Big Wild Places

There is next to nothing good about the c. 12 hour flight that takes a denizen of the western US to Beijing, thence to transfer via a confusing and ever-changing array of airport obstacles to a flight to Mongolia. Every time I’ve flown through Beijing, I’ve been presented with some new challenge – a lack of clarity over whether to pick up and transfer my bags or not, a bus transfer to the domestic terminal even though Mongolia is clearly an international destination, the hauteur of Chinese transfer desk clerks obviously deeply skeptical of my interest in leaving civilized China for a difficult place like Mongolia, the sheer frustration of waiting hours in airport limbo, without access to any source of water or food, to check in to a connecting flight, and the inevitable – truly inevitable – delays in the late-night flight to Ulaanbaatar. This time around, the annoyances began in Bozeman, with an American check-in clerk who refused to believe that I didn’t need a visa to transit through Beijing and threatened to revoke my ticket. While I detailed the actual visa requirements, he mansplained what he was reading about visa requirements on his computer screen, until a fellow clerk came along and pointed out that he should probably read the next paragraph down, which said exactly what I’d just been explaining to him: that you don’t need a visa to transit through Beijing if you’re in the country for less than 72 hours. He did not apologize. I may have rolled my eyes. I may not have been discreet about doing so. It was 4:30 in the morning, which is not the hour that one wants to get into that kind of discussion.

Still, there is one part of the flight to Beijing that I love so much that I’m willing to overlook minor annoyances like inexplicable bus rides and pompous American clerks: the flight path arcs over Alaska and Siberia, transiting the Arctic Circle. The views are spectacular. From 30,000 feet, these great northern expanses, sparsely inhabited, seem to sing with some sort of awesome, wild energy. Mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, the occasional road that seems to lead from nowhere to nowhere, all trace across the landscape in patterns of shadow and light and color. Snow-covered mountains merge with cloud cover to create dreamscapes. Tiny settlements are dwarfed by the space around them. The world is big from that height, and inspiring. It’s the kind of vision that takes you out of your own head, out of the limits of whatever has been worrying you, and reminds you that possibility is real.

On this trip, the view had a particularly welcome effect as it reset the cramped thought patterns of the past year. It was a good prelude to landing in Ulaanbaatar, where the mountains are now graced with yellowing larch and blankets of snow, and an even better prelude to heading back into the field in the Altai, which are high and fierce and stark. To lead this kind of life, you have to want those landscapes and you have to be willing to surrender your minute day-to-day fixations to their demands. To do so requires a kind of love that most people who spend a lot of time in the field understand.

Tomorrow I get on a plane and head out to Bayan Olgii, where I hope this head-clearing process will continue, and where I also hope I will find some wolverines.

Siberia from the plane

Siberia from the plane, somewhere near the Kolmya River

Siberian rivers and lakes and mountains



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.

South of 54: The Bioclimatic Constraints of Wolverines on the Edge

(For months, the question floating around the office was, “Has Jeff Copeland’s snow paper been published yet?” It came out in March of 2010. This is a summary of what that paper found. I’ve been working on this for weeks and, like some Sysiphian task, I’ve found that the closer I’ve come to something workable, the busier life becomes, and the further from completion the piece gets. So I’m posting it as is, because I have to leave for Canada tomorrow and then Mongolia the week after that. Forgive any imperfections or lack of cohesion.)

The Magic Line

Find a map of the northern hemisphere, and locate the 54th parallel. Trace its arc across the globe – in Siberia, 54N cuts across the southern tip of Kamchatka and the northern tip of Lake Baikal, then passes just south of Moscow. It brushes past the southern edge of Sweden, decapitates the Danish peninsula, and slices England in half. Across the Atlantic, it comes ashore on Newfoundland, sweeps across northern Quebec, and passes through the top of James Bay. In Ontario, it demarcates the southern edge of Polar Bear Provincial Park, and then cuts across a sweep of sparsely inhabited, lake-studded Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, reaching the Pacific at Hecate Strait just south of Alaska. North of 54, the world stretches, colder and ever more severe, in a mix of boreal forest and tundra, towards the Arctic Circle at the 80th parallel. The region is underlain by permafrost, discontinuous but widespread closer to 54N, deeper and more continuous to the north. The landscape, though ridged with several mountain ranges in both hemispheres, is primarily flat, and remains covered in snow until late spring. North of 54, the Pleistocene lingers.

54 North is the wolverine’s Magic Line. In the flat, snowbound tundra to the north of this parallel, everything is, essentially, wolverine habitat, and the species is spread in a continuous distribution across much of the landscape. South of 54, boreal habitat grows sparser, migrating uphill as you go further south, until, by the time you reach the US Rockies, it is pinched into the upper reaches of the highest mountains. Wolverine distribution migrates uphill with the habitat, until a creature designed for cruising the vast and primarily flat North becomes, of necessity, a mountaineer. Restricted to these islands of boreal habitat in a sea of sagebrush desert, the wolverine faces a unique set of challenges that center around access to suitable places to live.

Parameter 1: Persistent Spring Snow

Wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland and his colleagues in the wolverine biology world were attempting to determine the parameters of these challenges when they began to look at variables that might influence wolverine habitat selection. What, exactly, did a wolverine need in order to consider a place livable? Working with telemetry locations and confirmed wolverine den sites from research projects in North America and Scandinavia, they began sorting through a list of possibilities – elevation, aspect, vegetation, prey, weather conditions, proximity to human development. Habitat selection models for wildlife can become complicated as factors interact with each other, but in the case of the wolverine, a single overriding variable seemed to be the best predictor of wolverine distribution: persistent spring snow.

At an intuitive level, this made sense. Wolverines den in the snow, so of course they would tend to adhere  to regions with adequate snow to protect their babies until the kits were capable of limited independence, in early to mid-May. And the logical and intuitive conclusion would be that wolverines, being dependent on snow through May, are vulnerable to reduced spring snowpack predicted in climate models for the next century. All of this would seem to suggest that the wolverine requires protection and careful management to ensure that it remains on the landscape as declining snow levels and rising temperatures limit reproductive habitat. But in science, intuition and logic are never enough. Someone has to prove that the hypothesis is sound, and proof, in science, involves running the gantlet of the peer-review process, and publishing your results.

Jeff Copeland and his colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Research Station took on the task, and proposed an obligate relationship between wolverines and snow. Obligate relationships, in ecology, are relationships of dependence that are restrictive for the organism in question and that in many cases serve to define the environment on which it relies. So an obligate wolverine-snow relationship implies that you will never find a wolverine living in a place without persistent spring snow and, conversely, that if you see a mother wolverine traveling with two kits sometime in late spring, you know you’re in an area where snow persists until at least mid-May.

To test the model, Copeland and fellow researchers used remote-sensing data to construct a map of late spring snow spanning 7 years, from 2000-2006. To qualify as having persistent spring snowpack, a location (represented as a pixel on the map) had to remain snow covered between April 24 and May 15 – the period in which wolverine kits emerge from the den to begin the freewheeling life of a juvenile gulo – without a single day of bare ground.

Norway and Sweden maintain national wolverine den monitoring programs, which allowed Copeland to access precise den locations during the years for which the snow model was constructed. In North America, den location data are more scattered, so the authors of the paper drew on information spanning 1981- 2007 to obtain an adequate sample. In total, they compiled locations of 562 dens (327 of which were in Norway, 160 of which were in Sweden, 10 of which were in Finland, and 65 of which were in North America, which illustrates how little we know about wolverine reproduction in the US and Canada.) To look at year-round habitat use, Copeland compiled winter and summer telemetry locations of instrumented wolverines from 10 studies in North America and Norway. When the den locations were placed on the snow map, 98% of the dens were located on pixels that were classified as having persistent spring snow cover for at least one of the years, and 69% of the time, female wolverines were selecting for sites with snow cover for six or seven out of seven years. In the 2% of cases in which the den locations fell outside the snow map, the sites were investigated and determined to be snow dens; in these cases, the dens were located in expanses of snow too small to register by way of remote-sensing. Here was conclusive, statistically significant evidence that the relationship between wolverines and snow is, indeed, obligate.

The telemetry points reinforced the hypothesis. During summer, 95% of the telemetry locations adhered to the snow map, and in winter, 86% of the telemetry locations stayed within the bounds of persistent spring snowpack. The discrepancy makes sense if wolverines prefer snow; during winter, a greater portion of the landscape is snow covered and wolverines are therefore better able to travel outside the bounds of spring or summer snowpack. (Even then, however, Copeland determined that the wolverines traveling outside the snow map were primarily males – females maintained a higher fidelity to the snow map in all seasons.) Taken together, this meant that no matter how much snow was actually on the ground in a given season, wolverines predominantly operate in places where there is snow in late May.

Predominantly – but not exclusively. In one study, in the Omineca Mountains of British Columbia, wolverines actually appeared to be avoiding the snow locations during most of the year, but occupying those locations during summer when temperatures were highest. This suggested that there was another factor influencing wolverine habitat selection. To expand the test of whether wolverine distribution is limited by climate, Copeland and his co-authors decided to look at the next logical variable: temperature.

Parameter 2: Upper Thermal Limits

Wolverines are designed for the cold and snow, and early investigations into wolverine metabolism focused on the impressive insulating qualities of wolverine fur.  Scientists suggested that a wolverine in a winter coat could tolerate temperatures down to -40º C. But no one had ever tested the upper limits of a wolverine’s thermal tolerance.

For Copeland and his colleagues, there was an easy way to construct a test, without ever handling a wolverine or its pelt. They modeled 50 years of temperature data in the locations where wolverines were hanging out in the telemetry studies, and established that the average maximum August temperature  in these areas was 22° C. They then made a global map of 22°C maximum August temperature and laid it over the snow layer map. The temperature layer painted a cool swath across the boreal north and then, further south, splintered into peninsulas and islands that corresponded to mountains or cool maritime regions. In these insular and peninsular southern regions, the August temperature layer and the snow layer corresponded, but further to the north, where the entire landscape had maximum August temperatures of 22°C,  there were regions with no snow in mid-May. The point of divergence between the snow layer and the August temperature layer was just south of the Omineca study area, at approximately 54N latitude.

The wolverine studies that Copeland included in the analysis crossed 24 degrees of latitude, with average temperature variations of about 10°C between the southernmost and northernmost locations. To the north, where average August temperatures are consistently below 22°C, wolverines operated across the landscape in a more general way. To the south, where average August temperature varies with latitude, they were selecting for locations with lower temperatures – generally, at higher elevations. Year-round, wolverines adhere to swaths or stretches or, further south, scraps and slivers, of boreal habitat.

‘Whales in the Desert’

The paper that Copeland and his colleagues wrote wields the weighty title The bioclimatic envelope of the wolverine (Gulo gulo): do climatic constraints limit its geographic distribution?, and was published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology in March, 2010. The paper answers the question posed in its title with a decided ‘yes.’ In a statistically verified way, wolverines have been shown to select for cold and snow, and to avoid areas that possess neither of these characteristics.

The paper and the science behind it are simple and elegant, and Copeland, in a phone conversation this morning, mentioned that the paper was ‘fun to write,’ because it dealt with three simple factors: areas of known wolverine presence, areas with persistent spring snowpack, and areas with a limited maximum August temperature. The first factor defined the geographic limits of the study, and this, in turn, increases the confidence that the results are valid. Referring to what he and his co-author Kevin McKelvey call a ‘whales in the desert effect,’ Copeland pointed out that in creating a habitat selection model for whales, you will find that whales are avoiding selecting deserts if you include deserts in your analysis. The problem with many habitat selection models is the fact that they are so broad and encompass so much territory that, by default, the ‘deserts’ are included, and you end up showing avoidance of areas or factors that might not actually be relevant to the needs of the species, but that might appear statistically significant in an analysis.

People have speculated about whether wolverines might have been widespread in the past, and were driven up into their current  mountain habitat by expanding human activity.  Copeland says that if he and his co-authors had included all of North America in their analysis, the results would have shown a statistically significant avoidance of human development and lowland areas. Because they confined their analysis to the known current habitat of the wolverine, and were able to show that within that habitat wolverines are making fine-scale selections for specific factors – snow, and low August temperatures – they were able to elucidate something truly significant for the gulo-curious and for managers: wolverines need cold and snow, and they can’t live in places that don’t have it. Post-Pleistocene, wolverines in the Lower 48 have probably always been confined to the mountains.

As Copeland explained the analogy over the phone, the idea of whales in the desert fused neatly with the vision that I hold in my head of the fragmented peninsulas and outlying islands of boreal habitat in the Rockies. I’ve always thought of it in terms of a land mammal having to swim across non-habitat between those islands – exhausting, but possible. But something about the idea of a whale trying to cross dry land seems apt, too. North of 54, the wolverine is swimming in the ocean for which it evolved. South of 54, the wolverine is a whale in puddle in a desert, contemplating survival in a landscape in which it survives by the grace of a cold and snowy climate, but to which it otherwise does not belong.