The Art of Wolverine War

For years, I’ve whispered two secret, wolverine-related prayers to the great karmic mechanisms that pivot the universe. These pleas have, to some degree, contradicted each other, but they have been equally sincere. The first had to do with keeping our research animals out of harm’s way during the Montana trapping season. The second involved hoping that the wildlife advocacy community had enough wits not to escalate the wolverine’s profile in a way that recruited the species as a mascot for pre-existing conservation conflicts and thereby created an anti-wolverine constituency.

In 2006, when I first volunteered on a wolverine research project, the species’ public profile was miniscule. By 2008, when I began grant-writing for gulo work in the Yellowstone region and started establishing my own project in Mongolia, the wolverine research community had begun to discuss how to introduce the wolverine to the wider American public in a way that would build a broad-based constituency and that – crucially – would not repeat the divisive mistakes that had been made in previous carnivore conservation efforts. We knew that the wolverine’s profile was increasing and, with Doug Chadwick’s book, Gianna Savoie’s PBS documentary, and a new listing decision all due out by 2010, we anticipated an explosion of interest. The last thing anyone wanted was to see the wolverine shoved into the same predictable narrative track that has plagued the West for decades now – a quick path, for Gulo gulo, to becoming just another symbolic totem in an on-going identity war. I had looked this animal in the eye, I’d read all the science, and I’d developed an incredible respect for the researchers. I’d also spent enough time with hunters and trappers in Mongolia and the US to understand that most of these individuals  respected the landscape and wildlife, even if they did so in a way that was very different from my own relationship with these entities. I wanted them to be part of the constituency as well. I wondered if there was a chance that we might be able to convey some of this rich picture in a way that allowed wolverines to become a different kind of carnivore conservation story, one that respected the integrity of the animal, the science, and the scientists, instead of one in which an endangered species was lobbed around like a hand grenade in the service of people’s existential anxieties and moral agendas. When I started the blog in 2009, I did it because I’d already been writing about wolverines for a while and I wanted to continue to do so in a way that experimented with a new medium and allowed some degree of critique of my work. But I also started the blog because I wanted a nuanced narrative out there in the public domain well before the advocacy community and the states’ rights folks began honing their blades for the fight. If we were lucky – if the advocates in particular played it smart – I thought we had a chance of avoiding a conflict and also gaining some degree of support for the species.

A few tricky, treacherous regions were already on the map when I began writing. One was the prospect of an ESA listing decision, which is high profile and always invites litigation. Another was trapping, which is a cultural activity for some and a moral abomination for others; the scientific ambiguity around wolverine trapping was unlikely to calm anyone’s outrage if the issue was pushed. A third challenge was recreation, particularly snowmobiles, which, according to anecdotal evidence, might pose a threat to denning female wolverines; there was no proof, but the advocacy community, already opposed to snowmobiles, began to make some claims that wolverines were definitely sensitive to disturbance. This situation was partially defused when the snowmobile community came forward with funding for a study in Idaho, which is entering its fourth year and yielding good data, although the results have yet to be published. Finally, there was a minor issue around fear that wolverines might depredate on livestock, although it is clear from global research that this is really only an issue if you have a widely scattered herd of small, semi-feral reindeer in your care.

The array of players and issues felt like the set-up for a round of aikido combat, one in which the advocacy community would never need to go on the offensive, but only artfully step to one side and let the energy of any objections to wolverine conservation dissipate and fall flat in light of the fact that wolverines are entirely non-threatening. The match might involve a few artful blocks and deflections, but on the whole it hardly seemed to call for the kind of brutal medieval siege warfare tactics that have been employed (by everyone…) around, for example, wolf conservation.

To the credit of a number of people in the advocacy community, wolverine conservation did go forward with minimal combative rhetoric. When the advocates spoke up, it tended to be more or less in the mode of blocking or deflecting. The lawsuit following the 2008 ‘not warranted’ decision was  legitimate, because that particular ruling seemed so politically motivated. The lawsuit following the 2010 ‘warranted but precluded’ decision dealt with a range of species on the candidate list, and avoided putting wolverines in the spotlight. Conservation groups sponsored and hosted a number of talks by wolverine researchers, which focused on the science and the inspiration without getting anyone riled up. Rumblings about trapping and snowmobiles remained at a low level, and advocates tended to be respectful of the lack of evidence in the scientific literature. Rumors circulated that a decision for wolverines was due out sometime in early 2013, and if that decision was in favor of listing, then wolverines would gain protection with minimal controversy – something almost unheard of in large carnivore conservation in the West. All we had to do was keep a low profile until then, and if the decision went in the other direction, then it might be time to consider new action.

So it was with substantial horror that I watched a particular faction of the advocacy community roll out its catapults and trebuchets and crusader knights and line them up for unnecessary battle as 2012 drew to a close. In the space of two months, two lawsuits filed by advocacy groups sought to accelerate the listing decision and put an end to trapping. In the wake of the lawsuits, animal rights groups started petitions to submit to the state of Montana; in some cases, the petitions were factually inaccurate and insulting to management agencies. All too predictably, these tactics brought a buzz of negative attention to wolverines, as well as the sort of self-righteous moral support that, publicly aired, tends to exacerbate conservation divides rather than accomplish anything useful. This situation can be tracked in the comments that people leave on online articles, and although I realize that comment boards tend to amplify and simplify polarized dialogues, it’s still striking – and disappointing – to see the same old arguments appearing more frequently in these responses to wolverine-related media.

Here’s the kind of dialogue – these brief examples are from an article in the Missoulian – that I am particularly interested in avoiding:

…The kind of subhuman who would find recreation in this kind of evil torture of one of our most magnificent creatures is not someone whose interests we should have anything but utter disgust for. To place the life of even one wolverine beneath the depraved motives of these fools is a calumny on the very concept of civilization.

This sort of assertion results in inaccurate and inflamatory responses like this:

“Wolverines are not endangered! They exist in large numbers all over the northern hemisphere. Montana just happens to be on the southern edge of their habitat. This is just another excuse to further the agendas of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, the Wildlands Network and Agenda 21. The re-wilding of Northwest Montana and the reduction of people in the region and shutting us out of public lands. The wolf, grizzly bear, wolverine are key species to bring it about. Doubt it? Do an in depth study on these groups and learn the facts.”

It’s worrying to see wolverines lumped in with wolves and bears as the objects of elaborate conspiracy theories. This was certainly not the case a year or so ago, when articles about wolverines were greeted with support, or at worst a vague lack of understanding, but seldom with outright opposition or invocation of anti-federal arguments. Again, I realize that comment boards are not the best medium for doing social science research, that thoughtful people make thoughtful comments, and that trolls are just trolls. I also realize that there are a lot of rational people out there who don’t engage in this kind of argument. Nevertheless, I am sure that these dialogues represent some sample of the broader population, and I hope that we don’t reap the fight that the more litigious members of the advocacy community have been so diligently and unnecessarily trying to sow.

Conservation is not about minimizing conflict – it’s about accomplishing conservation objectives, and sometimes that will involve contention. Lest it seem like I am trying to appease people and smooth away a fight just for the sake of avoiding conflict, I want to clarify that I do see the point of taking a stand when that stand is necessary and there are no other options. But wolverine conservation efforts in late 2012 did not present such a situation. Wolverine conservation efforts in late 2012 presented a situation in which smart diplomacy was a good and viable option. I wonder whether, for some people in the environmental community, the fight itself, the need to think of oneself as a warrior, has become a greater objective than the conservation outcomes. I understand this impulse, it’s deeply seductive and I have been known to succumb to it once in a while, but in the end, if you frame yourself as a warrior, you have to have a war, or you don’t have an identity. And if you have a war, you have to have an enemy, and that enemy has to contain some essential identity that opposes your own. If you go looking for an enemy, you’re certain to find – perhaps even create – one. The same thing applies when you go looking for a fight.

I had hoped that, for wolverines, we could talk about conservation in a way that rebuilt some of the lost social capital of the wolf era – and again, there’s a reason for this, besides just aversion to conflict. Wolverine conservation needs a broad-based constituency not because conflict is bad, but because the wolverine population exists at a scale, and within an embedded set of conservation challenges, that require support from everyone in order for wolverines to succeed. Wolverine conservation is not as simple as stopping a single destructive activity like trapping or logging or development. It’s about connectivity across the entire Western US, and it’s about climate change. Reducing direct mortality is part of this picture, reducing disturbance to denning females is part of this picture – but when those discussions are over, we still need every single person who cares about the outdoors, in any capacity and by whatever standards, on the side of wolverines in order to address the much larger and more complicated issues facing climate sensitive wildlife and ecosystems. And just as we need landscape connectivity, we also need institutional connectivity – that is, functional relationships among state management agencies, various conservation groups (including hunting groups), the federal government, researchers, and supportive individuals. We need these relationships to work because wolverines move across state lines, across jurisdictions, across the physical territory of so many different communities with so many different cultural affiliations. Creating divisions among these groups isn’t smart; it’s the equivalent of setting out a line of traps or building a six lane superhighway through a likely dispersal corridor. The socio-cultural ecosystem is just as important as the physical ecosystem, and you can’t protect one while compromising the other.

Wolverines are powerful little animals that live outsized lives across vast geographical scales. If you want to practice the art of war on behalf of wolverines, every action that you take, everything you say in support of wolverines, must be taken or said with this scale in mind. I’m deeply appreciative of the many people I know who have taken this approach thus far, but at this moment of escalating attention – a moment likely to continue through the January 10th hearing and the listing decision – a few cautions bear repeating. No matter what your personal moral outlook on certain issues, remember that wolverine conservation isn’t about enacting (let alone legislating) your own sense of identity. Even if you loathe trapping, don’t make wolverines a platform for fighting about it, or else you do a disservice to the species. It’s fine, of course, to say that you’re supportive of the decision to suspend wolverine trapping, especially if you acknowledge that this is your emotional response – and I am most definitely happy, because this does, in fact, constitute an answer to my other appeal to karma – but don’t gloat. It’s fine to talk about why science suggests that trapping might pose a threat, but it’s not okay to say that science proves your moral position. If you find yourself tempted to rant about evil trappers, or Agenda 21, or to employ the phrase “calumny on the very concept of civilization” in service of either side of this discussion (or ever, for that matter), take a deep breath and refrain. Say a private thank you to the universe. Put the catapult back into storage. Practice inviting someone you might previously have considered an enemy to talk strategy for building a broad-based wolverine constituency. That is what it’s going to take to keep this species on the landscape, and in the end, maybe the best warrior is the person who knows when to put the weapons down and engage in a little metamorphosis instead.

Wolverine Research on Idaho Public Television

In July, Idaho Public Television aired a piece on wildlife work in the state. The program includes a substantial segment (beginning about seven minutes into the show) on the wolverine- winter recreation research in the Payette National Forest, which is entering its third year this winter. Highlighting the day-to-day operations of the traps, the different skillsets required to make wolverine research run, and the personalities of the animals themselves, the piece gives a great overview of a wolverine research project. It includes some nice footage of wolverines running through the snow, stills from the project’s camera traps, and footage of a capture of a male (they say he was feisty; his faceoff with the researchers’ flashlight seemed fairly docile, although he definitely wasn’t happy about being dosed with the drugs.) If you’ve ever wanted to tag along on a wolverine capture but live in a place where there aren’t any wolverines, this film will give you a vicarious experience – without having to get up at 5 am, as the dedicated but bleary-eyed scientists and volunteers do in the show.

Once again, the Idaho Snowmobile Association deserves huge recognition for helping initiate this project and for their commitment to science and, as ISA rep Sandra Mitchell says in the piece, to not having a negative impact on wolverines. This project is an admirable example of different stakeholders working together in a constructive way – if we’re lucky, maybe it will serve as a model for future carnivore conservation endeavors in the West.

The one shortcoming in this piece is the failure to highlight the central issue of denning habitat. One of the wildlife biologists briefly mentions that female wolverines require deep snow through late spring in order to den, but if I had been setting up the narrative flow of the story, I would have structured it around this issue, since this is really the reason that there is concern about winter recreation in the first place. Disturbance to dens and reproductive females are the critical issues, and they are critical because the population reproduces extremely slowly (every kit counts) and they can’t reproduce at all without deep spring snowpack. As climate change potentially shrinks denning habitat, the issue is compounded and an understanding of the effects (or non-effects) of winter recreation becomes even more important.

Nevertheless, the program is a fun look at a great research project. Thanks to Idaho Public Television for bringing some attention to the gulo work going on in the state.

Idaho Wolverine Snowmobile Study

An article about a wolverine study on the Payette, Boise, and Sawtooth National Forests appeared in the Idaho Statesman last week. The article is a straightforward synopsis of a project that asks backcountry snowmobilers and skiers to carry a GPS unit while using the National Forests.  There are questions about the extent to which snowmobilers and skiers might disturb denning female wolverines, and the researchers are interested in determining whether backcountry use really does present a threat. The question is made more urgent by the fact that the wolverine is up for consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and if that happens, land managers may have the latitude to make land use changes to remote backcountry in order to protect wolverines – if the researchers determine that human disturbance actually does result in den abandonment.

Snowmobilers, backcountry skiers, and advocacy groups all have a stake in the outcome of this study.  The script of the traditional Western endangered species conflict calls for outraged recreationists to accuse environmental advocacy groups and the federal government of infringing on their rights, while environmental advocacy groups evoke wilderness and science to enforce their aims, and the researchers remain stuck in the limbo of trying to maintain objectivity while taking shots from all sides. Wolves and spotted owls are probably the best examples of this predictable drama, which serves – over and over again, ad nauseum – as a proxy for deeply rooted values conflicts.

Hidden in the article, however, is a line that suggests that the wolverine case could turn out differently: “The study about wolverines is co-sponsored by the Idaho Snowmobile Association.”

In 2009, the Idaho Snowmobile Association approached the Rocky Mountain Research Station and asked to partner to research the effects of backcountry recreation on wolverines. Over the past few years, major environmental advocacy groups have intimated that wolverine safety is a justification for restricting snowmobile access to the backcountry. The vigorous debate over snowmobiles in places like Yellowstone has a history dating back to a time before wolverines were of interest to anyone, and from a certain cynical perspective, it’s easy to suggest that environmental advocacy groups perceive the wolverine as just one more piece of ammunition – a particularly charismatic cannonball, perhaps – to be employed in a battle that ultimately has to do with aesthetics. It’s worth reiterating that to date, there is actually no scientific proof that backcountry use results in wolverine kit mortality, despite the fact that certain groups are using that claim to try to restrict snowmobile access. On the other hand, the lack of proof doesn’t mean that backcountry recreation doesn’t have an impact on wolverines. Neither hypothesis (effect vs. non-effect) has been proven.  Scientific uncertainty over an issue in which two stakeholders with significantly different values have a stake in outcomes that are deeply tied to identity offers a recipe for contention. This is the point at which endangered species debates tend to get derailed into arguments over the accuracy of the science, rather than addressing those much more complicated underlying values conflicts.

This time, though, someone was smart enough to think ahead and at least narrow the margin of uncertainty around the science.  Snowmobilers are willingly taking GPS dataloggers with them into the backcountry to map their use patterns, while wolverine biologists are tracking instrumented animals. The study may not ultimately quantify, with absolute certainty, the effects of human activity on wolverines, but it will perhaps allow less room for speculative claims. With the backing of well-known wolverine biologists and the participation of snowmobilers and skiers, everyone has a share in the research and, to a certain extent, everyone owns the outcome. Whether this will make everyone more amenable to resulting management decisions remains to be seen, but this departure from the same old script is also an experiment well worth conducting.