Wolverines in Oregon, and Pikas in Peril

The media have been fairly silent on the topic of wolverines over the past few months, as we await the listing decision, but a couple of pieces appeared over the past week. One is about Audrey Magoun’s work in Oregon, summarizing her two seasons of camera trapping for wolverines in the Wallowas. I had the privilege of being part of this project for two weeks in December of 2011, and the amount of work that went into maintaining the camera stations was inspiring, especially since Magoun and her husband were solely responsible for most of the tasks. They documented the first wolverines in eastern Oregon, although only one of the three animals  – all males – that they picked up in the first year was documented again in the second.

Another article mentions wolverines as part of a broader discussion of the effects of climate change on alpine ecosystems. This is a fairly cursory overview of wildlife and climate change issues, but it’s good to keep track of what’s out there, what’s being said, and how the narrative about this topic moves forward.

Finally, here’s a piece on energy development in Mongolia; my project is mentioned towards the end.

 

Oregon Cascades Wolverines

Three weeks ago, my sister and I climbed Mount St. Helens. From the top, the view was spectacular, volcanic peaks floating above swells of forested country in all directions. Wolverines could easily be living in the area, but although there are records and anecdotal sightings from the Washington Cascades, wolverines have not been documented in the Oregon Cascades. This winter, using the camera-trap methodology that Audrey Magoun employed in the Wallowas in eastern Oregon, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and several other organizations will survey for wolverines in the region around Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson, and the Three Sisters.

As Audrey Magoun says in an article about the project, “Nobody thought we’d find them in the Wallowas, but we did…If Jamie [McFadden, project leader] finds wolverines in the Cascades, so close to a large human population, it will be way bigger news.”

This project is one of a range of wolverine surveys that are using camera traps to try to document wolverine presence across the Western US and into Canada. Some of these efforts are working through state wildlife departments, some are cooperative efforts between state agencies and wildlife conservation or advocacy groups, and some are pure citizen science efforts. The explosion in wolverine work through camera trapping and track surveys and citizen science in general is a little dizzying, and has left me wondering about how best to harness all the enthusiasm to ensure that the results are as scientifically useful as possible and that they reach decision makers. In efforts such as the Oregon project above, the involvement of the state wildlife department will accomplish that, but with the numerous disparate efforts elsewhere, I wonder if there’s room for more discussion about how to maximize the utility of the data. With a wide-ranging species that inhabits the west as one interconnected meta-population, a lot of localized, independent efforts risk yielding data of only limited use. Maybe we should create an opportunity for all of these projects to communicate with each other about study design, methodology, and results. Opinions on the topic would be welcome.

Volunteer Opportunities For Winter 2012-2013

Wolverine field season is approaching, and there are a few opportunities for people who are interested in volunteering and/or helping out.

In Canada, Wolverine Watch is looking for backcountry athletes to participate in tracking, and is asking for reports of track and/or wolverine sightings in Banff, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks. There’s some more information here, including information on how to contact project director Tony Clevenger if you want to volunteer.

In the US, Cascadia Wild, based in Portland, Oregon, is offering wolverine tracking workshops on Mt. Hood this winter. Contact information for registration is here.

The Friends of Scotchman Peaks’ on-going wolverine monitoring project is up for funding from Zoo Boise again this year, and they are seeking votes in order to win a grant. You can vote for them at the Zoo Boise site; the deadline in October 28th.

We are still seeking reliable reports – preferably with documentation – of wolverines throughout Wyoming, to gain a better understanding of their distribution in the state. You can report those sightings either here, or by contacting the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative. Laminated pocket-sized wolverine track ID cards will be available this winter at the NRCC office for skiers who want them.

There will doubtless be other opportunities in the US Rockies this winter, so keep in touch with your local conservation organizations. Wolverine “citizen science” is all the rage these days, so there should be plenty of chances to get out and track. (And if anyone wants to make the wolverine-interested public aware of specific programs, let me know; I’ll post them.)

Wolverine weather has descended on the West, and I’ve been caught up in recovering from what we sometimes refer to as “reentry shock,” that annoying process of waking up each morning and remembering that you’re supposed to be speaking English instead of Mongolian. I’ve had some good wolverine-related adventures in the past few days, though, and should be back to updating this blog soon.

The Wallowa Wolverines

On April 17, 2011, wolverine biologist Audrey Magoun was snow-shoeing through a narrow valley in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon when a familiar inscription in the snow caught her attention: the scrawl of wolverine tracks, heading through the valley bottom and then uphill. Audrey was en route to one of several camera stations that she and her husband Pat Valkenburg had set up in the Eagle Cap Wilderness as part of a study co-sponsored by the Oregon Department of Fish and Game. After years of experience studying wolverines in Alaska, the couple had an instinct that the Wallowas might be good habitat, but the tracks were the first definite sign that the range was occupied. The tracks – which Audrey thought probably belonged to a male, because of the length of the stride – were also the first scientific confirmation of wolverines inhabiting Oregon. A few days later, when Audrey and Pat checked the cards in their cameras, they found that two different wolverines had visited the stations earlier in April. .

The presence of at least two animals indicated that the mountains might support resident, breeding wolverines, but the photos alone weren’t enough to prove this. Wolverines, as anyone who studies them knows, move around incessantly, and young males can disperse over long distances and hang out in regions that don’t necessarily support females. Determining the sex of the animals in the photos would yield important insight into what the two wolverines might be doing here – whether they were living in the area, defending territories, and raising kits, or whether they were simply hanging out until a territory opened up somewhere else.

A wolverine at a basic camera station in the Wallowas, April 2011. Photo courtesy of ODFW and Audrey Magoun.

Audrey and Pat returned to the camera station sites with backpacks full of gear and bait, with two-by-fours slung over their shoulders, odd contraptions of metal and plastic rods strapped to their packs, and a hardware store’s worth of nails, screws, screwdrivers, pliers, and drills stashed in separate ziploc bags. The initial stations had consisted of hanging bait and a camera and were rigged to simply document presence. The new stations that Audrey and Pat constructed resembled wolverine-scale jungle gyms, with a haunch of r0ad-killed deer dangling just above an apparatus that would encourage a wolverine to stand on its hind legs to reach the meal. On either side of the apparatus, Audrey painstakingly set a row of alligator clips, held open by another set of alligator clips, to snag hair for DNA. Then they left, hoping that the two wolverines would be habituated enough to return, and hungry or curious enough not to be bothered by the transformed stations.

Camera-traps’ utility in identifying individuals among species like tigers, which have unique stripe patterns, was recognized almost immediately when camera trapping began gaining popularity as a conservation research tool, about a decade ago. Researchers can’t visually ID most species to the individual, however, so camera stations are generally designed to document presence of a species in a given area, often with accompanying devices to snag hair for DNA samples, which can help calculate how many animals might be in a region.

Audrey, who has studied wolverines for decades and is constantly thinking about how to improve research methods, first realized that wolverines, like tigers, have unique markings that would allow an individual ID: their chest patches. But since a wolverine’s chest patch is not fully visible when a wolverine is doing normal wolverine activities on all fours, Audrey had to figure out how to induce the wolverines who visited the stations to stand up on their hind legs and display their full markings. In doing this, Audrey realized, they would also be giving a view of their entire undersides, which would allow researchers to determine sex, and reproductive status of females in the spring. By adding a set of hair snags to the station, Audrey had created a minimally-invasive tool for gathering a huge amount of information on an elusive and difficult-to-study species.

The two Wallowa wolverines did return to the stations. Both were male; Audrey christened them Stormy and Iceman. At the very end of the season, a third wolverine appeared on the cameras. The photos of this wolverine, Zed, were not as clear as those of Stormy and Iceman, but Audrey was pretty sure Zed was a male too. They hadn’t documented females, but they’d documented enough wolverines to excite Oregon’s wildlife world, and the project was funded for a second season. One of the big objectives for the 2011-2012 season was to document a female.

I’d been hearing about Audrey’s work for years, and I’d communicated with her via email; like anyone approaching a hero of one’s chosen field, I was timid and self-conscious about talking to her, although she was always very generous in responding to my questions. As my work in Mongolia went forward and it became increasingly clear that a collaring study would be too logistically complicated, camera-traps seemed like the best option for the work I wanted to do. But when I looked at the book that Audrey had published about the technique, the complex diagrams induced the kind of headache that I get when I try to visualize in the abstract some mechanical operation that is best learned hands-on. I overcame an extreme case of nerves and emailed her to ask if I could come out to Oregon in December of 2011 to join the study for a few weeks, so that I would know exactly what it took to run a camera-trap grid in Oregon – and, by extrapolation, what it would take to do something similar in Mongolia.

To my surprise and delight, she generously said yes, and on December 3rd I set out from Bozeman, Montana to join the project. Audrey had made it clear that I was headed to an unheated farmhouse without plumbing, to engage in heavy physical labor in a rigorous alpine environment. Nevertheless, I would have been less nervous if I’d been invited to high tea with the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace. It promised to be an interesting two weeks.

Wolverines in the New Year

Just in time for the new year, the January 2012 issue of Smithsonian features a short piece about Keith Aubry’s work in Washington, briefly documenting the adventures of the Cascades’ contingent of wolverines – Xena, Rocky, Chewbacca, Melanie, and Sasha. These wolverines have huge territories, among the largest ever reported for North American wolverines. The article suggests that in two possible mated pairs, the females have larger territories than the males (Xena covers 760 square miles to Chewbacca’s 730, and Melanie defends 560 square miles compared to Rocky’s 440), which seems the inverse of the usual observation that male territories are larger than female territories. The usual ratio is roughly two female territories to every male territory, which means that two (or sometimes more) females share a mate. The researchers haven’t proven that reproduction is occurring in the Cascades, so these animals, even if they overlap with each other, may  be young animals still exploring the world and not yet defending a true territory. Or we may simply not know enough to make any kind of generalization about how female and male wolverines behave when they are in different environments and circumstances.

So what else does the new year hold for wolverines? 2012 will see more wolverine studies in more locations in the US than ever before – long-term monitoring of wolverines in the Greater Yellowstone region continues for the animals originally collared by the Absaroka-Beartooth project, and for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wolverines. Round River Conservation continues research on the interface between wolverines and winter recreation in Idaho, expanding the study from McCall to Stanley and Fairfield, while further to the north, Idaho Fish and Game, in collaboration with various conservation organizations, launches a second season of camera-trapping for wolverines in the Selkirk, Cabinet, and Purcell ranges. In Oregon, Audrey Magoun and the Oregon Department of Fish and Game are constructing camera trap bait stations across the Wallowa mountains for a second season of work that will hopefully reveal a resident population; the three males photographed this past spring represent the first documentation of wolverines in the range, and if the cameras capture a nursing female this year, it will be the first evidence of a breeding population in the state since the species was declared extirpated in 1936. A camera trap project in Oregon’s Cascades will seek to document wolverines further to the west, while the Cascades Carnivore Project monitors wolverines (among other species) in the Washington Cascades. This means that at least eight projects (there may be more; I’m not sure about the status of the Glacier National Park DNA and camera study) are working on wolverines in the US. Internationally, Canada, Sweden, and Norway continue research on wolverines, and 2012 will see the set-up of camera traps in Mongolia.

2011 was a big year for wolverines. The momentum from the 2010 listing decision and the attention from the PBS wolverine documentary and Doug Chadwick’s book contributed to an increase in public awareness of the species. The discovery of wolverines in the Wallowa mountains in Oregon generated excitement. The launch of three non-invasive, camera and DNA-based studies – one in Oregon, one in Glacier, and one in Idaho – point to the new direction that wolverine research is taking: easier on the animal, and (somewhat) less labor intensive for the people, who have known from the beginning that trying to keep up with this animal is an impossible aspiration.

For me, the year began in Cambodia, contemplating ways to mitigate climate change effects, proceeded to Mongolia for a summer of tracking wolverines through the Altai and Sayan mountains, and wound down in Oregon, where I was privileged to have the opportunity to participate in the Wallowa work. I hope that the coming year holds just as much adventure for everyone, and that 2012 is full of good things for wolverines, wolverine researchers, and wolverine fans everywhere. Thanks to the blog’s readership and to everyone who supports wolverine research and conservation, and Happy New Year!

Field School

In the past two weeks, I’ve acquired several new skills worth mentioning:

1. Shooting bottles of water off a target with a rifle.

2. Running a snow machine.

3. Butchering roadkill.

4. Eating every species of wild North American ungulate except antelope. (Note: this is unrelated to item 3)

It may sound like I’ve been on a crash course on becoming a redneck, but in actuality, all of these skills are essential for the the budding wolverine camera-trapper. Audrey Magoun and her husband Pat have been more than generous in sharing their knowledge of these and other essential and somewhat more esoteric skills (selecting exactly the right configuration of trees for setting up a camera station, creating a gymnastic apparatus that will induce a wolverine to reveal the pattern of its chest patch, using laser pointers to fine-tune a camera’s position, and positioning a vast assemblage of alligator clips to snag fur in a way that won’t alarm the wolverines, among others.) It’s been a great two weeks, and one of the greatest things about it has been the total lack of internet access. But I’m shortly (and reluctantly) to return to the land of the Connected, where I’ll be updating the gulo-curious on recent adventures in the Wallowas! More soon.

 

Brief Updates

I am en route to Oregon to help look into wolverine populations in that state. For the next three weeks I’ll be offline and out of touch – I can’t even express how much I’m looking forward to this.

In the meantime, I thought I’d leave readers with a few brief bits of gulo news:

A wolverine was caught on camera by WWF  in the Russian Altai. These mountains are contiguous with the Mongolian Altai and whatever is going on with the wolverine population in Mongolia is undoubtedly tied to population dynamics in Siberia. So it’s great to have a quick glimpse, even if the bulk of the excitement in this particular article revolves around snow leopards.

A friend of mine pointed me to this Richard Nelson podcast about wolverines. It’s about half an hour long and discusses wolverine biology, and also some interesting Koyukon cultural beliefs about wolverines.

In a recent post about trophic cascades and the wolverine’s role in the ecosystem, I made some statements about wolverine habitat that are not necessarily universally true. Most of my personal experience with wolverines is in mountain ranges at the southern edge of the global range, and so I tend to default to an image of that habitat when I talk about them, and specifically to the Tetons, which is the wolverine-occupied range where I’ve spent the most time. This tendency ignores the bulk of their range in the boreal forests, not to mention variable conditions even between mountain ranges.   So here are a few clarifications:

Wolverines do overlap with wolves and bears in significant portions of their range, and stories abound in Mongolia of wolverines following wolves and feeding on wolf-killed carcasses. In picturing the Tetons, where wolverines are up in the high, rocky peaks and wolf sign is more frequently seen in the valleys, I was picturing a system in which wolverines might, at certain altitudes, be the top predator. But this is unlikely to be consistently true even in the Rockies.

Wolverines are distributed across any landscape in very low densities, and are unlikely to prey on any single species to the extent that they actually have an effect on the population of that species. So saying that wolverines may be a top predator on mountain goats or bighorn sheep in a given area was again a mistranslation between an image in my mind, and science. Depending on what’s going on in a particular wolverine territory, a wolverine might kill a number of animals in a particular herd, but does this affect the overall population of the species? Probably not.

I’m also planning to write a follow-up post about why focusing on trophic cascades is not the only way to think about the value or function of a wolverine. So stay tuned. But in the meantime, I’m off to the mountains to stop speculating and start learning.