Two new wolverines at ZooMontana

For those who haven’t been fortunate enough to see a wolverine in the wild, you’ll soon have a chance to view a gulo in a more accessible location – if you’re in Montana, anyway. ZooMontana, in Billings, will open a new wolverine exhibit featuring two Scandinavian wolverines, Sid and Ahmari. Sid is Swedish, Ahmari is from Finland, and you can read more about them, and check out a video, here. There’s additional information here. The opening date of the new wolverine enclosure is not yet certain, but it should occur by the beginning of May.

The Billings Zoo previously had a wolverine, but he passed away in 2012. The new wolverine program is significant because ZooMontana will be participating in an attempt to breed wolverines in captivity – notoriously difficult to do. Will we have the very rare opportunity to observe wolverine kits up close in a few years? Stay tuned. And drop by to say hello to Ahmari and Sid if you’re in Billings.

Monitoring vs. Snapshot

This winter, the states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington have teamed up to participate in a survey that will contribute to our understanding of wolverines in the US Rockies. This multi-state survey is a single season snapshot of wolverine distribution, using cameras and scent lures and some genetic analysis. Articles about this effort continue to pop up here and there; I haven’t highlighted them on the blog because most of the articles are rudimentary and don’t provide a lot of useful information. One trait that a lot of these pieces share, however, is a tendency to mischaracterize this effort as a “monitoring” program rather than a quick, single-season look at a highly dynamic population. Any effort to increase our understanding of wolverines is worthwhile, and the multi-state survey is no exception. It will potentially yield some interesting data. But the ongoing story about this being a monitoring effort that will result in “preserving” wolverines is misleading.

My personal obsession with clarifying all the minute nuances and details around wolverine science and the claims and counterclaims of competing interest groups has seemed, given the broader media landscape and socio-political trends, increasingly quaint and perhaps even Quixotic in recent months. Nevertheless, I’m going to carry on. So let’s take the latest iteration of the claim that the multi-state project is a monitoring project: a piece that appeared today on the KBZK Montana website. The headline states, “Wolverine Preservation Project Underway.” And then, in the space of a 265 word piece, the word “monitor” and variants are used four times. The words “conserve,” “preserve,” and variations thereon are used five times. At no point does the piece offer any substance with regards to what “conservation” or “preservation” entail, or how the survey connects to those objectives, or even what the source of threat is, with the exception of a quote in which Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks biologist Bob Inman talks about re-establishing populations in currently uninhabited former range.

Some earlier articles on this effort were more thorough and, in some cases, highlighted the snapshot nature of this winter’s survey. But even these articles tended to refer to it as a monitoring project, in both headlines and in the content of the articles, as in this piece. Monitoring, to be clear, involves the long-term observation of a process of interest to track trends or changes. A snapshot is a look at what’s going on with that process within a bounded period of time. A one-season survey is useful for offering insight into baseline conditions – but of course, we still have to keep in mind that the “baseline” is a fairly arbitrary moment, the significance of which hasn’t really been established. And with a highly mobile, sparsely distributed meta-population, in which habitat patches may move through cycles of occupancy and non-occupancy, we have to think critically about what the “baseline” information actually tells us about the population at large. The publicity around this project is interesting – the elisions in the narrative may just be the result of incomplete reporting, or they may represent intentional messaging, but either way, it’s a key example of a story being purveyed in the media in a way that doesn’t look closely enough at the scientific and policy contexts.

Again, any attempt to gain more information about wolverines is worthwhile and potentially valuable, and that’s true for the multi-state study, so my critique here isn’t necessarily of that effort (I’ll have more to say about that later, though). My concern is with the way media stories about wildlife science and policy create simplistic narratives about single studies leading to particular outcomes. Anyone reading these pieces should immediately ask whether the scope of the study matches the scale of the claims about the knowledge that will come out of it, and the level of protection and conservation that will be implemented as a result. Just something to consider as these stories continue to appear. I’ll be writing more on this topic in the future.

In the meantime, have a great weekend – hope it includes some good wolverine weather for all of you.

 

The Argument Against Listing, As Summarized by the States

Last week, I posted about the court hearing on whether the USFWS decision not to list wolverines was “arbitrary and capricious.” During that hearing, the lawyers for the USFWS and the defendant-intervenors referenced a number of arguments against listing. Many of these arguments were heavily promoted by the states opposed to listing (per a USFWS email cited during the hearing, these arguments ‘originated’ with Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana). I referenced these arguments piecemeal as I summarized the hearing, but they were presented in a more structured way in the comments of various entities – including the states – on the proposed rule for listing. They were then succinctly and coherently summarized in September 2014 when the states published a letter, in various news outlets, in response to the decision not to list.

Before I delve into further analysis of the science and the conflicting narratives about what the research says, I’m going to post the letter so that readers can assess the structure and merits of the state’s contentions on their own. I’ll be discussing both the scientific details of these arguments, and the overall arc of the different narratives about wolverine conservation, in following posts. There are a number of other documents relevant to this set of arguments, but as the letter is the most concise, I’m going to use it as a point from which to elaborate and bring in additional details. Feel free to share your thoughts and impressions before I start with my own analysis.

Here’s the letter:

Wolverine fares well

The states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have noted the recent criticisms about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Aug. 12 decision to not list wolverine in the western United States as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. For the record, our states opposed the service’s original recommendation to list wolverines based on our concerns about listing a species that is at its highest population level in the past 80-100 years and still increasing. This fact supports the conclusion that state management works for the wolverine. The states also expressed our concerns over the uncertainty inherent in using projected changes in climate over the next 40-80 years to speculate about what might happen to wolverine habitat and wolverine populations.

The service, however, didn’t reverse its original proposal due solely to state input. The service chose, instead, to convene an independent panel of climate and wildlife scientists to review and discuss the science underlying the original listing proposal. Endangered Species Act listing is a complex arena that requires decisions based on imperfect data, and we applaud the service’s efforts to seek independent advice. It’s likely the model used for wolverines — a model based on cooperation with the states — will have utility for future decisions. Ultimately, the service made the right decision for wolverines for the right reasons. We thank the service for its willingness to listen, keep an open mind and utilize additional methods to fully explore science in its decision process.

Together we remain fully committed to the conservation of wolverines.

Virgil Moore
Director
Idaho Department of Fish and Game
M. Jeff Hagener
Director
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Scott Talbott
Director
Wyoming Game and Fish Department

 

 

 

Science Goes to Court

On February 9th, the US district court in Missoula, Montana heard oral arguments in the case challenging the 2014 USFWS decision not to list wolverines. The Missoulian published an article about the hearing, and it’s a pretty good outline, but since I was in the courtroom, I’m sharing my impressions and a more detailed synopsis as well. I’ll focus here on conveying what happened, and will share my own analysis later. I do have  opinions about the debate around the science, and those will probably come through, but I will explain my reasoning and, I hope, convince readers as to why that reasoning is sound, in a subsequent post.

First, a bit of background: Back in August of 2014, the USFWS abruptly reversed course following a 2013 proposed listing rule (Proposed Wolverine Rule), and issued a decision not to list the wolverine as threatened under the ESA. A leaked memo (Region_6_Wolverine_Memo_5-30-14) revealed that the reversal seemed to be the result of the opinion of the assistant regional director of region six, in contradiction of a process of several years that found that wolverines were warranted for protection and should be listed. Environmental advocacy groups sued, charging that the decision was “arbitrary and capricious,” and contending that the decision should be thrown out. The defendants included the USFWS, and a number of parties referred to as “defendant-intervenors.” In this case, these parties included the states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; state farm bureaus; several snowmobile associations; and – perplexingly- the American Petroleum Institute and the Montana Petroleum Institute.

To show that the decision not to list was in fact arbitrary and capricious, the plaintiffs had to prove that the reversal was not based on any sound scientific evidence, but rather on whims or machinations outside the bounds of the “best available science,” the standard tool used to determine whether a species warrants protection.

The notion of best available science is tricky. The ESA did not define it when the Act was written, and a definition added by amendment in 2005 – “…scientific data, regardless of source, that are available to the Secretary at the time of a decision or action for which such data are required by this Act and that the Secretary determines are the most accurate, reliable, and relevant for use in that decision or action.” – provoked ire from people who thought that it opened science to politicization by granting a government official the authority to decide what science counts and what doesn’t. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the larger debate about whether our process is effective for incorporating science into policy at all, or the even vaster debate, within the social sciences, about whether science that strives for neutrality is actually a practice of collective cultural self-delusion. Obviously, figuring out what defines good science is a complex issue.

Regardless, the question of best available science has plagued the latest round of the wolverine listing debate, just as the lack of scientific data plagued earlier rounds. The USFWS’ original proposed rule to list, like all such proposed rules, was subject to peer review. During this process, two out of the five researchers who were invited to submit opinions disagreed with the USFWS’ analysis of the science on the relationship between wolverine denning and late spring snowpack, and the models that projected decline in snowpack in wolverine range within the coming century. This dissent provoked an avalanche of further analysis and debate, which included, among other things, expert panels on climate modeling, rancorous attacks on various scientists and scientific institutions, the construction by the states of some fairly shaky arguments about wolverine population trends, and the sudden appearance on the scene of high-powered energy players with – we can speculate – a distinct interest in preventing the listing of a charismatic climate-sensitive carnivore. Months went by. The expert panel concluded that the climate modeling was sound. The decision looked like it would go forward. Then came the reversal; the leaked memo; a letter from the states commending the decision not to list but reiterating flawed arguments about what the science actually says; and the lawsuit.

The major scientific debates in this case – the points that were contended and argued over in the expert reviews, the letters, the memos, and the public forum – can be summarized as follows:

  1. What is the relationship between wolverines and snow, especially spring snowpack?
  2. What is the wolverine population trend in the US Rockies?
  3. Is genetic depression potentially a problem for wolverines?
  4. Are the climate models used to predict reduction in snowpack in the Rockies adequate, both scientifically, and as a justification to list?

The three papers most at issue in this discussion are Copeland et al 2010, which deals with the relationship between wolverines, late spring snow, and low summer temperatures; McKelvey et al 2011, which deals with projected retractions in wolverine habitat and dispersal corridors over the coming century; and Aubry et al 2007 (aubrywolverinedistribution), which deals with the historic and current range of wolverines. I’ve discussed these papers elsewhere on this blog and will dive back into them in subsequent posts, but for now, if you want to review them, there they are.

And thus we come to Missoula on Tuesday morning, February 9th, at 9:30 am. The courthouse gallery was packed – the lady who signed me in and gave me my visitor tag told me that there were at least 50 people, and opined that there were “a lot of people interested in wolverines.” There were also a lot of attorneys, arrayed around their tables facing the judge’s seat – Tim Preso of Defenders of Wildlife and Matthew Bishop of Wild Earth Guardians for the plaintiffs, and the USFWS attorney and the assortment of lawyers for the defendant-intervenors.

Judge Dana Christensen began the proceedings by recounting, with articulate and detailed enthusiasm, his three encounters with wolverines in the wild, and segued into expressing his familiarity with the case, the briefs, and the wider issues at stake. He discussed the prior listing petitions and their outcomes. He mentioned having read Doug Chadwick’s book about the Glacier Park project, and said that he understood from the book that, “The folks who are committed to gathering the science are dedicated…I’ve concluded that this is a hard species to study, and it’s not surprising that we don’t know how many there are….or the exact data about their response to climate change.” Wolverines are a pretty obscure topic and it would have been easy to end up with a judge who didn’t even know what they were. Judge Christensen was admirably well-informed.

The plaintiffs opened by invoking the concept of best available science, and putting forth the argument that the papers used to justify the original listing rule – namely, Copeland et al. 2010 and McKelvey et al. 2011 – were subjected to criticism and then discounted on the basis of speculation rather than definite scientific evidence that they were flawed or incorrect. These two papers have been at the crux of all of the debates, and most of the criticism lobbed at them has had to do with lack of precision rather than lack of broad accuracy. Preso invoked a 2009 case, Tuscon Herpetological Society vs. Salazar, which determined that the government cannot dismiss threats to a species based on inconclusive science. As he stated again and again, in numerous ways, “The ESA does not demand perfect science – it demands the best available science.”

Preso also spent some time on the USFWS’ assumptions about population growth, and the flawed reasoning of relying on Aubry et al 2007 to justify the idea that the population would continue to grow. He argued that the USFWS and its attendant intervenors were conflating range expansion with population growth, and that there was no evidence that the population is growing. He highlighted the dangers of assuming that increased sightings of wolverines indicates that the wolverine population is increasing, mentioning that it was not surprising to see that wolverine sightings had been substantially higher during the years of a wolverine research study than in the years when the study was not operating.

Connectivity and genetics also received attention. Preso argued that connectivity problems should have been considered a primary rather than a secondary threat, referencing the lack of apparent connectivity between wolverines in the contiguous US and wolverines in Canada. The judge questioned this, and Preso responded with the published information that suggests that the trans-Canada highway and Canada’s trapping management regime do serve as effective barriers to free genetic exchange with wolverines in the US Rockies. From here, he ventured into a discussion about widely-accepted biological rules about the problems with inbreeding and genetic bottlenecking, and suggested that these rules most likely apply to wolverines as well. He was referring specifically to the so-called 50/500 rule, which states that a minimum effective (breeding individuals only) population of 50 individuals is needed to insure population survival over the short term, and 500 are needed over the long term. The current effective population of wolverines in the US Rockies is estimated, based on genetics, to be between 25 and 50.

Preso’s next theme was climate change, and the criticisms made of the Copeland et al 2010 paper. The judge asked several questions as Preso launched into his defense of the paper, the first about whether or not there was any published information to contradict either Copeland or McKelvey (Preso: “No.” Judge Christensen: “So it’s basically just criticism….”) Later, as Preso continued to explore the issues around McKelvey et al. 2011 and the question of the scale of the modelling, and stated that, “We know that wolverines are snow-obligate – ” the judge interrupted and said, “That’s a given in this case, so the question is, do we need to know exactly why?”

There was some discussion about another case that had to do with abrupt changes in decisions, which the judge brought up in order to ask whether Preso wanted to rely on this case for precedent; Preso said no and brought the discussion back to the Tuscon Herpetological case. The judge went on to affirm that this was a case about “change in policy needing to be based on good reasoning and logic.”

Preso also spent some time reiterating that California and Colorado, with single male wolverines in each state, should not count as inhabited range. He brought up the fact that some of the estimates of available habitat included habitat in these states, and that that habitat should be removed from analysis because it was not relevant to the population in the US Rockies or the Cascades.

At the end of Preso’s arguments, the judge asked him what he wanted the court to do, and Preso replied that he wanted the judge to apply the arbitrary-and-capricious standard and set aside the rule, remand the decision, and “wait and see what will happen.”

Matthew Bishop then spoke, and in some senses he seemed to contradict Preso’s arguments about not considering uninhabited range as part of the analysis for listing. He made an argument that the retractions in range during historical time should in fact be taken into account in determining the degree of threat faced by wolverines. This discussion revolved around a specific provision of the ESA, and Bishop was arguing that this should be applied; I haven’t had time to research it, so I’ll leave this here for now. Bishop also mentioned genetic issues, and inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms (one of the categories of threat under the ESA). Like Preso, he stated that the best available science in this case had been ignored.

Then came the defendants’ turn to speak. Trent Crable was arguing for the USFWS, and stated that since climate change was ruled the major and only primary threat, the science regarding wolverines and climate change should be the only issue under consideration. The USFWS had found that McKelvey et al was not enough, on its own, to show threat in “the foreseeable future.”

The judge at this point asked whether there was any published research to contradict Copeland or McKelvey, and Crable responded, “If by published, you mean peer-reviewed, then no.” The judge then asked, “What then was Noreen Walsh [the region 6 assistant director] relying on in making her decision?”

Crable replied, “Her understanding of what is needed to list, and the report provided by Dr. Torbit, in consultation with Andrea Ray of NOAA, saying that the modeling was insufficient for us to know what will happen to wolverine habitat.” This was in reference to an internal study on downscaling of climate models that the USFWS requested after the expert review panel found that the the snow modeling in Copeland and McKelvey was adequate. I have not seen this report, but it is referenced in Walsh’s memo, and was the linchpin in justifying the reversal. Crable explained that the report highlighted difficulties in modeling what will happen with precipitation on local scales; he said that modeling temperature changes was comparatively easy, but that precipitation projections were much more difficult, implying that our ability to understand future snowfall is compromised.

The judge produced emails that seemed to suggest that Walsh had made the decision to reverse prior to the submission of the Torbit and Ray report, and asked several questions to try to clarify the timeline. Crable said that Walsh had probably seen earlier drafts and/or talked with Torbit, since they are colleagues. The judge asked whether other scientists within USFWS or beyond were given time to respond. I don’t recall a direct answer to this question, but the implied answer was no, and as the exchange continued, the judge said, “So the same people who were tasked with the listing rule were then tasked with coming up with the exact opposite decision? That must have been distressing, if not demoralizing.” Crable stated that it was not the “exact opposite view, just a different conclusion.”

At this point, Crable steered the discussion back to McKelvey, saying that although McKelvey represents sophisticated science, the question was whether that single paper was enough to list. The USFWS contended that it wasn’t because it doesn’t tell us what will happen to habitat in the future, which is the real issue. He then stated that the burden of proof is on the USFWS to show why a species should be listed, not why it shouldn’t be listed, and said, “This is the law for listing under section 4.”

Despite his contention that other arguments about secondary threats should not be at issue, population trend was a theme with both Crable and the other lawyers at his table. Most of their arguments relied on Aubry 2007, a paper about historic range; they were using this paper to build an argument that wolverines have recovered in the US Rockies following an early-20th-century extirpation. Crable did venture into discussing genetic diversity and the 50/500 rule, stating that this rule was difficult to demonstrate in reality and that “small population sizes don’t necessarily mean that there is a threat,” and – again, drawing presumably on Aubry – “Population size is probably not substantially lower than prior to European colonization.”

I found the breadth of assumption in this statement so astonishing that I was scribbling notes and missed the exact flow of the next few moments of argument, but soon thereafter, the issue of trapping was raised. Montana maintained a trapping season – at first unlimited and then, after 2008, much more carefully managed – until it was shut down by court order several years ago, pending the listing decision. Crable said that “no trapping of wolverines is allowed,” in response to a line of discussion about the potential effects of trapping on the population. The judge said that he understood that the closure was the result of a court order, and Crable confirmed this, but said that the court order was lifted and that trapping had not resumed.

This was the conclusion of Crable’s argument, and he took a seat, while the lawyer from Wyoming, whose name was Peterson, stood up to speak for the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. He talked about the environmentalists using whatever means necessary in “attempting to achieve their goal, which is listing the wolverine.” He argued an equivalence in uncertainty over population growth and the uncertainty in Copeland and McKelvey, saying that “environmentalists” were applying a double standard by invoking lack of evidence of population growth to justify listing, while ignoring uncertainty in Copeland and McKelvey that suggested that wolverines might not be threatened. He said that it was the responsibility of the USFWS to decide what represented an acceptable level of uncertainty for a particular decision. “At heart,” he said, “This is about a difference of opinion” – again, neatly implying a scientific equivalence between the two sides of the discussion.

Peterson brought up the fact that wolverines had been extirpated and then rebounded over the past century as evidence of population growth, in spite of a continuing trapping season, and then said that “there was no trapping when the decision was made,” reiterating Crable’s implication that trapping was not something to worry about. Here, Judge Christensen interjected, bringing up emails sent by the USFWS about potential reactions by various parties to the reversal of the decision to list. Among these, the section about the reaction of the states proclaimed that they were unlikely to object, since “many of the arguments for the withdrawal of the listing decision originated with the states.” The email also clearly said that Montana intended to reopen the trapping season. The judge questioned the intent of the states. Peterson quickly deferred to the lawyer for Montana, who stood up and stated that “We’d like to keep a limited and carefully controlled trapping season on the table.”

The states took a seat, and the lawyer for the “non-government defendant intervenors,” a coalition representing farm bureaus and snowmobile associations, took his turn at the podium. This was by far the wackiest segment of the hearing, because the lawyer, Blevins, argued that wolverines in the US Rockies should not be considered a listable entity since they are a subspecies with conspecifics in Eurasia, and in order to list them, we would need to do a review of the global population. I’m going to let my bias out to play here and get it over with so I can focus on more relevant discussions in subsequent posts – this argument was ridiculous, but in light of who the lawyer was representing, the absurdity may have an explanation. As I understand it, he was attempting to get into the record a nitpicking dispute over semantic ambiguity in the ESA, which is certainly an object of almost totemic hatred among farm bureaus in the western US. I’m pretty sure I saw people of significant stature rolling their eyes when he stood up. During the rebuttal, Crable disavowed association with Blevins’ line of argument. Enough said.

Next up were the “energy intervenors,” the American Petroleum Institute, and the Montana Petroleum Institute. The lawyer for the Montana Petroleum Institute, D’Angelo, stood up to present the energy industry’s arguments, but before he could begin, the judge interjected to ask, “Please tell me why the American Petroleum Institute and the Montana Petroleum Institute have a dog in this fight?”

D’Angelo responded by citing concerns about restrictions on operating in wolverine habitat if the species is listed, and then quickly went on to state that the USWFS started with a conclusion that wolverines should be listed, and then backfit evidence to that conclusion.

The judge here interjected again to ask, “Where’s the evidence in the record? That’s a serious contention.”

D’Angelo brought up emails from Shawn Sartorius, who wrote the listing decision. In the courtroom, Sartorius was quoted as writing that “wolverines will have a proposed rule,” and D’Angelo argued that this was evidence that the USFWS was biased. Again, I’m going to get this out of the way by contextualizing where the lawyer failed to do so. I don’t know what was going on in Sartorius’ mind when he wrote that, but these emails were sent at a specific moment in the listing debate. In 2010, wolverines were deemed warranted-but-precluded, which meant that a scientific analysis found that there was justified evidence of a threat, but that the USWFS did not currently have the resources to list the species, particularly in light of more immediate and habitat-based threats facing other species. In essence, and perhaps with some defensible logic, the decision said that the resources of the agency should be applied to species who are threatened by something that the ESA is capable of dealing with (in situ habitat-based threats) rather than something that the ESA is not authorized to regulate (carbon emissions). A warranted-but-precluded ruling places a species in limbo, which can last for many years. Shortly after the 2010 wolverine decision, environmental groups sued over undecided ESA cases, including warranted-but-precluded decisions, and won an order that all of these cases had to be decided within a limited time frame. The wolverine was one of the first to go up for consideration. The McKelvey et al 2011 paper that is the object of so much dispute had entered the literature in the interim, but beyond that there was no new peer-reviewed science to consider. Since wolverines had already been found warranted for listing, and McKelvey added substantiation to the idea of threat, Sartorius’ emails at this point are less evidence of a nefarious plot to rig scientific data to fit a pre-ordained, agenda-based conclusion, and more a logical outgrowth of the fact that a very recent review of the science had reached a particular scientific conclusion that suggested that a listing rule would follow.

The judge didn’t get into any of this, he let the matter sit, and D’Angelo went on to assert that, “It’s not reasonable to dispute that the population is increasing….and projected to increase.” He referenced an Inman paper from 2013 and Aubry 2007 to back his claim, but the judge again began to question him, saying that, “Within the [proposed listing] rule, scientists disagree [about population trajectory], I can’t see where everyone agrees that population will increase forever – maybe you weren’t saying that?”

D’Angelo replied, “I wasn’t. I apologize.”

The judge said, “It sounded like you were.”

D’Angelo managed to recontextualize his argument and put some time scale boundaries on his contentions about population growth. He then ventured into a criticism of Copeland and the snow modeling, stating, among other arguments, that the obligate relationship between wolverines and snowpack was “on a denning scale,” and that “Copeland describes where wolverines are, not what they need.” He said that the authors on Copeland et al “drew a line around the wolverine population” and then backfit the snow data. He concluded by saying that the paper was good for predicting where wolverines are found, but not as a premise for the McKelvey paper, which relied on Copeland to model habitat loss.

With this, the defendants concluded, and the rebuttals began.

During the rebuttal, Preso talked about modeling and uncertainty, saying that McKelvey was not a stand-alone, that the expert panel convened by the USFWS agreed with him, and then said that the USFWS had in the past relied on the same kind of modeling to conclude that pikas were not warranted for listing – that decision stands. Preso stated, regarding the contention that Copeland shows where wolverines live but not what they require, that it was unreasonable to assume that wolverines were living in places that didn’t provide what they needed. He again talked about uncertainty in population trend, citing a number of studies including Inman 2013 to highlight the lack of any kind of evidence about current demographics. He reiterated the lack of connectivity with Canada, and said that the 50/500 rule was “basic biology” and that it should apply to wolverines. The judge briefly questioned him about the uncertainty in modelling precipitation versus the relative ease of modeling temperature. Bishop then spoke again, briefly, about the fact that trapping was “still on the table” by the admission of the lawyer for Montana. The judge sought some clarification about the concerns over trapping, saying that he understood that incidental take was a possible source of mortality on top of the prospect of a managed season, and Bishop confirmed this.

Crable then gave his rebuttal, drawing again on Aubry to contend that the population is increasing and will continue to do so. He said that decline in snowpack doesn’t mean that wolverines are threatened, nor does inbreeding or genetic depression, and that there was not enough evidence of any of it to warrant listing, He again came back to population growth, saying that “estimates have gone up in published literature,” that there was no evidence that the population was declining, and that – again – there were no grounds to list.

He then ventured into the trapping discussion, saying that Inman had argued at some point – I missed the paper reference – that trapping was not a problem and might even be good for the effective (breeding) population, “because if you take out a male and he’s replaced by multiple other males, it will increase the effective population.”

The judge intervened here and said, “I don’t suppose that you’re suggesting that we resume trapping in wolverine habitat to increase the population?”

Crable looked somewhat sheepish and said no, that wasn’t what he was suggesting.

He concluded by saying that this was not “a coin flip” between equally robust sets of evidence. He emphasized again that a single study (McKelvey) was not enough to justify the listing, and said, “just because they [the USFWS] said that there was another way to do this doesn’t mean it was a coin flip.”

With that, the hearing concluded. The judge stated that he had “a lot of work to do” on this decision. We will probably have to wait at least six months for a ruling.

Thoughts and comments welcome. Stay tuned for some analysis over the next week or so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wolverine News From All Over

Wolverines have made the news fairly frequently over the past few weeks. Here are a few articles that just came out, and a few that I missed posting earlier.

First, another update on the Alberta wolverine research, which I discussed briefly last week, can be found here. This article is longer and does a much better job of discussing the varied factors that influence where wolverines appear on the landscape.

Second, DNA tests confirm that the wolverine recently spotted in California is the same wolverine first detected in 2008. An article in the LA Times contends that this means that the animal is nearing the end of its life, since wolverines are generally thought to average about a ten year lifespan, and this animal is at least seven. I’ve heard rumors that a wolverine known to be much older was recently recaptured on a project, however, so let’s hope that the Sierra wolverine proves to be equally long-lived – maybe by then a female will find her way to California as well.

In the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, forest biologists are continuing a project to assess the wolverine population, using DNA and Audrey Magoun’s camera techniques. This is one of the many wolverine projects that have sprung up over the past few years, indication of a heightened interest in a species that was once overlooked. Another ongoing project continues the work begun in Idaho to assess the influence of motorized and non-motorized backcountry recreation on wolverines. Operating for a second year in the Tetons, this study was featured in a June 2014 article that I missed posting because I was in Mongolia. It’s worth the read, and it’s great to think how much this project has accomplished since it started in 2009. Although this article has a typically controversy-generating headline (“Can wolverines and backcountry skiers coexist?”), the alarm is misplaced. The answer to the question is “yes,” so let’s dispense with the need to get people worked up. The real question revolves around whether either of these snow-obligate species will continue to prosper in the era of diminishing snowpack.

In Washington, researchers recently captured a 30 pound (!) male wolverine, as part of the final season of the decade-long North Cascades wolverine project. The article is fairly detailed and I’d like to focus a little more on this project in a separate post, but in the meantime, four observations. One – that’s an impressively large wolverine! Two, I’m so glad to hear that at least a few people did something interesting on Super Bowl Sunday – not just this year, but last year as well. Three, I’m assuming they named this wolverine “Special K” after the ketamine used in the capture, which betrays a somewhat dark aesthetic on the part of the researchers. Four, and most interesting, it appears that this wolverine is the son of Rocky, the original male occupying the area. Rocky vanished and was replaced by his son, Logan, who has now moved to a different location, apparently displaced by his half-brother Special K – the one named after the drug. Definitely some interesting social interaction data, but it also really piques my interest in how wolverines maintain enough genetic diversity to avoid fatal bottle-necks, since these males are taking over territories that most likely overlap with those of their mothers and/or their sisters.

Also in Washington, a news video and an article with a second video feature work on wolverines near Snoqualmie Pass. This is interesting, but the reporter does the same thing that generally drives me crazy when people talk about wolverines: he equates presence with a reproductive population, stating that wolverines are “moving south in spite of climate change,” which implies that there’s a resident population. I’m excited to see wolverine detections in new locations, but there are two things to keep in mind: first, as I mentioned, a wolverine or two is not necessarily a breeding population, and second, are these detections the result of wolverines moving in to new locations and expanding south, or are we finding them because we now have the motivation and the technology to look in places where we weren’t looking before? (I incline towards the former because I’m invested in the idea that wolverines are recolonizing, but that may just be my bias. It’s a question worth asking. Cameras and DNA make it easier to ‘observe’ the landscape in a sustained way that was unavailable to us until recently.) In any case, it’s nice to see yet another study utilizing Audrey Magoun’s camera technique.

Finally, for Montana residents, if you have ever felt the need to declare your allegiance to the conservation of climate-sensitive wildlife with a license plate for your (hopefully hybrid) car, you can now buy a specialty plate featuring a wolverine. The proceeds benefit the Swan Ecosystem Center and Northwest Connections, environmental groups that help monitor wildlife and work towards ecosystem conservation.

Wolverines may or may not be expanding their range, but interest in wolverines definitely is. It’s exciting to see.

 

 

 

 

 

Wolverine New Year 2015

2015 got off to an excellent start, with wolverine news from both California and Montana.

In the Sierra Nevada, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife caught a wolverine on camera. Most likely, this is the same male wolverine first detected during a marten study in 2008, although the Rocky Mountain Research Station is currently testing DNA to make sure. The Sierra wolverine has genetic ties to the population in the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, but may have been a released captive. He has been sighted and caught on camera multiple times since the initial photo capture. The native Sierra wolverines, which had a unique genetic profile, were extirpated from California in the early 20th century, but California wildlife managers seem excited to have the species back in the mountains, to the extent that they are hoping  – as quoted here – that this is a new, female wolverine, so that they will eventually have a population.

Aside from the sheer thrill of seeing a native carnivore returning to historic range, I’m especially interested in the fact that this animal has been so visible. The article above cites “more than two dozen documented sightings,” and I’ve had reliable reports about this wolverine here on the blog. It would be interesting to know how many people are accessing the wolverine’s territory and hiking through, and whether there’s some sort of critical level of human use at which a wolverine will definitely be detected. I bring this up because my Mongolian colleagues and herders in the communities where I work report seeing wolverines at rates that seem ridiculously high, and yet these reports too seem mostly reliable. Are wolverines really as elusive as we think they are, or will people definitely see it, if it’s around and if people are in the habitat enough?

Regardless, as California Fish and Game biologist Chris Stermer puts it, “…It would be exciting to have wolverines back in the Sierra.”

In Montana, a citizen science study on the Helena National Forest detected three wolverine track sets during a snow survey last week. Wild Things Unlimited, a Bozeman-based non-profit, is coordinating the effort to document wolverines in this region, along with other partners includes Winter Wildlands Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, the Montana Wilderness Association, and the Helena National Forest. These organizations trained about 30 volunteers on how to identify wolverine tracks and sites. The first teams out identified three set of tracks, a snowshoe hare kill site, and a scavenged elk carcass, and were able to collect DNA samples. The project is ongoing, with another training session and expedition planned in February. More information about the recent excursion and its discoveries is here, and you can find out more about volunteering for the February trip here. This is a great opportunity to get involved with wolverine monitoring, and to improve your skills, so check it out.

In somewhat more ambiguous wolverine news, a snowmobiler in Alaska fell through sea ice and managed to crawl out while his snowmobile, communications, and supplies sank. He survived three days of exposure, with internal injuries, during which he was pursued by a wolverine, which he fended off first with a gun and then with a stick. The wolverine retreated, and the snowmobiler was eventually rescued.

I get questions about whether wolverines are a threat to humans all the time, and the general answer is “no.” Wolverines are curious, and they frequently move toward things that they are curious about, which can be startling for those of us who think that size should dictate that a smaller animal depart the scene as quickly as possible when a larger one shows up. Weasels seem to employ a different strategy sometimes (I’ve had a wolverine investigate my camp while two humans and a dog were present, I’ve seen martens fearlessly approach and circle people, and I’ve also been charged by several ermine, so courage out of all proportion to size seems to be a mustelid thing.) For all we know, the wolverine in this situation may have just been trying to figure out what the human was doing out there. In a case where a human is clearly injured, and especially if there’s blood, however, I wouldn’t put it past a wolverine to try to take one of us down – they do the same with injured, distressed, or stranded large ungulates, so why not an injured and distressed hominid? In any case, much of the press coverage featured headlines emphasizing that this man was “stalked by a wolverine,” as if this were the major point. Not to undermine the amazing story of survival here, and I’m glad this man made it back to his family, but to me, if we’re dealing with issues of risk, the larger and more important point is being safe when you go out on a snowmobile. Sensationalist headlines that increase fear of wild carnivores are not helpful.

To top off the first two weeks of 2015, I was invited yet again to present about wolverine research and conservation with filmmaker Gianna Savoie, this time at the Sacajawea Audubon chapter in Bozeman. As always, it was a great experience to share the stage with a fellow biologist and artist who has such enthusiasm for the species, and to talk to an audience with such good questions.

That’s 2015 off to a good Gulo start. Stay tuned for more news – it’s shaping up to be a good year for the Mongolia project, with plenty of exciting activities in the works, and projects throughout the Rocky Mountain West promise to provide interesting stories as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.