boundaries. The scales at which wolverines live and move will require us to rethink what it means to maintain effective connectivity, how we define the boundaries of an ecosystem, and how we manage populations that are integrated across massive scales. (Although, happily, the Dutch intern was simply a coincidence;  international relations are not a component of wolverine population management. Yet.)

The night was warm for a wolverine capture, hovering around 30° F, with fat snowflakes drifting through the forest. Halfway up the trail we drew even with the distinctive three-by tracks of a wolverine moving uphill, and these continued for some time, occasionally shifting into a two-by gait in deeper snow. The snowmobiles roared to a stop and we clambered off into the now-quiet darkness. There was something evocative of ancient religious ritual as we moved in procession through the snow-covered trees, with our headlamps for light, bearing boxes of equipment like offerings. Then we were at the trap.

(part 2 will follow later this week)