Burning down the ecosystem

By now, it should be obvious to everyone that we have a problem with the discourse around facts and science in the United States.

Over the years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve sometimes felt sheepish about picking apart wolverine articles and coverage in the popular press, harping on nuances of language, word choice, and representation of the science. It felt like overkill, sometimes. But it also felt like the conversation around the facts and the science and the narrative was becoming more and more skewed as time went on, and it seemed important to try to counteract that.

Of course, anyone who even remotely dabbled in climate-related research knew that there was a concerted campaign to discredit climate scientists, and anyone who paid attention to politics and the media environment knew that this campaign widened into a broader anti-science stance by the right. But reality-based Americans understood which media sources were factually accurate and which outlets were propaganda-slingers. Correcting inaccurate reporting on wolverines involved assuming that someone from a reputable media outlet had, in good faith, made a mistake, and that the media ecosystem itself would value correction in the interest of its mission to accurately report the news. Still, the inaccuracies and errors seemed to get worse over the years, and that left me more and more perplexed as time went on.

If the span between 2009 and 2015 was spent contemplating the specifics of the wolverine situation, 2016 was like looking up from a single blade of burning grass and discovering that the entire forest was a raging inferno. For seven years I’d been asking, “Why is this piece of grass on fire?” but as it turns out, the whole ecosystem was going up in flames. In the space of a couple of months, my personal fixation on accurate representation of wolverine science became laughably quaint in the face of much larger concerns about facts and bias in the media.

I’d be lying if I claimed that this was anything less than wildly depressing, to the point of being incapacitating; every time I tried to write a post, I’d give up in frustration, because it seemed necessary to situate it within a larger framework of inaccurate messaging, propaganda, and outright self-serving lies that were being perpetuated across media platforms. Doing that seemed impossibly complicated. There have always been intense politics around wildlife conservation, but those politics have been relatively systematic and fairly easy to grasp. 2016 pushed the broader political discourse into the realm of the deranged, revealing a disorder and a breakdown that appeared impossible to make sense of, let alone surmount. It’s very obvious that this problem is not going away any time soon.

The wider media ecosystem is full of would-be firefighters ready to jump in with analysis and advice and off-the-cuff prescriptions for how to remedy the collapse of media sanity. It’s also full of ninja arsonists who gleefully throw fuel on the fire at the least provocation. And to make matters more complicated, sometimes the wannabe firefighters are actually serving the role of accidental ninja arsonists. This made me even more cautious about weighing in. Maybe it’s the anthropological background, but I felt the need to sit and watch for a while, to try to make sense of what I was seeing before becoming another voice claiming some kind of authority that I don’t actually possess.

More than that, though, I needed to answer questions for myself: Is it still worth it to write about wolverines? Is it worth it in light of the fact that the wolverine discussion is deeply embedded in these larger problems? And beyond that, do I still have anything useful to say on a topic I’ve been writing about for nearly ten years? Can an author write usefully from a place that has become, primarily and nearly purely, angry and grief-ridden? At one time this blog was a love letter to the species, to its landscapes. Now it feels like a requiem. And while things written from places of grief, depression, and anger can be cathartic, hand-wringing is seldom of much literary value. So again: Is it worth it to continue?

That question is still under assessment.

In the absence of a decisive answer, I will keep writing for now, but I want to make this more complicated context explicit for whoever is reading this. I’ve always aimed to make this blog clear and upfront about biases and standpoint, in hopes of encouraging the reader to consider their own, and to understand the point at which claims, assertions, and interpretation of the science become subjective and value-laden. I also believe that facts and science are real things, and that truth (with a small t) can be at least agreed upon, even if it can’t established in an absolute sense. The past year has been disruptive to many of my core beliefs – especially to my ever-tenuous but previously-persistent faith in the human capacity for enlightened thinking. (If people aren’t capable of logic and reason, if they do not love the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, then what are we all doing here anyway?) Nevertheless, I’ll keep putting forth my meagre attempts to clarify the wolverine science, because putting out one small fire probably makes some sort of contribution. But I hope the rest of you are out there putting on your fire-fighting gear, because we have a big, big job ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wolverines in the Times, a New Children’s Book, and Ms. Wolverine on Crushes

First up, wolverines got a mention in the New York Times last Sunday, as part of an article about the increasing pressure put on outdoor and natural spaces by non-motorized recreation. The article makes a valid point about the way we tend to point fingers at industrial and corporate environmental malfeasance, without considering that our cumulative impact on the places we celebrate might be just as great simply by walking or skiing through them. Still, some degree of communion with nature is necessary to keep people interested in protecting the environment, and there’s ever-increasing evidence that being outdoors helps mental as well as physical health. So there’s a strong incentive not to place a lot of restrictions on people’s capacity to get outdoors.

The bigger problem is demographic – if you keep making more people, they’ll have an exponentially greater effect on the environment, in all ways, both through industrial destruction of resources, and by loving nature to death. No one will touch this topic in a meaningful way – we live in an absurdly pro-natal society, culturally and to a large extent legally, so I’ll take the opportunity to soap-box a bit: if you’re at all disinclined to have kids, just don’t. I hear a lot of talk in the vein of “I’d better have a baby now because if I don’t I might regret it later,” which seems like crazy reasoning to me. No kid should know that s/he was produced as an insurance against later regret, rather than out of a sincere desire to have a child. Likewise, having kids shouldn’t be a matter of meeting a cultural expectation. Do it if you sincerely want to bring another person into the world and are committed and able to provide the financial, emotional, and intellectual resources to give it a worthwhile life.

Not that I have anything against people who have kids (unless they have excessive numbers….then it starts to get annoying), but in a culture where we’re told that we will inevitably end up with them, I’m reinforcing the fact that you can indeed just opt out and go do something more to your liking, something that might make better use of your talents, if you don’t feel interested in parenthood.

If you do feel like parenthood is for you, however, here’s something that your child must have: a new illustrated children’s book about wolverines, by Suzanne Stutzman. The book is called Send Me a Box of Wolverines, and it’s about the natural history and potential recolonization or reintroduction of the species to Colorado. Although I haven’t seen a copy, the illustrations look fun, and $1 of each sale will be donated to the Wolverine Foundation.  You can order it on the author’s website. Who wouldn’t want a box of wolverines? But since that would likely wreak some havoc, this may be the next best thing.

And now Ms. Wolverine has some words about crushes.

gulocrush

 

Dear Ms. Wolverine,

I have a crush on a guy who doesn’t seem to notice me. I really like him but I’m too shy to talk to him. How do I get his attention? I want him to understand that I am cool like a wolverine.

Sincerely,

Sad

Dear Sad,

Crushes are annoying. They consume a lot of time and energy and usually they are based on projections instead of real compatibility or actual connections. Most of the time they don’t work out, and you are better off doing something more useful with your time than moping around about it. I hope that doesn’t seem mean and insensitive, but remember – I’m a wolverine. Kindness and sensitivity are not my strong points.

But if you really want advice on coping with a crush, the first thing you have to do is figure out whether you and this guy are actually the same species.

I bring this up because after I dispersed I found myself a nice territory. It was beautiful. High peaks, lovely meadows, rushing streams, lots of prey. There were no other wolverines around, which was both a good and a bad thing. It was good because it meant I didn’t have to fight anyone for my territory. It was bad because I started developing crushes on guys who were not wolverines.

First there was the mountain goat. He had such big, beautiful eyes, and he had such defined, muscular, juicy legs. His back was also pretty attractive. I followed him around everywhere, just admiring those muscles. But things ended badly. I probably shouldn’t go into details. It turns out that my fascination with him was not terribly healthy. For him.

Never mind. Moving on.

Next there was a bear. He looked a little like a wolverine, but bigger. He was also really mean, all the time. Since wolverines have a reputation for being badass, I thought maybe I could be like him. I followed him around for a while trying to figure out how he’d become so big and impressive, even though he tried to severely injure me every time I attempted to flirt with him over a carcass. Maybe he knew I wasn’t as interested in him as I was in the carcass? Also, abusive guys are just bad news. Don’t ever pursue a crush on a guy who growls or swats at you. After a while, I thought, why bother trying to be big and intimidating when I can just go on being small and intimidating? So I chased him off a carcass one day and discovered he was sort of a wimp. Then he went into hibernation for the winter and I realized that there was no way I’d be willing (or able) to transform myself into a bear. Who wants to sleep through the best season?! Bears are lame.

My biggest crush was the wolf. He hung out with such a cool crowd! I wanted to be like them. They were always hunting together and hanging out in a pack and acting cooperatively to raise their cubs. The wolf was really nice, too. I think he was actually kind of impressed with my attitude, which just made me have an even bigger crush. He didn’t seem to mind when I dragged off a piece of his kill now and then. Eventually we started talking over carcasses, but only when his cool friends weren’t around. Whenever they showed up, he’d tell me it was better to leave because they probably wouldn’t like me. Eventually he dispersed from his pack and while he was on his own, we hung out a lot and had some great conversations. Such a nice guy. But the more we talked and the closer we became as friends, the more I realized that we could never be a couple. He wanted to hang out all the time, like the pack animal he is, and I’m an introvert, so I needed more time to myself. He’s a wolf, and I’m a wolverine. Things don’t work that way. He eventually met a mate and seemed to be pretty happy with her. I think she’s kind of a bitch, but maybe wolves go for that. Anyway, we are still friends and I’m so glad I evolved past the crush stage.

I don’t want it to seem like I spent all my time having hopeless crushes, because most of the time I was just happy to be running around in the mountains and finding food. And also there were some weird cross-species crushes where I was the object – for example, the humans who used to follow me around and leave big wooden boxes of beaver as gifts. They even gave me a necklace, but it was ugly, and they also started putting up cameras to take my picture, which I felt was sort of creepy and stalker-esque. Anyway I knew it would never work out because humans and wolverines are too different, and eventually they lost interest and went away.

But then one day I started coming across intriguing scent markings, and then I ran into this guy and I instantly knew that he was a wolverine just like me. It was love at first sight, and it was totally different from a crush.

So that’s why I say that you have to make sure he’s the same species. In your case, it’s more a metaphorical thing than a real biological thing, but some people are compatible based on genuine similarities in character and interests, while others may seem really fascinating because they have characteristics that are so different and intriguing, and that you yourself may want to possess. In the latter case, however, it frequently turns out that you are just too tough for someone who won’t appreciate that toughness, or you’re trying to be something you don’t actually want to be. Or maybe you’re drawn to something that means that you and the person in question would be great friends, but not necessarily great partners.

And when you meet someone who is ‘your own species,’ in the metaphorical sense, they will also immediately think that you are really awesome too. That’s the great, ego-boosting thing that happens in these situations.

If this guy hasn’t even noticed you yet, there’s no way that you’ve gotten to a point where you can tell whether you’re the same species, so you have two options: 1) Stop worrying about it and do something more constructive with your time, or 2) Talk to him and assess why you have a crush on him, and whether you actually get along. It will do no good to demonstrate to him that you are “cool like a wolverine” if he turns out to be a bear. Or a mountain goat. Anyway, just talk to him and be normal about it, and see what happens.

Good luck!

Ms. Wolverine

CU Boulder Wolverine Event

For Denver and Boulder residents, tomorrow night, CU Wild will host a screening of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, followed by a question-and-answer session with a panel of wolverine experts. And me. I’ll be there too. The event will be held at CU Boulder, in Fleming Law room 155, from 6-8pm. It’s free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

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Backcountry Film Festival in Jackson

Forrest McCarthy’s film about our Mongolia ski expedition will be showing at the Backcountry Film Festival in Jackson, Wyoming, this Saturday, January 11th, at the Pink Garter Theater. Jason Wilmot will be there for a question session. I may be there, and rumor has it that Forrest himself may make an appearance, fresh from Antarctica.

There will be two showings, one at 5:30 for all ages, one at 8:00 for ages 21+ – presumably the 8:00 showing involves alcohol. (If you really want an immersion experience, I’d suggest vodka shots.) Tickets are $10. Children under 12 are free. Proceeds go to the Wyoming Wilderness Association, which works to protect the wilds of this lovely and inspiring state. You can buy tickets at the door or online. Come see our film, support this worthy cause – and hope to see you there.

(And where have I been for the past month or so? Working on a different writing project, completely unrelated to wolverines; crunching numbers on some of the ski expedition data; trying to find funds to analyze the rest; and planning the coming season in Mongolia. I may start updating again more regularly but it depends on the state of the other writing project, a YA novel about paleontology. Or more accurately, what it’s like to be a really dorky teenager obsessed with something none of your peers can relate to. But I will be back at some point. Thanks for your patience.)

Mongolian Wolverines at the Backcountry Film Festival

Earlier this fall, I helped Forrest McCarthy, one of the biologists on the Mongolian ski expedition in April, put together a short film for the 2013-2014 Backcountry Film Festival. This film festival is run by Winter Wildlands Alliance, and celebrates human-powered winter recreation (or, as I think of it, people getting in touch with their inner wolverine.) The film was accepted, and will be touring the country, from Alaska to Vermont, with opening night at the Egyptian Theater in Boise, Idaho, on November 1st. Tickets are $10. Details are available at the festival’s website. So is a trailer that features clips from our film – viewers will be able to tell, instantly, which clips are ours, since they’re the only ones featuring yaks. This is the first festival film that I’ve been involved with, so I’m pretty excited!

Forrest is a well-known guide, an advocate for human-powered winter sports and for wilderness, who has a long history with wolverine research; he worked with the WCS project when it was running fieldwork in the Tetons, and has orchestrated several citizen science projects since then. He maintains a great blog about his backcountry adventures, and has made a number of films, including a previous short film compiling video from our trip. His presence on the ski trip was a tremendous asset, and Mongolia clearly worked its magic on him, as his ongoing interest in the Darhad demonstrates. All of the filming and the editing are his work; I adapted a script that he wrote, and I narrated, since the script contains Mongolian terms, and Mongolian is a language that will tie the tongue of anyone who hasn’t lived there for a few years. The focus is on the sense of restlessness and the big quest that drives those of us who go out looking for wolverines, rather than on the details of the science (I’m saving that for another film…..and several upcoming papers.) So check the calendar, and show up prepared for big adventure in search of wolverines.

For Montanans who just can’t wait for two days to indulge a thirst for wolverines onscreen, Montana PBS will be airing Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom tonight at 7 pm – always good for a little inspiration as the winter weather sets in and we head into ski season.

 

The Expedition Begins

The week before any trip to Mongolia, I start to exist in a liminal space, in which time and outlook are skewed, a bubble that encompasses the place where anticipation, nostalgia, and panic crash into each other with unrepentant ferocity. I love Mongolia, I love my research, I love adventure, but there is a significant inertia that drags at me with the demands of having to reorganize my cultural mind, my primary language orientation, my living arrangements, and my entire social life. During this liminal week, I develop a subdued sort of hedonism that is entirely absent from my life at any other time. I voraciously eat fruits and vegetables; I soak in the bathtub for hours, reading The New Yorker; I dress in my fanciest clothes just to run to the grocery store; and I sleep, as intentionally as one can do anything while unconscious, luxuriating in a comfortable mattress, real pillows, and soft bedding. Baths, bedding, fruits and vegetables, and dress-up opportunities being substantially absent through most of Mongolia, I guess that these small indulgences are reasonable, but in the 48 hours before leaving, they assume a disproportionate importance, as if I cannot possibly bear to leave them.

Then, somewhere in line at the airport, usually after I’ve cleared security, the switch flips and the liminal space retreats into the distance and I’m fully engaged in whatever adventure I’m embarking on.

This morning at 4:30, reality hit in the Bozeman airport when I stumbled through the door and saw my fellow Mongolian Wolverine Ski Expedition team members hauling a mountain of bright red dry bags, ski bags, and backpacks towards a check-in counter manned by a woman who was trying to look stoic about the impending task of sorting through all this luggage. Suddenly I was elbow deep in energy bars and dehydrated food, sorting and rearranging weight, shifting heavy items to my carry-on bag, and desperately wishing for some caffeine. On the ride to the airport, I’d stared out at the lights of town and thought, “I cannot believe that we are really doing this. What the hell possessed me, to think that skiing 400 miles across northern Mongolia in spring was a good idea?” By the time the plane took off and my fellow team members – wolverine biologist Jason Wilmot, adventure geographer Forrest McCarthy, and Gregg Treinish, director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation – pulled out maps of the Darhad, we were so elated about the prospect of the trip that bleary-eyed passengers requested that we tone it down, 6:00 a.m. being apparently too early for proximity to unfettered enthusiasm.  Still, the switch had been flipped, from backward-looking to forward-looking, from anxiety to excitement.

 

Quick Summary of Listing Rule, and Press Rundown

In (very) brief, and with promises of more detailed discussion to come: the 127-page proposed rule for listing wolverines as threatened under the ESA warrants an attentive reading by anyone interested in the species. The introduction summarizes the state of the science and discusses how and why weight is given to certain studies, and in and of itself, this is valuable to consider. For those who are just looking for the major points, though – wolverines are threatened due to climate change. Reduction in suitable denning habitat, which is projected to contract by up to 63% in the coming decades, is of major concern, but the synergistic effects of climate change and other threats – notably, trapping in Montana – are also referenced. While acknowledging that trapping has not provided a serious threat in the past and probably wouldn’t in the future in the absence of climate change, the rule states that ongoing trapping in Montana is not viable for wolverines, especially when inadvertent take and by-catch are taken into consideration. Recreation, including snowmobile use, is not deemed to be of concern. A reintroduced population in Colorado could substantially bolster the Rocky Mountain population and increase genetic viability over the long term, but this population would be given 10(j) status as an ‘experimental, nonessential population,’ to reduce management conflicts. The comment period on the proposed rule is open through May, and the USFWS seeks input from people with scientific knowledge and meaningful contributions to an understanding of management challenges. In a single paragraph, that’s the gist of the rule.

The circulation of the proposed rules for wolverine listing have generated a flurry of press – this is just a rundown for people who are interested in keeping up with what’s being written. At 10:00 this morning, there were three news articles on wolverines listed on Google; at 8:30 this evening, there are 233. That’s probably more press than wolverines have gotten in a single day, ever.

The official US Fish and Wildlife Service press release summarizes the rule and its implications. A summary at OnEarth Magazine of wolverine conservation is a good overview of the situation, with some quotes from Jeff Copeland, although the article is in serious need of some copyediting (punctuation issues lead the piece to suggest that sheep are carnivores, and that wolverine populations are greater at the southern edge of their range, and – most entertainingly – Gulo gulo is stated to mean “glutinous glutton,” which leads to images of wolverine-shaped loaves of bread.) The Huffington Post and Fox News (You can search it on your own; I refuse to provide a link to this outlet, even if they are covering this story), published an AP article detailing the rule and featuring commentary from various wolverine and legislative authorities, discussing both the potential reintroduction to Colorado, and the fact that the decision cannot be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions despite the fact that climate change is the primary threat. This piece has appeared in papers in Canada, across the US, in the Guardian in the UK, and as far abroad as New Zealand.

The announcement earned an article in the New York Times, and a mention on the New York Times energy blog, a full piece on Reuters (and also on Reuters’ UK site), and an article in the Los Angeles Times. In wolverine territory, the AP piece appeared in regional newspapers through Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The Jackson Hole News and Guide put together a good piece that touches on the issue of the poorly-known wolverine population in Wyoming, the status of gulos in the Tetons, and possible avenues by which the Colorado reintroduction would proceed. The Great Falls Tribune has an article that highlights statements from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks regarding trapping – tentatively, and reading between the lines, it suggests that they are going to take their stand around wolf trapping, defending it against concerns about incidental take of wolverines, rather than around wolverine trapping itself, but we’ll see what happens. The Yellowstone Gate, featuring news from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, has a piece that details the times, dates, and locations for a series of public hearings on wolverine listing that are part of the process of finalizing the rule. In Idaho, the Spokesman Review has a blog post on the decision.

In Colorado, several pieces of press have appeared recently in the Summit County Voice, including a piece last week that highlighted the interconnected concerns of wolverines and the ski industry, and a piece today featuring commentary on the rule and the proposed reintroduction. Another short piece appeared at Aspen public radio, focusing primarily on the reintroduction prospects. The Durango Herald has an article about the proposed reintroduction too.

Washington state has cultivated its enthusiasm for wolverines with several pieces over the past few weeks, including this one, in the Seattle Times, discussing the rebounding wolverine population in the Cascades. This article features another video of a growling wolverine in a trap. The foamy drool in the video is pretty typical of wolverines in traps, so don’t worry that the animal is rabid.

Finally, from several weeks ago and not at all related to today’s decision, there’s a great Alaska Dispatch piece on wolverines in Chugatch State Park. If only we all lived in places where our state parks were big enough and cold enough to host a population of wolverines.

I’m sure that the press coverage will continue to snowball, and I will try to keep up. Let me know of any other pieces that I’ve failed to post. I’m out in the field for the next few days but will try to post a few thoughts here soon.