Wolverines to be Listed as Threatened?

With apologies for the long silence, here’s an article in the Missoulian, more or less officially confirming news that we’ve been expecting – wolverines will be listed as threatened later this month. The news comes as part of a district’s judge’s decision not to hear a case, scheduled for January 10th, about the Montana trapping season: “District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled it made little sense to debate a trapping season that was soon to become moot.” More details are available in an article from the Great Falls Tribune, which makes clear that the judge signed an order ending the 2012-2013 trapping season, even without the hearing, and that Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks decided not to fight the decision. In another piece in the Helena Independent Record, however, FWP indicated that they do plan to contest the lawsuit, should it go forward in March or April of this year. If wolverines are listed, though, today’s decision should represent the permanent closure of Montana’s trapping season – except in the unlikely event that we can slow down the effects of climate change enough to protect the population, or in the equally unlikely event that science somehow determines that trapping is not a threat despite the risks of climate change. This would be scientifically tricky to uphold, though, since removal of reproductive females from the population has the potential to significantly disrupt source nodes within the metapopulation, especially when habitat is decreasing.

More about this soon; I’m in the middle of several wolverine related projects (naturally) and haven’t had much time to write.  Meanwhile, here are a few other articles that have appeared over the past month:

NRCC Executive Director Jason Wilmot weighs in on the upcoming decision in a Greenwire article. This, too, basically stated that a “threatened” status was recommended; I plead guilty to being too absorbed in hanging out with my family over the holidays to post.

The Billing’s Gazette profiles the WCS wolverine study and the work of Bob Inman. The descriptions of the rigors of wolverine field work are pretty accurate, so if you’re contemplating a career in wolverine biology, ponder these carefully. He also raises an important but generally neglected question: the status and distribution of wolverines in Wyoming. This could be critical for a fully interconnected Rocky Mountain population, particularly if wolverines ever make it to Colorado. I hope that the state of Wyoming takes note, and prioritizes a study immediately. Bob also raises the issue of the inherently transboundary and transjurisdictional nature of wolverine conservation, which I hope will provide us with a new model for conservation of widely-dispersed metapopulations.

Much further afield, here’s an update on the tour of Michigan’s last known wolverine, tracked by teacher Jeff Ford for several years until her death in 2009.

Finally, here’s an interesting piece from Smithsonian, looking at adaptive plasticity in tree frogs in Panama. What does this have to do with wolverines in the Rockies? Adaptive plasticity is the range of behavior available to a species in light of environmental variation – including changes in climate. Since we cannot, as a society, muster the will to do anything about emissions, the continued presence of wolverines in the Rockies may well depend on the species’ degree of adaptive plasticity. This is one of the most important aspects of the comparative work in Mongolia and the US, too.

So there it is, for now. Enjoy the good news – but remember that putting a species on the list is not the equivalent of actually conserving it, and that the challenge for wolverines (and for other species) will be moving from symbolic protection to actual management strategies in the years to come.

note: I originally posted this as “Wolverines to be Listed as Threatened,” statement, not question. I was reiterating the headline of the first article that my friend sent me; I don’t have independent confirmation of this, and on reflection, I shouldn’t have stated this as a fact. Although the decision is due out sometime soon, and although we have indications that they will be recommended for protections, I do not actually know that they will. Hopefully this hasn’t caused any confusion or bad feeling, and hopefully readers will forgive the lapse in the usually-rigorous standards on this blog. 

Wolverines Breeding in North Cascades

Last month, the North Cascades wolverine project confirmed – after six years of diligent work – that wolverines are breeding in the region. Mallory and Xena, two of the project’s female wolverines, denned this year. The two females localized, researchers noted the localization via telemetry, and then flew in to set camera traps. Xena was recorded with a kit in her mouth, and they expect similar confirmation soon for Mallory. Rocky, the mate that the two females share, has been visiting both dens.

The article mentions natal and maternal dens. A natal den is the den in which a wolverine gives birth. She generally moves the kits to a den at a higher elevation after several weeks. A wolverine may have multiples maternal dens, generally close to each other, before moving the kits to a series of rendezvous sites later in the summer. We’re not sure what prompts a female to move from a natal to a maternal den, or from one maternal den to another. Disturbance could account for some movements, but more likely the shifts in quarters usually have to do with snow melt, kit growth and weaning, and the amount of refuse accumulating in the den.

The fact that it took the North Cascades project six years to confirm that their wolverines are actually resident – that is, a reproducing population – is noteworthy. It took the Absaroka-Beartooth Project six years to document a reproduction within the project area as well. This might serve as a useful guideline in conceptualizing the timelines for wolverine projects, especially in marginal areas or areas at the edges of known distribution.

In other news, an article about the Colorado wolverine reintroduction plans appeared last week in theSummit County Citizens Voice. The article addresses the fact that a reintroduction – tentatively proposed several years ago – is on hold. I’m flattered that the article provides a link to my blog, but I also want to clarify a point made in the article. The reporter states:

“A tentative state plan to reintroduce the mountaineering omnivores is on hold at least until the federal government decides whether to list the species as threatened or endangered. Opposition from the ski industry and ranchers played a key role in putting the brakes on the proposed restoration.”

The ski industry and ranchers have, as I understand it, voiced some concerns, but they are not the major reason for the delay. Anyone involved in reintroduction plans for an ESA candidate species would be far wiser to step back until the species’ status had been determined, since an ESA listing would create very different conditions and requirements than would occur under a non-listing scenario. With a definite date set for a final listing decision (by the end of 2013), it makes far more sense to wait for that decision than to try to proceed. The delay isn’t due to anyone’s recalcitrance, and given the likely logistical complexities of a reintroduction, wolverines wouldn’t be on the ground before that date even without a necessary wait for the ESA decision.

So far, in my admittedly limited exposure to the plans for Colorado, I’ve been impressed by how enthusiastic everyone seems. There are currently no good guys and no bad guys, just people voicing legitimate concerns amidst the uncertainty of the listing situation. If wolverine reintroduction in Colorado does go forward, I hope that the conservation advocacy community will take the opportunity to forge a process that is as conflict-free as possible. A key component of this process will involve taking a step back from “easy” conservation narratives that create division and point fingers at groups that will then – logically – become angered and more polarized. Wolverines really aren’t a threat to any special interest group, they have a broad appeal, their impact on the ski industry is likely to be minimal since a tiny (c. 1%) proportion of denning habitat is located within ski areas, and they don’t kill livestock except in very exceptional circumstances. With the right messaging, everyone should support wolverine conservation. A Colorado reintroduction should be about wolverines, not about honing identity-based conflicts that have been inherent in other wildlife conservation situations in the West.

That said, it’s always good to see gulos getting coverage. I don’t want to be too harsh, and I appreciate the attention to wolverines.

Speaking of attention to wolverines, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta, is hosting an art exhibition featuring species and landscapes found along the Yellowstone-to-Yukon corridor. Wolverines and pikas are among the animals making an appearance. It’s great to see art and conservation intersecting in this way. The show runs from June to November of 2012.

Also in the wolverine media world, a special on the Michigan wolverine will air on ABC on Saturday, May 26th- 1:00-1:30 pm, Sunday, May 27th, 6:30-7:00 am, and Monday, May 28th, 2:05-2:35am. This is probably only available in Michigan, but hopefully the rest of us will be able to see it online.

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.


The Lone Wolverine Guy: An Interview With Jeff Ford

The Michigan wolverine. Photo copyright Jeff Ford.

Jeff Ford, co-author with Elizabeth Phillips Shaw of the newly released The Lone Wolverine, was kind enough to answer a few questions, over email, about his book and his work. The book details Jeff’s quest to document a wolverine who showed up in Michigan in 2004; he photographed and videoed her faithfully for six years before her death in early 2010. During this time, he also worked full-time as a high school science teacher, and became an advocate for wolverines among his students and the wider outdoor community.  Here are some of Jeff’s perspectives on becoming Michigan’s primary spokesman for wolverines.

RW: In your science classes, how did students respond to your interest in the wolverine and to its inclusion in lessons? I guess I’m wondering how it fit into the curriculum, and if any of the students caught the “gulo bug.”

JF: The response from my science classes on my “Gulo” lessons were incredibly positive. I think the positive response I had was a combination of the passion they sensed as I presented my videos, pics, and facts, and the fact that the wolverine was living 20 minutes from the very classroom that I was presenting the lesson. Certainly, the wolverine living right where they all lived contributed to their interest with this real life wildlife detective story. And as I traveled and presented at other schools students were completely “into it”.

One of the Michigan Junior High Benchmarks stated “Students will have a better understanding and appreciation for the natural world,” which opened the door for my gulo incorporated lessons. Also, there was a benchmark relating to inaccurate information that exists on the web, and this also opened the door for me to implement a lesson where students are awarded for researching the internet and compiling a list of wolverine facts, then further researching in scientific studies, books, etc. to confirm or refute that particular fact.

There is actually one inaccurate (or should I say unproven) fact in my book that somehow mysteriously “slipped in”. Did you catch that?

RW: I didn’t. I’ll have to go back and read it again – If any blog readers catch it, let me know.

I was struck by the lengths that you went to to gather information on this one wolverine. Without your efforts, no one would have known anything other than the fact that there was a (gender and origin undetermined) wolverine sighted in Michigan in 2004. One of the things we struggle with as professional scientists is figuring out an effective way to partner with citizen scientists. Do you think that citizen scientists have a role to play in helping us learn more about wolverines across their range, and if so, what are your recommendations for both citizen and professional scientists as we work together?

 JF: That’s a very interesting question and yes, I do believe the professional scientists could effectively utilize citizens to help with Gulo research, and it is technology that has allowed this to happen. With the invention and improvement of game trail cameras utilizing “heat in motion” technology and digital capabilities, it is now possible for an “average Joe” like me to become an effective monitor of his/her area for wolverine activity given the motivation and time. I believe professionals could recruit college students, outdoorsman, etc to monitor their particular area if they are provided with the proper procedures and equipment to do so. This would also benefit the college student who is trying to log “in the field” hours for classes or simply to boost their resume status. From my perspective, I would like to see citizens recruited all across the northern tier of the Upper Peninsula from the far west to the far east. By placing game cameras over bait in January-March when wolverines are nutritionally stressed and the ice bridges are available for dispersal, it would be possible to monitor ongoing dispersal rates from Ontario into Michigan, or to establish that this type of progression simply isn’t occurring.

RW: Now that your pretty girl is gone, what do you see as your role in on-going wolverine education, research, and conservation?

JF: Over the years working with [wolverine researcher] Audrey [Magoun] and [the Wolverine Foundation’s] Judy [Long] I slowly made the conscious shift from just being the protector of this one lone wolverine to the conservation and sustenance of all wolverines throughout North America. I started realizing that the research I was doing may help get the gulo word out and help people to appreciate these fascinating mammals. Now that the book is completed, as I tour the state with “the pretty girl”, I feel obligated to try to pique as many people’s interest in wolverine’s as I can, with the thought in mind of what Judy Long said “Interest in this lone wolverine equates to interest in the wolverine species in general and equates to money for research-regardless of how she arrived in Michigan”.  My sister and I have pieced together a very nice power point of my best 100 pictures and video footage, and I am going to take advantage of this opportunity on my road trip to develop some more people into “Gulo lovers”.

RW: And of course, the big question….what is it about these animals that catches people and hooks them so thoroughly? Everyone who gets involved at all ends up really involved. The Blackfeet even have a legend about how, if you encounter a wolverine in the wild, you will never be the same again, never be able to peacefully return to the life you were living before. The species seems to generate a peculiar sort of obsession. Why? And why with certain people?

JF: I certainly think the Blackfeet were on to something, because my obsession with “the pretty girl” was strong, deep, and lasting and I will never forget her, never get over her death, and always feel a strong connection to her…I remember vividly the first time I followed her tracks in the mud in 2004 down a deer run deep in the swamp, and the goose bumps I had on my neck and arms, and the incredible feeling of elation I felt as I followed along behind this animal. This was well before my 1st picture and video so the deep rooted passion for this animal was already evident very early on. I can’t completely explain it- it seemed as though a mystic force had taken over my body and was driving me to study this animal regardless of the obstacles or challenges that lie before me.

I do know the rarity of these animals contributed, her beauty and grace as she seemed to glide through terrain a man or woman would have to navigate on all 4’s grunting and struggling, her strength, athletic ability, agility, perseverance, determination, “never say die” attitude when trying to remove my ratchet strapped carcass, her keen awareness of her environment as she moved throughout the research site, and her intelligence and problem solving skills when presented with a challenge, their legendary reputation as being fearless even when facing seemingly insurmountable odds, their beautiful, powerful front legs, large pads and claws, huge bushy tail that was so beautiful in just  the right sunlight, her incredible endurance the day of “the chase” [when she was first spotted by coyote hunters in 2004] covering 30-40 miles in mere hours, her ability to remain unseen in a human populated area (she could never be more than 2 miles from a human at any given time), a wolverine’s refusal to harm humans. My god, there are so many reasons I love this species and in particular especially this beautiful female, the pretty girl. I miss following her, I miss the excitement of getting new video and pictures of her, I miss walking through these woods knowing she was alive and well, and utilizing the same habitat that I was as I pursued the whitetail deer with bow in hand, I miss everything about her!!!!!

More information on Jeff Ford’s work can be found at his website.

Gulos East

Authors Elizabeth Philips Shaw and Jeff Ford in front of a run pole used in wolverine camera trap set-ups.

Last month, the University of Michigan Press released The Lone Wolverine, by Elizabeth Philips Shaw and Jeff Ford. The book follows the peculiar story of a female wolverine who showed up in the Michigan Thumb in 2004, and who was subsequently tracked and documented by Ford, a high school science teacher who became intrigued by and eventually deeply devoted to the animal. The wolverine died of natural causes in 2010, but by that time Ford had obtained several DNA samples that sparked on-going controversy about the animal’s origins. I just finished reading the book yesterday and will review it here shortly.

In the meantime, Jeff Ford’s “Pretty Gal” continues to inspire Michiganders as she goes on tour throughout Michigan, in conjunction with Ford and Shaw’s book tour. Two articles  – here and here – give some details about the upcoming tour, while Ford’s book continues to generate buzz – including a poll by one Michigan news outlet, querying whether or not Michigan should consider reintroducing wolverines to the state. The results of the poll will be out on Friday, so weigh in while you can.

The origin of the Michigan wolverine remains contested. Either hypothesis – captive release or dispersal from Ontario – seems plausible, but ultimately her origin doesn’t matter.  The story of Ford’s relationship with this particular wolverine doesn’t depend on her birthplace to make its point, and regardless of where she came from, the Michigan Thumb is unlikely to ever support a breeding population of gulos. Tangentially related to this discussion, however, people are seeing and trapping wolverines (a previous post here and another incident reported here highlight two cases of male wolverines trapped this spring) in areas of southern Ontario where the species hasn’t been documented before, and that are well within wolverine travel distance of the Great Lakes. The Canadian Ministry of Natural Resources is asking people to report all wolverine sightings in the region. Wolverines are a protected species in Ontario (at least one of the trapping incidents was accidental.) If you do see one of these animals or sign in Ontario, document the evidence if you can, leave the animal alone, and let someone know.

Pinatas, Pizza, and How to Meet a Montana Wolverine

Around Easter, a group of pre-schoolers from Billings, Montana, gathered to partake in a peculiar  ritual: they spent the day making pinatas for the animals at the Billings Zoo. It’s peculiar, of course, because what is a wild animal supposed to do with a pinata? But it’s also touching, because it speaks to the fact that someone out there is thinking about these animals in very human terms, and recognizing that they too sometimes crave some entertainment, something out of the ordinary. An animal in the wild is unlikely to encounter a pinata, but it certainly has opportunities for play and exploration that zoo animals lack. The pre-schoolers’ pinatas – a tradition repeated every holiday – are a rough compromise between captivity and the unfettered wild.

The pinatas were stuffed with treats according to the type of animal – fruit and vegetables for the bear, meat for the tigers. Among the other animals, a familiar character put in an appearance: “Some animals use the pinatas as houses. Others, like the wolverine, just rip it to shreds.”

The pinata-shredding wolverine, whose name is Cass, will be a feature at an upcoming showing of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom at the Billings Zoo on May 20th.  Film producer Gianna Savoie and Cass’ keeper will be among the wolverine-knowledgeable people on hand to help celebrate the wolverine. The film showing honors Endangered Species Day and – perhaps – the wolverine’s new, almost endangered, status. Details are available below, or at the Billings Zoo website.

the poster features F5 of the Glacier Project. The daughter of the famous F4, F5 scaled Bearhat Mountain in the dead of winter for no reason that anyone can determine, other than the sheer adventure of getting to the top. She later died in an avalanche, a true mountaineer to the end.

The poster features F5 of the Glacier Project. The daughter of the famous F4, F5 scaled Bearhat Mountain in the dead of winter for no reason that anyone can determine, other than the sheer adventure of getting to the top. She later died in an avalanche.

If zoo animals shredding pinatas aren’t enough for you, you can head east from Billings; the Detroit zoo regularly supplies its animals with specialty pizzas as part of a program to provide entertainment to the zoo’s denizens, and offer inner city kids the chance to visit the zoo. Detroit has two wolverines, a male, Jigi, and a female, Luka. In case you ever find yourself taking a pair of hungry wolverines to an Italian restaurant, check the menu for a peanut-butter-honey-sardine-raw-meat-and-bones combo. Yum. The zoo keeper describes the two wolverines  eyeing each other’s pizzas before settling for their own: “Whatever they have, the other one is always better. They’re just like kids.”

Wolverine eating a bones-and-raw-meat pizza at the Detroit Zoo. Source: Detroit Free Press.

Finally, another important graphic: a shot of snow cover across the US from earlier today. Winter in the Rockies has been ferocious this year, and as this graphic demonstrates, most of the snow on the ground is over five feet deep. It’s been a good year for wolverine denning conditions.

Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are the bookends of the wolverine denning period, and this is the week that wolverine kits around the globe are emerging from their snowbound existence and heading out into the wider world. F3, our female in the Absarokas, was thought to be in a den as of flights in late April. Last weekend, a field team went in to investigate the site and determine whether she had actually given birth or, as per her notorious reputation, was fooling us once again. I really despise cliffhanger journalism, but the topic deserves a post of its own. So check back later this week for the story of what the team discovered.

Snow cover in the US, as of May 10, 2011.

Wolverine in Oregon

Wolverine researcher Audrey Magoun, well known for her work on Alaskan gulos, picked up tracks of a wolverine last week while working on a survey project in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon. The Wallowa Mountains are close enough to breeding wolverine populations in Idaho that wolverine presence isn’t surprising, but this discovery represents the first confirmed sighting in the region.

The Wallowa Mountains (red marker) aren't far from the Payette National Forest, which has a breeding population of wolverines.

The size of the prints indicated that the wolverine is a male, which means that he could simply be a disperser. But the region might also represent another node of breeding wolverines in the archipelago of habitat islands in the northwestern US. Hopefully we’ll learn more about this as the research goes forward; Magoun and her partners plan to return next winter to determine whether the area is occupied.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has issued a general call for information on sightings of rare animals – the wolverine is included in the list, along with lynx, wolves, marten, and moose. We don’t believe that wolverines have been present in Wisconsin at any time in recent history, but it seems like the whole country wants to know more about the species, which is great.

In Michigan, the lone female wolverine who captivated the state for six years before her death last winter is now on display, for Michigan residents who want to see their state’s namesake.

It’s exciting to have such farflung news of wolverines, and especially to have news of a possible newly-discovered resident population.  Now if only we can determine, closer to home, the status of F3 and her potential kits, we may be able to add another breeding node to the map.

Michigan’s Last Wolverine

Today, a sad piece from Michigan about the ultimate fate of their last wolverine, a female who died last year, age 9, of congestive heart failure. She had been tracked and photographed via camera-trap by a persistent school teacher, who had only just managed to get her on film when she died. As unhappy as this is, she will be preserved for display and educational purposes by a taxidermist, who shares his thoughts about the process of working on Michigan’s only documented wolverine in the past 200 years.

Some speculate that she walked over the ice from Canada and represents a true dispersal from a wild Canadian population. Others have suggested that her genetics are more similar to those of Alaskan wolverines, which would mean that she was almost certainly a released captive. Regardless, I hope she inspires folks in Michigan to be even more interested in wolverines than they already are.

On the topic of interest in wolverines, Jason Wilmot’s lectures in Colorado were attended by over 500 people, a great turnout. In some cases there was standing-room only, and Jason was asked to stay for an additional lecture; he was unable to do so but hopes to find time later in the winter. Thanks to the Center for Native Ecosystems and the numerous other sponsors who helped make these lectures happen, and thanks to the many people who turned out for the events.

Last week saw a flurry of wolverine articles related to a study that shows that their habitat will diminish in the face of climate change. I will write more about this shortly.