A Little Wolverine Music

If you want to brighten your day with a wolverine-themed kids’ song from a fun Montana group, check out the Whizpops’ new music video, “Gulo gulo.”

I’m especially fond of this piece because it’s pretty scientifically accurate (I’m not sure that wolverines have ever literally scared the hair off a grizzly bear, but I’ll let that go…), and it uses footage from Swan Valley Connections’ wolverine cameras, deployed as part of the multi-year, multi-partner Southwest Crown of the Continent Carnivore Monitoring Project. This project is one of the most overlooked projects within the wolverine world, but if gulo fans knew half of what the project partners were up to, they’d be ecstatic. I worked with the SWCC project last year and hope to give some more attention to their program in coming months, because they have amazing data and even better field stories. This video nicely illustrates their fun approach to getting the word out about wolverines, and also highlights some of the great video footage that they’ve obtained. Enjoy!

Burning down the ecosystem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That question is still under assessment.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wolverine Talk in Colville, WA, Friday, March 31st

This Friday, March 31st, I’ll be giving a talk for the Friends of the Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge in Colville, Washington. I’m excited for this opportunity – they’ve been fantastic in the planning stages of the event, so I anticipate a good venue and a great crowd. I’ll be talking primarily about wolverines and wolverine research in the US – it’s a talk for a scientifically-literate lay audience, complete with some hand-drawn illustrations, and photos and video from cameras in Montana.

I’ve never been to this park of the world before, so I’m also looking forward to seeing a part of wolverine country that I haven’t yet visited.

The talk will be held at the Colville Community College theater, 986 S. Elm St. Doors open at 6:00 and admission is free. You’ll also have a chance to win wolverine-related door prizes, which is unique in my experience of giving talks. Details are here. If you happen to be in the area, I hope to see you there. Bring your sense of curiosity and some good questions.

Sweden Incidents in Wolverine Research

I’m the first to admit that I give Scandinavian wolverine research less attention than it deserves. I’ve never been there, I don’t know the researchers or the research or the policy situation as well as I know the North American and Mongolian situations, and it’s easy to put aside detailed write-ups when I can’t draw on background expertise to pull together a quick post. Things that take more background work on my part tend to get written about less, because writing this blog is uncompensated intellectual labor (or escapist fun; it varies by the day) and the greater the investment, the less likely something is to get written.

Something apparently happened recently in Sweden, however, and no one can figure out quite what the so-called “Sweden Incident” entailed. Since the question remains open, the Sweden Incident may or may not involve wolverines. So I thought this would be a good chance to run down a few of the Swedish wolverine resources, to remind all you wolverine-interested people that there is, in fact, some pretty cool stuff happening in Sweden. And this stuff is verifiably and objectively true. So enjoy.

Scandlynx is a joint project with participation by both Sweden and Norway. They monitor lynx and wolverine and put out some interesting research. The website is available in Swedish, Norwegian, and English.

The Swedish Wolverine Project has its own page, where you can learn more about the specifics of wolverine research, check out a good bibliography with links to research publications, and enjoy a brief synopses of wolverine ecology and life history.

In less savory news, Swedish wolverines regularly depredate on domestic reindeer. This creates a lot of conflict with the reindeer herders, but has resulted in some innovative experimental compensation schemes. Here in the US, of course, our biggest conflict is between livestock producers and wolves, and we tend to compensate after a wolf pack depredates. Ranchers aren’t keen on this way of doing things, because they have to prove that the depredation happened, and they claim that far more animals are killed by wolves than those that they can find and verify. Consequently, they claim, the rate of compensation is far too low to actually pay for their losses.

Sweden solved this problem by instituting a preemptive payment scheme for wolverine dens on Sami herder territories. Rather than compensating after a depredation happens, the Swedish government pays for “conservation performance” when a den is successful. While this compensation scheme seems to be better at addressing herder concerns, poaching remains a problem; as of 2009, at least, up to 60% of wolverine mortalities in Scandinavia were due to poaching. And there’s also evidence that national parks in northern Sweden, rather than serving as places of protection for wildlife, are actually the loci of greater illegal hunting. This may be due to the fact that these parks are large and remote, and therefore difficult to patrol.

The intensive monitoring program in Sweden allows researchers there to look at predator interactions in a way that is difficult elsewhere. Ecology as a field has spent a lot of time studying predator-prey dynamics, but less time understanding how suites of carnivores interact with each other. The Swedish wolverine project is able to monitor both lynx and wolverines on reindeer herding territories, and has produced some interesting work on how these two species share resources. It appears that the resource-sharing strategy in Sweden primarily involves avoidance; although wolverines scavenge off lynx kills, the two species don’t interact that often. The most detailed work on this topic is Jenny Mattisson’s 2011 dissertation. Follow-up work on wolverine-lynx interactions is also available.

Perhaps the most intriguing Sweden Incident in the wolverine world, however, is the recent establishment of a population in a previously uninhabited boreal forest region of southern Sweden. In a paper published last year, the authors contend that Sweden’s monitoring and management programs need to adapt to account for this new population, since most monitoring protocols and management objectives are related to populations in northern alpine herding regions. They also mention that the presence of this wolverine population in an area where the snow melts earlier in the spring is evidence that wolverines may not be as dependent on late spring snow as the Copeland et al 2010 snow model paper suggests. I have a lot of thoughts on that topic, but for now I’ll just confine myself to two points. First, the original snow model paper pointed out that north of 54 latitude, the relationship between spring snow and wolverine presence breaks down, and this site is substantially farther to the north, somewhere around 60 latitude. So in fact, the original snow model paper accurately predicted this exact situation. Second, the framing of questions about wolverine snow-dependency has becoming depressingly binary, because of the management implications for listing in the US, with a tendency towards papers that highlight apparent exceptions to very specific features of the model to make claims that apply to the particular US policy questions, without taking the larger picture into account. This population in southern Sweden, similar to populations north of 54 latitude in Canada, offers us a chance to ask a much bigger set of questions about wolverine habitat requirements and the relationship between cold climates and wolverine persistence. I’m looking forward to learning more about this.

Finally, though, if certain individuals are implying that there is a Swedish Incident or Incidents involving terrorizing of the good and upstanding people of Sweden, our best avenue of analysis would probably focus on moose. As documented here, rowdy drunken moose are apparently a perennial issue in Sweden, destroying property, breaking into stores, holding public orgies, and even occasionally killing people. The establishment of that southern wolverine population followed the implementation of a moose hunting season in the region where the wolverines have taken up residence – perhaps that season was instituted in response to aggressive moose issues? In any case, there’s a theory that gut piles left by moose hunters might actually be responsible for supplementing wolverines in that region and giving them a foothold in a place where they wouldn’t otherwise be able to persist, proving once again that ecosystems are complex, that humans are embedded within them, and that thinking about complexity, in complex and nuanced ways, is necessary to understanding the world we live in.

Here’s hoping that whatever the Sweden Incident actually was, it doesn’t impede the ability of Swedish wolverine researchers to keep up their good and interesting work on the species.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Grants for 2017 Wolverine Work

If you’re looking for a small grant to support a wolverine research project in 2017, the Wolverine Foundation is accepting proposals through October 31st. TWF funds proposals of up to about $10,000, with a research focus. Applicants will be notified by the beginning of December.

Further details on the application process can be found here.

 

Wolverine Talk in Island Park, Idaho

For anyone in the Yellowstone ecosystem, I’ll be giving a talk next Wednesday, August 3rd, at the Nature Conservancy’s Flat Ranch in Island Park, Idaho. The talk starts at 7 pm and will cover basic wolverine ecology, with a focus on wolverines in the GYE and the US Rockies, and a bit about wolverines in Mongolia. There will be a Q&A session, so bring your burning questions about wolverines.

You can get directions to the Flat Ranch here.

Hope to see you there!