Wolverine Talk in New Hampshire

My mother tells me that she was recently at a talk on mountain lions in New Hampshire, where my family has had a summer house since 1922 (lest anyone think this marks me a rich snob, let me hasten to add that the summer house in question still had an outhouse until two years ago – now upgraded to a composting toilet – and remains essentially primitive. Which is why we love it.) During this talk, the presenter apparently talked about wolverines as a ‘rare mammal of New Hampshire;’ my mother, who, like my entire family, has been inundated over the past few years with minutiae about wolverine ecology, brought up the lack of adequate denning habitat in the region, and was laughed at by the audience for not realizing that snow on Mount Washington until June should count (the presenter, in fact, evidently asserted that there was a glacier on the mountain, which is entirely inaccurate.) I love New Hampshire and I wish that there were wolverines running around the entire state, but a breeding population would require hundreds of square miles of deep spring snowpack to persist, and remnant snowpack in Tuckerman’s Ravine isn’t enough to support such a population. Bottom line: unless there’s an extremely elusive population of wolverines behaving in a completely un-wolverine-like manner  – denning in trees, for example – somewhere in the White Mountains, the only gulos in the state are probably released captives.

New Hampshire does, however, support a population of the wolverine’s cousin, the marten, and the Tin Mountain Center for Conservation will be hosting a talk about them this Thursday, the 20th, at 7 pm in the Tin Mountain Nature Learning Center in Albany, New Hampshire. Michael Jones, the researcher conducting the work via his organization, Beyond Ktaadn, will also talk about looking for wolverines in Quebec, where most wolverine biologists believe the species was extirpated by the 1980’s. A brief excerpt about Jones’ interest in wolverines was published last year in Appalachia, the journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club; the whole article is available as a .pdf (seems like yet another account of wolverine obsession driving researchers past the limits of normal human endeavor….even if he doesn’t find wolverines, the focus on eastern alpine tundra is a great counterpoint for those of us who are seeking to understand alpine tundra ecosystems out West and as far afield as Mongolia.) Details about the talk can be found here and here.


Where Wolverines Are Born

When I set out last week with the coordinates for F3’s den programmed into my GPS and the site marked on a series of paper maps, I couldn’t shake a feeling that approached sheer giddiness. The opportunity to examine a wolverine den site is akin to winning some kind of wildlife biology lottery; the dens are as inherently rare as the species, and the dens that are known to science are even fewer. Only around 15 have been documented in the Lower 48, leaving a huge gap in our knowledge of reproductive dynamics. For years, F3 had failed to den, and the instruments on our other female, F133, had died, so we had no way of knowing whether she had had kits. When F3 evidently did den this year, I was ecstatic, but I was also in Cambodia. I was starting to think that I would never have a chance to investigate a den site. When I made it back to the Rockies earlier than expected, in August, getting to F3’s den site was one of my priorities.

A crew visited the den in May, when the snow was still on the ground, and some of the same crew members had gone back once the snow melted, in July, to investigate the site and to see if they could find scat samples. The spring crew hadn’t seen the kits or verified their existence, so however strong the circumstantial evidence, we couldn’t be certain that the site was a den instead of a food cache, and we couldn’t say with confidence that F3 and M57 had reproduced. The July crew had looked for latrine sites, which are proof that a site was used as a den. And the crew found them in abundance, pulling out a number of scat samples for analysis. They hadn’t gone digging for the kits or attempted to instrument the babies in May because of funding constraints, so the scat samples, in addition to confirming that this was a den site, also offered a chance to identify new individuals and perhaps determine their sex.

The important work had already been done, and my own trip was half fun and half pilgrimage. I wanted to visit the place where F3 had – presumably – brought her first kits into the world, and I wanted, after nearly a year away, to be back in mountains that form some part of the mental and emotional landscape of home.

The route into that landscape followed a trail for a while, and then cut away from the trail and up gentle south facing slopes, warm with late summer sun and the scent of dust and pine. At the crest of a pass, the world dropped away, the slope plunging steep and precarious into a narrow pine-cloaked valley that swept back to intersect with the endless marching peaks of the high Absarokas. These north-facing slopes were utterly different from the warm hills I’d just left; I had to edge my way down, dancing between tree trunks for support, the force of gravity and the angle of the pitch propelling me towards freefall. The trees were thick, the shade dense, the temperature so much cooler that I paused to put on my jacket and hat.

Possible wolverine scat under a log, about 0.4 miles from the den site.

As I crouched to pull out my hat, I noticed a huge pile of scat under a log near my feet. I was still a half mile from the den site, but the scat was definitely carnivore and seemed mustelid. It was a bit small, but they were kits, after all. I hadn’t been expecting to collect samples but I did have two ziploc bags on hand, so I shoveled the scat and a large chunk of fur into the bags, GPSed the location, and continued to slide downhill through the dense, cold forest and small open meadows. These meadows were saturated – with streams, with flowers, with warmer patches of sunlight, and with the same breathless silence that hung over the trees. The quiet was ancient and deep and almost tangible, so that I felt like I was diving down and further down through a substance like water, into some other world.

Among all the trees, I wasn’t sure how I would ever find the actual den site, but as I crossed another meadow and stopped to look across the stream that drained it, a patch of pink fluttered from over the water. In May, the crew had tied flagging tape to the tree branches directly above the six entrances to the den. Now, in August, with the snow melted, the tape hung fifteen feet overhead. Beneath the tape, F3’s excavated snow tunnels had led down to cavities sheltered by fallen trees. I’d found the tape, and I’d found the den.

A wolverine's-eye view of part of the den site. The chambers were beneath the downed trees. Note human for scale, and pink tape in tree overhead. This marks the approximate depth of the snow in May.

The crew had already collected all the samples, and I spent a long time simply exploring the area and then sitting and basking in the vast silence. The multiple den entrances had sprawled across an area of approximately 120 m²; the tunnels were probably connected beneath the surface. Beneath the largest of the downed trees on the ground, a hollow against the root ball seemed to have served as one chamber, with two others located among the branches further up the trunk. Against another downed tree, another flattened area between branches suggested a chamber as well.

One of the hollows that was part of F3's den site.

I tried to imagine the family down under the snow in a world of compressed ice, first as newborns and later as more active babies. Did F3 dig new tunnels as the kits grew, or had she constructed the whole network at once? Did she move them from place to place as waste accumulated? At what point did the babies begin to move around through the tunnels on their own? Or did they simply wait, curled up around each other for warmth, where F3 left them when she went out to forage? Had M57 come down here as well? The crew in May had heard his signal and found his tracks crossing their own ski trail; he had traveled directly to the den from the distant location where the crew had heard his signal earlier in the day. If he had gone into the den, what did he do while he was down there? Did he bring them food? Keep an eye on things while F3 was out? (She hadn’t been in the den the day the crew visited.) Play with the kits, add his warmth to theirs, wrestle with them to toughen them up for the outside world? When had they left this place, and did they ever return?

I looked up from the logs, scanned the trees, but everything remained still – no sign of wolverines, or of anything else. The most important ecological question – why here? – remained unanswered, but my personal reasons for being there had been more than fulfilled. I was overwhelmed again by the extraordinary stillness of the place. Later, it came to me that the meadow was suffused with a sense of peace that goes far beyond our normal conceptions of that word – the peace of the Wild, a peace that is so powerful because of its utter indifference to human concerns or moral order, a peace that is edged with on-going loss and ferocity and struggle that are, nevertheless, somehow more acceptable and less alien in places like this. It was, I hoped, a good place to be born a wolverine, and I was profoundly grateful to have seen it.

Wolverine Documentary Nominated for Emmy

I first met filmmaker Gianna Savoie nearly two years ago. Over beer at Jackson’s brewpub, she explained her history in wildlife biology and nature storytelling, two trajectories that were, at that point, converging in the form of a wolverine documentary that she was making for PBS Nature. I’d already gone on one wolverine research trip with a cameraman for the documentary in tow, but at that point the idea was, to me, still abstract, and I was still a skeptic. I knew from experience that it was hard enough to do wolverine science; I couldn’t imagine how anyone – no matter how smart, talented, and energetic – could possibly create a viable film about such an elusive animal.

Seeing Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, which first aired on PBS on November 14th, 2010, was enough to make me realize that my skepticism had been misplaced. If I needed any further confirmation that the documentary was fantastic (I didn’t, but still…..), that confirmation recently arrived in the form of an Emmy nomination for outstanding nature programming. The nominations were announced back in July (I was on a horse in wolverine habitat in the middle of the Altai in Mongolia, and still haven’t caught up on all the back news), but Montana State University, where Gianna is currently teaching wildlife filmmaking, published an article about the nomination today. Wolverine’s fellow nominees for the honor include David Attenborough’s First Life, Animal Planet’s The Secret Life of Elephants, and another PBS Nature film, Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air.

I had dinner this evening with Gianna and her husband Kip, who also worked on Wolverine. We wondered what might be the best comment on the Emmy prospects for the film, and (jokingly) concluded that neither hummingbirds, elephants, nor David Attenborough would stand much of a chance against wolverines in a face-to-face encounter; if art remains true to nature, the award should go to the gulos.

Joking aside, Gianna is, as ever, humble about her work, and emphasized that her biggest interest is in drawing attention to the wolverine’s conservation needs. As she stated in the interview for the MSU article:

“I didn’t merely want to put the species on the radar, I want to create a place for them in the hearts of the public,” Savoie said. “I want people to fall in love with them as characters, as individuals.”

In fact, Savoie said that her first thought when she learned of her nomination for the prestigious award was not about what dress she would wear, rather it was the attention it might bring to the wolverine, one of the world’s toughest, yet least understood mammals.

“Anything that helps put the wolverine on the radar so that people will want to learn more about them is fantastic,” she said.

This documentary has already created momentum for wolverines and wolverine conservation, and in that sense, it has already started to do what Gianna hoped it would. An Emmy would further that goal and would also recognize the work and the artistry that Gianna, Kip, and the entire crew put into making the film. The awards ceremony for News and Documentary Emmys will be held on September 26th. Congratulations to Gianna on the nomination, and let’s hope that it is the prelude to more good news for wolverines.

True Tales of Росомаха, the Russian Wolverine

If there is one country that could, in terms of numbers alone, single-handedly insure the perpetuation of the wolverine as a species, it’s Russia. With nearly one eighth of the world’s landmass enclosed within its borders – a huge percentage of it boreal forest and taiga – Russia probably has the world’s largest wolverine population. Unfortunately, accessible information on this population is scant, and in making some initial inquiries, I’ve heard all kinds of rumors: that no one in Russia has ever studied wolverines; that people have studied Russian wolverines but that the methods were faulty and the data unreliable; that wolverines in Russia run in packs and bring down full-grown, healthy moose. Wolverines in Russia appear to be distributed throughout Siberia, from the Urals eastwards to Kamchatka, and in some areas, at least, from the Mongolian border north to the Arctic Ocean. Beyond basic distribution, however, all other information has been anecdotal.

In Russian, wolverines are “Росомаха” (pronounced “rosomakha”), a word I learned in Mongolia in 2009 when I stumbled across a Russian-dubbed bootleg copy of the most recent X-Men film. Some months before, I’d received an email from a fellow graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Laura Williams, who had worked for WWF’s Russia program, and married a Russian conservationist, Igor Shpilenok. Shpilenok, in addition to being a hero of the Russian conservation world, is an incredible photographer, and when I mentioned to Williams that I was interested in wolverines, she forwarded a photo that he had taken of a wolverine in Kamchatka. The photo is extraordinary, the wolverine gorgeous in winter pelage tinged by the first light of dawn, the massiveness of its feet emphasized as it walks across the snow.

Subsequently, as I traveled through Mongolia searching for wolverines in the Altai and the Altai Sayan, it became clear that any effort to research wolverines in either range was going to run up against the reality of the Russian border; the fresh tracks that I discovered in 2010 were an easy wolverine jaunt from the Altai Republic, and I nearly created an international incident two days later when I hiked up a valley to investigate a snowfield, only to discover at the last second that the snowfield wasn’t actually in Mongolia. Any work on wolverines in these regions is probably going to require transboundary cooperation, because what do we do if, when we get a collar operation going, a wolverine decamps and drops its hugely expensive GPS collar, containing essential data, somewhere in Siberia? It’s also more than likely that wolverines in Mongolia are genetically closely connected to and dependent upon Siberian gulos. So Russia’s wolverines are a matter of some personal interest.

With all this in mind, I’ve been easing myself into some background reading on Russian conservation and Siberia. Laura Williams has written a book, The Storks’ Nest, on her relationship with Russian conservation work (and, incidentally, with Igor Shpilenok), and although wolverines are not mentioned, the book gives a great overview of the struggles of Russian environmentalists since the collapse of Communism. Williams’ detailed writing about the wildlife in the Bryansk Reserve and the characters in her tiny Russian village makes the book a pleasure to read.  Another great resource on Russia and its system of zapovedniki – strictly protected areas that are reserved for research purposes only – are the writings of Fred Strebeigh; a piece from 2002 gives an overview of the zapovednik system and its history, and a more recent piece from 2010 documents some potentially hopeful developments in Russian conservation, including increasing engagement from Vladimir Putin, whose recent cuddling with tigers and polar bears may – hopefully – reflect an actual commitment to conservation as well as machismo.

In all this research, I stumbled across the photo site and blog of Igor Shpilenok, and thereby discovered that the photo that Williams sent me was one of several amazing wolverine photos. Unfortunately for gulo-loving Americans, the blog is in Russian, but luckily my friend Marissa Smith – veteran of the 2010 Altai Wolverine Quest  – is fluent in Russian and very kindly translated the wolverine-related blog posts.

Here, Shpilenok explains that he was awake one night, in a cabin in the Kronotski Zapovednik on the coast of Kamchatka, trying to find the source of some vermicelli that a rodent had left in his sleeping bag, when he heard a noise in the rain outside. Looking out onto the porch, he found himself face-to-face with a wolverine. Although he stepped outside and took photos with a flash, the wolverine remained on the porch, snorting at him, evidently more frightened of something out on the tundra than of him. Shpilenok speculates that the wolverine was feeling threatened, either by another wolverine or perhaps by a wolf, and that the company of humans was less alarming than the company of whatever was out there in the dark. The wolverine remained on the porch all night, disappearing at dawn. (Shpilenok never found the vermicelli, but he did discover a bottle of vodka under the stove.)

Here, about a month later, Shpilenok talks about discovering that a wolverine is living in a hole in the snow near the cabin. He speculates that this is the same wolverine that came onto the porch in December, and says that she shows signs of having been in a fight (clearly visible in the photo), probably with another wolverine, he says. Aside from the scratches, she appeared to be healthy and fat, and Shpilenok says that she will probably easily recover from her injuries. He watches her at the riverbank as she digs something out of the snow (kizhucha?), saying that she appears to be using her teeth more than her claws. (The idea of a wolverine “living” in a hole is contrary to what we find in North American wolverines, and it seems about two weeks too early for a female to be denning, so maybe the wolverine was simply hanging out near a food cache. Or maybe Siberian wolverines are doing things differently?)

Here, featuring the photo with which Williams originally intrigued me, Shpilenok discusses the habits and reputation of the wolverine, referring to it as “the demon of the taiga,” highlighting the boreal distribution of the creature, and mentioning its sparsity and massive home ranges. Trappers, he explains, dislike wolverines because of their tendency to raid traplines and spoil what they find. Despite the bad rap, however, wolverines should be seen as nature’s cleanup crew: “Its purpose – to clear nature of dead and debilitated residents ranging in size from mice to moose.” Despite common perception, he says, the wolverine should not be seen as a pest, and, like all other residents of the zapovednik, should be protected.

Shpilenok says that he had always hoped to photograph a wolverine, but given their distribution, the chances were low. He had staked out tracks before, but had always been spotted when the wolverine was still at a distance, and the wolverine had always run away. To get a good shot of a wolverine would take the utmost luck. Even luck, though, wasn’t enough to explain these amazing shots.

Some time before these photos were taken in March 2008,  a bear had died in Kronotskii Zapovednik, not far from Shpilenok’s cabin. He had been watching the carcass, which was drawing scavengers from near and far. After a few days, he began to notice wolverine sign as well, first of one animal, then of two. He dug himself a blind in the snow and stacked up some snow bricks, iglu style, and hid there hoping to photograph the animals. For four full days he sat in this blind, but the wolverines came only after dark. By the third day, four wolverines were showing up to eat off the carcass; occasionally they fought with each other. The nocturnal habits of the wolverines made them impossible to photograph, and by now the bear was nothing but a head, a spine, and some skin. On the fourth day, six (!) wolverines showed up at the carcass, and competition between them was so fierce, he explained, that the “weakest could come feed only just before dawn. It was possible to take photos at this time.”

By now, the cold, damp, cramped conditions of the blind had started to get to Shpilenok, so he moved the carcass, by snowmobile, to the yard of the cabin. Then he locked down the place, drew the blinds, and stuck his lens through a small gap in the curtains – a much more comfortable alternative to the makeshift iglu. All six wolverines showed up that night to feed on the last remains of the bear. Shpilenok says that the two foxes that lived nearby were “more afraid of wolverines than of fire,” and were “horrified” by this luring-of-wolverines-into-the-yard. But Shpilenok got his shots; at dawn, five of the wolverines disappeared, while one took a tour around the yard as the sun came up. He says that this photo illustrates the ability of wolverines to “paw ski,” which leaves them unafraid of the vast northern country. He concludes by saying that he is looking forward to further meetings with wolverines.

Throughout these entries, Shpilenok refers to the wolverines as “she,” but Marissa says this is probably an artifact of “rosomakha” being a feminine noun.

The 600+ comments that follow these posts provide an additional wealth of information on Russian views towards wolverines, from stories about old men who walk home from the forest backwards to make sure that wolverines don’t attack them from behind, to the usual “a friend of a friend of mine was chased and attacked by a wolverine,” (Shpilenok responds to all such stories with one word: “legendi.”) to the testimony of hunters and children of hunters about the wolverine’s ability to raid traps and chew off its own paws if caught in a trap, to the story of a Sami village where “rosomakha” is an insult for a sloppy and disorganized woman. The comments also address the question of whether Shpilenok should have moved the bear, or whether that constituted interference in the natural functioning the protected area. But the great majority of the comments express admiration for the photos, the animal, and Shpilenok’s conservation work. I only found one hostile comment, and that was from a guy who had been caught out reposting the photos, without permission, on his website about hunting wolverines.

Special thanks to Marissa Smith for her translations.

M56 Needs Some Friends

Imagine the plight of M56, the intrepid wolverine who made it to Colorado from northern Wyoming in 2009: alone, ranging through some of the most rugged territory in the Lower 48, wandering vast country in search of another of his kind, who most likely isn’t there. Wolverines were apparently wiped out of the Rockies, with the exception of isolated pockets of Montana and Idaho, by predator poisoning programs in the early 20th century, and when M56 dove off the edge of known wolverine habitat and struck out for the southern Rockies, he was recolonizing uncharted territory. Anecdotal reports of other Colorado wolverines exist, but as far as we know – scientifically speaking – M56 is the only gulo in the state. The nearest known breeding population is in the Tetons, which means M56 is adrift in an empty land. As Jason Wilmot said in a wolverine presentation in November, “If there’s a female wolverine in Colorado, he’s the one who’s going to find her.” The fact that M56 has not stuck in one territory, instead ranging throughout the Colorado Rockies, suggests he’s still looking. Poor guy.

But perhaps his quest will have a happier ending, thanks to a Colorado Division of Wildlife proposal to consider reintroduction of wolverines to the state. The proposal is still just that: an option to be considered, and not a definite plan. Some articles are quoting the proposed number of wolverines at 30 to 40, which would probably give M56 more companions than he could deal with. The earliest that the reintroduction would occur is 2012, and funding, among other details, has yet to be dealt with.

The inclusion of Colorado as wolverine range in the listing decision probably wasn’t coincidence; even without talk of a reintroduction, M56’s jaunt was attention-grabbing. Some people have suggested that female wolverines are incapable of making similar forays, but I asked Jeff Copeland about this back in November, and he said that it’s not necessarily true that female wolverines can’t make those epic excursions – it’s just that so far, they haven’t been documented doing so. Why? Female wolverines occupy the nearest vacant territory to their birthplace. They’re motivated to go only so far as they need to, until they find a territory that can support them and hopefully offer enough nutrition for reproduction. A male, on the other hand, will keep going until he finds a territory that encompasses a female’s, because life is going to be kind of pointless for him, in an evolutionary sense, if he doesn’t. The ratio of males to females is about 1:2; that is, a male tends to overlap with two females, so there’s a lot less room on the landscape for males. Hence, males have to go further.

Annie, a Teton wolverine who died in an accident. Another Teton female settled in the Wind River Range, a significant journey; her twin sister went back and forth between the Tetons and the Wyoming Range several times before a territory in the Tetons opened and she settled there. It's possible - though not certain - that a female wolverine could make it to Colorado even without a reintroduction.

But females do make impressive movements, which dim only in comparison to M56’s tremendous trek. To recolonize all of the US Northern Rockies, female wolverines have made some major journeys already, some of which we know about, some of which we can infer based on distance between occupied ranges. Females seem just as capable of continuing until they get to a good spot, and if the nearest good, vacant spot happens to be in Colorado, I wouldn’t be surprised if a female wolverine could make it. So put the talk of reintroduction aside, and you still have a distinct possibility of wolverines establishing a breeding population in Colorado on their own.

Still, that would leave a lot to chance, and the science, as summarized in the listing decision, highlights the risk of increasing temperatures and diminishing snowpack as a barrier to connectivity for wolverines in the Rockies. Year by year, wolverines of either sex will be required to disperse over greater distances in search of smaller patches of suitable habitat. Unfortunately, we still don’t have an assessment of the wolverine population in Wyoming – only the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park have been studied so far; the Tetons have a breeding population, Yellowstone has very few animals and no reproduction has been documented – so we don’t even know how many juveniles are potentially available to serve as a source population for a natural recolonization of Colorado. Coming to any conclusions about how and when a natural recovery might happen is difficult, and even if one or two females did make it, there would still be issues of genetic bottlenecks.

Reintroduction, proponents might argue, will give a boost to a natural process, and might stave off some of the effects of climate change by preemptively establishing a population node in a large chunk of suitable habitat. Significantly, according to local-scale climate models, the Colorado Rockies will retain spring snowpack in a hundred years, so the region could be critical to wolverine survival. Colorado hasn’t indicated a definite source population for the proposed reintroduction, but hypothetically, if they came from Canada or Alaska, which have the most robust wolverine populations in North America, the infusion of genetic diversity would be good for the overall Rockies population. (On the other hand, scientists estimate that a population node, in isolation and without connectivity to other nodes, would need 400 breeding pairs to maintain enough genetic diversity to survive. Colorado is not going to support 800 reproductive wolverines, so over the long term, unless there really is connectivity with Wyoming populations, we still have a problem.)

Scientifically, the reintroduction proposal is compelling. Endangered species, however, are among the most socially contentious topics in the Western US, and carnivores tend to raise the most heated passions on both sides of the debate. The on-going, wearying arguments about wolf and bear management are all the illustration one needs; no one wants to see wolverines disappear into the black hole of symbolic politics. M56 needs friends, but he needs human friends – or at least, people friendly to the reintroduction proposal – as much as he needs gulo friends. The ski industry and other individuals are already raising concerns about the impacts of a reintroduction.

Luckily for M56, we are dealing with an animal that is significantly different from wolves or bears, and the concerns that people might have can be addressed. But before we proceed with putting wolverines on the ground, or even advocating for the reintroduction, we owe it to M56 and wolverines throughout the Rockies to make sure that the social process is adequately carried out. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has been meeting with stakeholders to discuss concerns, as reported in the press, and so far, environmental advocates don’t seem inclined to make this into a rectitude-based battle of values. These are promising signs. If the reintroduction does go forward, I hope that it not only reestablishes wolverines in a crucial part of their historical range, but that it’s done in a way that can serve as a positive model of endangered species conservation in the West – something that’s as badly needed as  another thriving population node of wolverines.

How to Help

Last night my sister and I watched the PBS premiere of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom with a handful of friends who were involved with starting the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project. Seeing wolverines on national television was fantastic, especially with a crowd of people who recognized every mountain and were full of jokes, stories, and the deeper history behind every incident.

The show was the highest-rated of the PBS season, and in the 15 minutes following the end of the show, visits to this blog increased 300% over the previous all-time high. Many were searching for pictures of Jasper and Banff, the captive Alaskan wolverines featured in the documentary. Others expressed interest in learning more about wolverine ecology and biology, and some wanted to volunteer with wolverine research projects. Still others were looking for information on threats, and, alarmingly, a few had googled things like “how to adopt a baby wolverine.” (If it seems slightly Orwellian that I know all of this, all I can say is, writers are all gluttons – pun intended – for knowing who’s interested in our work, and WordPress stats are addictive.) After initial delight over the sudden surge of interest in wolverines, I returned to a much-discussed question among wolverine researchers: how do you channel the enthusiasm generated by a wonderful film into conservation benefits for the species you research, care about, and – yes, I admit it – identify with?

This seems like an opportune moment to address the big question of newly-minted wolverine enthusiasts: what can you do to help?

First of all, keep learning about the species. The more you know, the better for wolverines. The best source of wolverine information remains The Wolverine Foundation, which is run by a coalition of wolverine researchers, including Jeff Copeland and Audrey Magoun, whose projects were featured in the documentary.

Second, do not try to raise a wolverine as a pet. Jasper and Banff are extremely engaging, but they are still, as Steve Kroschel points out in the movie, wild animals.  Wildlife rehabilitation and ambassador animals play an important role in conservation, but wolverines are not pets and most people don’t have what it takes to give one the kind of life it deserves and needs. If you want to adopt a wolverine, consider doing it by making a donation to a research project that monitors wolverines in the wild. Wolverine research projects are able to keep close track of each instrumented animal, and even via GPS collar, the unique personality of individual wolverines shines through. We also do a great job of keeping our donors informed about what “their” wolverines are up to, so it’s a nice way to have all the fun and adventure of having a wolverine in your life, without chewed-up furniture and potential puncture wounds.

Third, the biggest long-term need for wolverine conservation is better data. The wolverine has been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act three times since 1994; the first time, it was denied protection due to lack of data. The second time, in 2008, it was denied protection – arguably – because the evidence of threat was not convincing enough. The third decision is due out in December of 2010; Jeff Copeland’s snow model paper, published earlier this year, may provide compelling enough evidence of threat due to climate change that wolverines will be listed. Or it may not. In any case, if the wolverine is listed, it’s only the first step in figuring out how to protect it, and as the documentary illustrated, finding out anything about these animals is time consuming, expensive, and not for the faint of heart.

After the showing last night, my friends lamented the end of funding for the wolverine project in Glacier National Park. The five year study revolutionized our understanding of wolverine ecology and demographics. There’s a long way left to go, however, and understanding the meta-population dynamics of wolverines at the southern edge of their range could provide important information about how wolverines can survive in a warmer world. Wolverine research is critical to wolverine conservation. I don’t usually do this directly, but I’m going to do it now: if you are inspired by the film, by wolverines, by the researchers who push forward through every hardship to learn about these animals, then give directly to a research project. A quick breakdown of costs: $25 buys supplies for non-invasive DNA sampling. $60 analyzes a DNA sample. $150 buys immobilization drugs. $250 covers a flight to determine whether a female is denning. $3000 buys a GPS collar. Any amount – whether it’s $5 or $5000 – shows an interest in and commitment to the species, and we appreciate it.

I work for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, which maintains the Absaroka-Beartooth study, and if you donate to us, I’ll be thrilled (and if you want, I will personally send you updates about what the project wolverines are up to.) But there are several fantastic projects out there; you can find summaries of global research projects on the Wolverine Foundation site, to learn more about which one you want to contribute to. The Wolverine Foundation, as the organizing research body, is also in need of support.

Fourth, help out by becoming a citizen scientist if you live in wolverine territory. If you’re a backcountry skier, a snowmobiler, a hunter, a backpacker, a climber, or anyone else who spends time in the high country, let us know if you see a wolverine or tracks. You can find a pocket-sized card to download and take on your next trip here.

Finally, don’t panic. So many of our narratives about species conservation have been built around a sense of urgent threat that we default to that story whenever we are trying to figure out how to do something good for a newly-fascinating species.  I’ll write more about this over the next couple of weeks,  but the short story is this: there’s no single activity that’s directly threatening the survival of wolverines as a species, and there’s no single action – aside from reversing global warming – that will help them. Instead, it’s going to take innovation and creativity to create a new conservation model that will work for wolverines and for montane ecosystems as a whole.

Thanks to everyone who watched last night, and for those who missed it, you can see the entire documentary online at the PBS website. To writer/producer Gianna Savoie and her crew, many congratulations on a great film, and to Nature, thanks for continuing to fund and broadcast high quality work.

Wolverines on the Red Carpet

Jasper and wildlife rehabilitator Steve Kroschel set the scene during the filming of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom. Photo copyright Gianna Savoie.

PBS Nature’s Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom premieres in less than 24 hours, at 8:00 pm on Sunday, November 14th. I’m entertaining a vision of a Hollywood event, with wolverines strolling down a red carpet to the fanfare of adoring crowds and the flash of paparazzi photography. Of course, one of the many things that makes wolverines so amazing is the fact that they’re charismatic enough to win a legion of devoted fans without the drama and glamor – they’re simply so compelling that you can’t help but be fascinated.

If wolverines can’t have a real red carpet, the way to the premiere is being paved by the cyber equivalent; the PBS website has several new goodies, including an interview with Doug Chadwick, author of The Wolverine Way, and a photo gallery with shots of the captive wolverine stars. PBS has also done something I’ve always wanted to do: walked around with a video camera asking people what they know about wolverines, and recording the answers. The result is entertaining testimony to the fact that the documentary is a much needed addition to wildlife education.

This week also sees the premiere of The Wolverine Network website, which serves as a portal to other wolverine sites. The group is a coalition of wolverine-interested groups and individuals hoping to build support for research, and awareness about wolverine conservation needs. The Wolverine Foundation, the nexus of worldwide wolverine research and, for many years, the sole online gulo presence, remains the place to go for synopses of research projects, monthly wolverine art features, great kids’ pages, and some pretty awesome wolverine hats. Rumor has it that this website will soon receive a multimedia makeover, making the content even more accessible while maintaining the commitment to covering every facet of wolverine ecology and lore.

Wolverine researcher Jeff Copeland, director of the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project, interviewed during a typical day at work. Photo copyright Gianna Savoie.

So tune in on the 14th at 8:00 pm, and then check out the Wolverine Foundation, the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative’s wolverine ecology page, the Wolverine Network, and the other information out there. And let me know what you think, of the film, the animal, and the researchers who pour so much effort into obtaining such scarce data about such an incredible species.

Jasper. Photo copyright PBS Nature.

Walter, Jasper, and Banff

Gianna Savoie was kind enough to send me a few photos from the filming of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, providing a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to make a documentary about Gulo gulo.  I’ll be posting some of these over the next two weeks, in the lead-in to the PBS premier on November 14th.

The film crew in wolverine weather - director of photography Joe Pontecorvo, writer and producer Gianna Savoie, and cameraman Kipjaz Savoie. Photo copyright Gianna Savoie

Jasper displaying some wolverine ferocity for the camera. Photo copyright Kipjaz Savoie.

In early October, I was up on the South Teton when I spotted two sets of tracks heading up a snowfield across the canyon from where I was sitting. They were far enough away that making a definite call was difficult, but at least one set seemed distinctly wolverine, a three-by turning into a scramble as the snowfield pitched steeply upwards. The other could have been gulo as well.

A few days later, a hiking party spooked a wolverine in the same area and caught it on video as it headed for safety. This is not the same snowfield on which I saw the tracks; it was one drainage to the north. Reportedly, the wolverine in this film scrambled up the snowfield and then dropped over into the canyon where I’d been hiking.

The hikers christened the wolverine Walter after one of their party, although we have no way of knowing whether it’s male or female. For those of you who are interested in honing your wolverine ID skills, the film offers a nice glimpse of how a wolverine looks and moves.



The Phantom and the Filmmaker

When PBS Nature called Gianna Savoie in 2008 and asked if she’d be interested in making a film about the wolverine, her first reaction was exhilaration at the thought of creating a documentary on a little-known animal. Her second was trepidation: how do you make a movie about an animal that is impossible to find?

The tensions between the mystery, the quest for knowledge, and the intense personality of wolverines hold together the film that Savoie eventually created. From the extraordinary commitment of the scientists who track wolverines through Montana and Alaska with barely a hope of ever seeing the animal, to the quirky and energetic antics of the two captive kits who provide most of the film’s footage of actual wolverines, Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom is an hour of pure gulo charm. Getting to an hour, however, was nearly as epic as some of the wolverine feats the film documents.

Savoie’s initial instinct, as the film took shape, was to build the story around the non-appearance of the wolverine, allowing the very fact of its absence to speak to the rarity of the species and the difficulty of studying (never mind filming) it. But during research for the documentary, she became more and more interested in the lives of individual wolverines, and then she had a transformative encounter with captive wolverines in Washington state. She says that she can’t exactly explain the feeling, but whatever it was, it was unexpected. “They were really curious, intense…I got this feeling that they were thinking something, and they were thinking something about me…there was something that inspired me on every level. They’re tenacious, smart, good moms, survivors – I just respect them.” She knew that wolverines had to be characters in the film.


Jason Wilmot is filmed discussing wolverine diet in the early iterations of Chasing the Phantom. The final cut focuses on only two of the multiple wolverine projects in the US; we didn't make the cut, largely because F3 proved camera-shy.


That still left her with the problem of how to bring wolverine charisma to the screen when they remained so difficult to find. In August of 2008, Jason Wilmot and I led a cameraman into the remote Absaroka wilderness as we attempted to locate a GPS cluster from one of F3’s collars. The payoff for our pains, a full day of bushwhacking and a near tumble off a cliff, was a single mountain goat mandible. Throughout the ensuing winter, the cameraman in Montana was on high alert as we monitored our traps, hoping to film a capture. But between December and March, F3 went into the trap only once, and the collaring was called off when a blizzard closed the roads to the site. Getting a wild wolverine on film was proving even harder than anticipated.

Fate intervened when a fellow filmmaker and wildlife rehabilitator in Alaska, Steve Kroschel, was left with two orphaned male kits. Raising and educating these kits provides one of the central story arcs of the documentary, and their vibrant personalities as they romp, tumble, and wreak periodic havoc through the Alaska landscape instantly transform wolverines from the ferocious devils of myth to engaging wilderness spirits that you might not mind meeting.

Jasper and Banff – as the two kits are eventually named – give a face to the phantom, but the brief glimpses of wild wolverines are equally compelling. The documentary opens with home footage from a capture of M3, the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project’s superstar male, who later climbed  the nearly vertical 5000 foot face of Mt. Cleveland, the highest peak in the park, in the space of 90 minutes. M3’s growl resonates through the opening scene – nothing can replicate the experience of hearing this sound in real life, but the documentary gives a good idea of what it’s like to feel that rumble shooting through your very bones – and when he charges the camera, you have to admire the spirit of a 30 pound animal willing to take on the multiple humans converging on the trap.

As the film follows the Glacier Project and expands to encompass research in Alaska, the story of M3, his father M1, and M1’s mate, F4, becomes as compelling as the story of Jasper and Banff, even though there’s almost no footage of the animals themselves. The film illuminates the unexpected family dynamics of wolverines, the dedication of gulo mothers, the role that fathers play in raising kits, and the tenacity required for a young wolverine to make it in a rugged world. With shots of shrinking glaciers juxtaposed against snowbound wilds, the film also highlights the dependence of wolverines on snow, and the threats that they will face in a warming world.

Interwoven with the stories of the wolverines are the stories of the researchers – Jeff Copeland, Rick Yates, and Doug Chadwick on the Glacier Project, and Audrey Magoun in Alaska – whose dedication to the species transcends even the most rigorous work ethic, approaching something akin to faith. As Copeland, Yates, and Chadwick push forward through blizzards and up vertical scree slopes, as Magoun battles overgrown forests and scours the vast Alaskan wilderness for a sighting of a wolverine, the audience gains a brief glimpse of the great wolverine paradox: these animals are incredibly, almost indescribably compelling for the people who follow them and want to learn about them, and yet part of what draws us to wolverines is the very mystery and unknowability of the species. If it sounds mystical and over-the-top coming from me, just listen to the scientists as they talk about what wolverine research means to them. Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom won a well-deserved award for scientific content, but even for the scientists, it’s about more than hypotheses and methods and numbers. Magoun speaks of wolverines as the embodying spirit of wilderness, and Chadwick sums it up when he confesses that he and, he speculates, most of the other researchers and volunteers on the project secretly want to be wolverines. In a question-and-answer session after the screening in Bozeman, Rick Yates told the audience of his own initial foray into wolverine work: “Jeff Copeland told me I should work on the project. He said, ‘If you work with wolverines, it’ll change your life.'” Yates paused, let this sink in, and added, simply, “He was right.”

Savoie draws this passion out of her subjects with skill, perhaps in part because she comes from a biology background and understands the connection that can exist between a researcher and a subject species. She speaks with enthusiasm of her own academic research on bats, talking about what amazing animals they are, and lamenting the spread of the whitenose fungus that is wiping out bat colonies throughout the US. Part of the way through her master’s research, Savoie says, she realized that she was as interested in communicating the science as she was in doing the science. As she put it, “There’s a gap between the science and the story,” and she was interested in bridging that gap. She worked for Nature, and then went freelance, producing the award-winning Life in Death Valley and several other projects before being asked to make a documentary about wolverines. On her website, she refers to the wolverine project as the ‘most ambitious and important’ of her career. If her choice of species seems heavily weighed towards the disreputable – there’s a smooth trajectory from the misunderstood and culturally suspect bat to the misunderstood and culturally suspect glutton – you have to admire her for undertaking and succeeding in redeeming overlooked but fascinating creatures.

The film brings to light the world of an extraordinary animal, but for all of that, wolverine researchers are left to wonder what good a single hour long film can do. Savoie’s commitment to conservation outcomes is as evident as her commitment to making good films, but how do you harness the enthusiasm for wolverines that the film will undoubtedly generate? One obvious potential pitfall is the fact that Jasper and Banff are so interesting that a horde of people will want wolverines as pets. (Savoie, in an interview in April, said that she was utterly opposed to this as an outcome of the film. One hopes that Jasper and Banff’s tendency to chew through everything they encounter – gloves, power cords, frozen-solid dead moose  – would serve as further discouragement.) Another, more subtle potential pitfall is a sense of futility. The wolverine is up for listing under the Endangered Species Act, with a decision due in December of this year, but even if it is listed, mitigating threats will be a challenge. In past species conservation efforts, the barriers to recovery have been relatively easy to identify and deal with. For wolverines, though, the biggest long-term threats are most likely your car, your neighbor’s car, the thousands upon millions of cars zipping across America, the power plants and the factory farms – in short, the entire infrastructure of our country. And that’s not something that can be changed with a $50 donation to wolverine research.

Nevertheless, in the short term, the wolverine needs an informed constituency to support research and conservation. Jason Wilmot, who helped start the Glacier project and worked on it as a volunteer before becoming the field director for the Absoroka-Beartooth Project, says, “We’ve come a long way. Ten years ago, no one even knew what a wolverine was. This film is going to raise the level of awareness to a point that’s never existed before, and that’s a good thing for wolverines.”

As for Savoie, her own hope is that people become interested, get informed, and figure out what needs to be done to keep wolverines on the landscape. So far, generating interest seems to be working, as she engages with audiences across the country to help raise awareness and sort out the basics of what a wolverine is and what it needs to survive (she describes a favorite moment, when she asked an audience of children what they thought a wolverine was. One girl said, “An orange wolf,” imagining a cross between a wolf and a tangerine.)

Savoie is talking about a sequel, too. Her commitment to wolverines has only grown deeper in the aftermath of making Chasing the Phantom, and she explains that she wants to play a role in their conservation. An upcoming semester teaching wildlife film-making at Montana State University in Bozeman will allow her a full winter in wolverine habitat and a chance to investigate topics and regional wolverine research projects that didn’t make it into this film. Frustrated by the limits of an hour-long show, she wants to create a second piece that will focus on conservation and research and raise the serious questions of ‘what next?’ in a more direct way. At the same time, of the secret lives of wild wolverines, she says, “I don’t know if I want to know. I like the fact that there are some animals that are able to keep us at bay. We need to find out their status, but they do embody the wilderness – if they’re still out there, the wilderness is still okay.”

In one of the climactic scenes of the film, the camera catches a flashing glimpse of F4, the matriarch of the Glacier wolverines. She pauses, looks over at the camera, and you have to hope, for F4’s sake, that Savoie is right. Then, with a flick of her tail, the wolverine is gone.


Jasper, who frequently took creative license during filming. Trying to create a final shot of a wolverine crossing the rugged wilderness, Jasper's adopted human father, Steve, buried himself in the snow, hoping to call Jasper to him so that the cameras could catch him running. Instead, Jasper repeatedly dug Steve out of the snow. Never imagine that you can tell a wolverine what to do.


Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom airs on PBS on November 14th.

Wolverine Film Countdown

As the two sneak previews of Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom approach, we’re excited about Gulo gulo’s big-screen debut.

The first event is co-sponsored by Defenders of Wildlifethe Winter Wildlands Alliancethe Wildlife Conservation Society, Earthjustice, and the Humane Society in Bozeman, Montana, tomorrow night at 7:00 pm at the Crawford Theater in the Emerson Center for Arts and Culture at 11 South Grand Avenue.

The second event takes place in Jackson, Wyoming, on Saturday, October 9th, at the Center for the Arts. Doors open at 6:00, the film starts at 7:00, and a post-film question-and-answer session, with beer and pizza, will finish the evening. The film will be showing in HD, thanks to Wink Inc. and Hughes Productions. Copies of Doug Chadwick’s The Wolverine Way will be available.

Here in Jackson, NRCC is co-sponsoring the event with a number of groups and businesses who help make conservation happen in our great town: The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and the Center for the Arts, the Winter Wildlands Alliance, the Wildlife Foundation, the Conservation Alliance, the Murie Center, and the Wolverine Foundation, and the Snake River Brewing Company and Patagonia. Putting together any public event is always a lesson in how vital cooperation is to building community support for conservation. NRCC has been involved in wolverine research for over a decade, and we’re thrilled that so many groups share a fascination with this amazing animal and that we’ve all come together to make this show happen.

Of course, there wouldn’t be a film to show if not for PBS, Nature, and the local PBS stations that show the films – in this case, Wyoming PBS and Montana PBS. A huge thanks to all who have contributed.