Science Goes to Court

On February 9th, the US district court in Missoula, Montana heard oral arguments in the case challenging the 2014 USFWS decision not to list wolverines. The Missoulian published an article about the hearing, and it’s a pretty good outline, but since I was in the courtroom, I’m sharing my impressions and a more detailed synopsis as well. I’ll focus here on conveying what happened, and will share my own analysis later. I do have  opinions about the debate around the science, and those will probably come through, but I will explain my reasoning and, I hope, convince readers as to why that reasoning is sound, in a subsequent post.

First, a bit of background: Back in August of 2014, the USFWS abruptly reversed course following a 2013 proposed listing rule (Proposed Wolverine Rule), and issued a decision not to list the wolverine as threatened under the ESA. A leaked memo (Region_6_Wolverine_Memo_5-30-14) revealed that the reversal seemed to be the result of the opinion of the assistant regional director of region six, in contradiction of a process of several years that found that wolverines were warranted for protection and should be listed. Environmental advocacy groups sued, charging that the decision was “arbitrary and capricious,” and contending that the decision should be thrown out. The defendants included the USFWS, and a number of parties referred to as “defendant-intervenors.” In this case, these parties included the states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; state farm bureaus; several snowmobile associations; and – perplexingly- the American Petroleum Institute and the Montana Petroleum Institute.

To show that the decision not to list was in fact arbitrary and capricious, the plaintiffs had to prove that the reversal was not based on any sound scientific evidence, but rather on whims or machinations outside the bounds of the “best available science,” the standard tool used to determine whether a species warrants protection.

The notion of best available science is tricky. The ESA did not define it when the Act was written, and a definition added by amendment in 2005 – “…scientific data, regardless of source, that are available to the Secretary at the time of a decision or action for which such data are required by this Act and that the Secretary determines are the most accurate, reliable, and relevant for use in that decision or action.” – provoked ire from people who thought that it opened science to politicization by granting a government official the authority to decide what science counts and what doesn’t. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the larger debate about whether our process is effective for incorporating science into policy at all, or the even vaster debate, within the social sciences, about whether science that strives for neutrality is actually a practice of collective cultural self-delusion. Obviously, figuring out what defines good science is a complex issue.

Regardless, the question of best available science has plagued the latest round of the wolverine listing debate, just as the lack of scientific data plagued earlier rounds. The USFWS’ original proposed rule to list, like all such proposed rules, was subject to peer review. During this process, two out of the five researchers who were invited to submit opinions disagreed with the USFWS’ analysis of the science on the relationship between wolverine denning and late spring snowpack, and the models that projected decline in snowpack in wolverine range within the coming century. This dissent provoked an avalanche of further analysis and debate, which included, among other things, expert panels on climate modeling, rancorous attacks on various scientists and scientific institutions, the construction by the states of some fairly shaky arguments about wolverine population trends, and the sudden appearance on the scene of high-powered energy players with – we can speculate – a distinct interest in preventing the listing of a charismatic climate-sensitive carnivore. Months went by. The expert panel concluded that the climate modeling was sound. The decision looked like it would go forward. Then came the reversal; the leaked memo; a letter from the states commending the decision not to list but reiterating flawed arguments about what the science actually says; and the lawsuit.

The major scientific debates in this case – the points that were contended and argued over in the expert reviews, the letters, the memos, and the public forum – can be summarized as follows:

  1. What is the relationship between wolverines and snow, especially spring snowpack?
  2. What is the wolverine population trend in the US Rockies?
  3. Is genetic depression potentially a problem for wolverines?
  4. Are the climate models used to predict reduction in snowpack in the Rockies adequate, both scientifically, and as a justification to list?

The three papers most at issue in this discussion are Copeland et al 2010, which deals with the relationship between wolverines, late spring snow, and low summer temperatures; McKelvey et al 2011, which deals with projected retractions in wolverine habitat and dispersal corridors over the coming century; and Aubry et al 2007 (aubrywolverinedistribution), which deals with the historic and current range of wolverines. I’ve discussed these papers elsewhere on this blog and will dive back into them in subsequent posts, but for now, if you want to review them, there they are.

And thus we come to Missoula on Tuesday morning, February 9th, at 9:30 am. The courthouse gallery was packed – the lady who signed me in and gave me my visitor tag told me that there were at least 50 people, and opined that there were “a lot of people interested in wolverines.” There were also a lot of attorneys, arrayed around their tables facing the judge’s seat – Tim Preso of Defenders of Wildlife and Matthew Bishop of Wild Earth Guardians for the plaintiffs, and the USFWS attorney and the assortment of lawyers for the defendant-intervenors.

Judge Dana Christensen began the proceedings by recounting, with articulate and detailed enthusiasm, his three encounters with wolverines in the wild, and segued into expressing his familiarity with the case, the briefs, and the wider issues at stake. He discussed the prior listing petitions and their outcomes. He mentioned having read Doug Chadwick’s book about the Glacier Park project, and said that he understood from the book that, “The folks who are committed to gathering the science are dedicated…I’ve concluded that this is a hard species to study, and it’s not surprising that we don’t know how many there are….or the exact data about their response to climate change.” Wolverines are a pretty obscure topic and it would have been easy to end up with a judge who didn’t even know what they were. Judge Christensen was admirably well-informed.

The plaintiffs opened by invoking the concept of best available science, and putting forth the argument that the papers used to justify the original listing rule – namely, Copeland et al. 2010 and McKelvey et al. 2011 – were subjected to criticism and then discounted on the basis of speculation rather than definite scientific evidence that they were flawed or incorrect. These two papers have been at the crux of all of the debates, and most of the criticism lobbed at them has had to do with lack of precision rather than lack of broad accuracy. Preso invoked a 2009 case, Tuscon Herpetological Society vs. Salazar, which determined that the government cannot dismiss threats to a species based on inconclusive science. As he stated again and again, in numerous ways, “The ESA does not demand perfect science – it demands the best available science.”

Preso also spent some time on the USFWS’ assumptions about population growth, and the flawed reasoning of relying on Aubry et al 2007 to justify the idea that the population would continue to grow. He argued that the USFWS and its attendant intervenors were conflating range expansion with population growth, and that there was no evidence that the population is growing. He highlighted the dangers of assuming that increased sightings of wolverines indicates that the wolverine population is increasing, mentioning that it was not surprising to see that wolverine sightings had been substantially higher during the years of a wolverine research study than in the years when the study was not operating.

Connectivity and genetics also received attention. Preso argued that connectivity problems should have been considered a primary rather than a secondary threat, referencing the lack of apparent connectivity between wolverines in the contiguous US and wolverines in Canada. The judge questioned this, and Preso responded with the published information that suggests that the trans-Canada highway and Canada’s trapping management regime do serve as effective barriers to free genetic exchange with wolverines in the US Rockies. From here, he ventured into a discussion about widely-accepted biological rules about the problems with inbreeding and genetic bottlenecking, and suggested that these rules most likely apply to wolverines as well. He was referring specifically to the so-called 50/500 rule, which states that a minimum effective (breeding individuals only) population of 50 individuals is needed to insure population survival over the short term, and 500 are needed over the long term. The current effective population of wolverines in the US Rockies is estimated, based on genetics, to be between 25 and 50.

Preso’s next theme was climate change, and the criticisms made of the Copeland et al 2010 paper. The judge asked several questions as Preso launched into his defense of the paper, the first about whether or not there was any published information to contradict either Copeland or McKelvey (Preso: “No.” Judge Christensen: “So it’s basically just criticism….”) Later, as Preso continued to explore the issues around McKelvey et al. 2011 and the question of the scale of the modelling, and stated that, “We know that wolverines are snow-obligate – ” the judge interrupted and said, “That’s a given in this case, so the question is, do we need to know exactly why?”

There was some discussion about another case that had to do with abrupt changes in decisions, which the judge brought up in order to ask whether Preso wanted to rely on this case for precedent; Preso said no and brought the discussion back to the Tuscon Herpetological case. The judge went on to affirm that this was a case about “change in policy needing to be based on good reasoning and logic.”

Preso also spent some time reiterating that California and Colorado, with single male wolverines in each state, should not count as inhabited range. He brought up the fact that some of the estimates of available habitat included habitat in these states, and that that habitat should be removed from analysis because it was not relevant to the population in the US Rockies or the Cascades.

At the end of Preso’s arguments, the judge asked him what he wanted the court to do, and Preso replied that he wanted the judge to apply the arbitrary-and-capricious standard and set aside the rule, remand the decision, and “wait and see what will happen.”

Matthew Bishop then spoke, and in some senses he seemed to contradict Preso’s arguments about not considering uninhabited range as part of the analysis for listing. He made an argument that the retractions in range during historical time should in fact be taken into account in determining the degree of threat faced by wolverines. This discussion revolved around a specific provision of the ESA, and Bishop was arguing that this should be applied; I haven’t had time to research it, so I’ll leave this here for now. Bishop also mentioned genetic issues, and inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms (one of the categories of threat under the ESA). Like Preso, he stated that the best available science in this case had been ignored.

Then came the defendants’ turn to speak. Trent Crable was arguing for the USFWS, and stated that since climate change was ruled the major and only primary threat, the science regarding wolverines and climate change should be the only issue under consideration. The USFWS had found that McKelvey et al was not enough, on its own, to show threat in “the foreseeable future.”

The judge at this point asked whether there was any published research to contradict Copeland or McKelvey, and Crable responded, “If by published, you mean peer-reviewed, then no.” The judge then asked, “What then was Noreen Walsh [the region 6 assistant director] relying on in making her decision?”

Crable replied, “Her understanding of what is needed to list, and the report provided by Dr. Torbit, in consultation with Andrea Ray of NOAA, saying that the modeling was insufficient for us to know what will happen to wolverine habitat.” This was in reference to an internal study on downscaling of climate models that the USFWS requested after the expert review panel found that the the snow modeling in Copeland and McKelvey was adequate. I have not seen this report, but it is referenced in Walsh’s memo, and was the linchpin in justifying the reversal. Crable explained that the report highlighted difficulties in modeling what will happen with precipitation on local scales; he said that modeling temperature changes was comparatively easy, but that precipitation projections were much more difficult, implying that our ability to understand future snowfall is compromised.

The judge produced emails that seemed to suggest that Walsh had made the decision to reverse prior to the submission of the Torbit and Ray report, and asked several questions to try to clarify the timeline. Crable said that Walsh had probably seen earlier drafts and/or talked with Torbit, since they are colleagues. The judge asked whether other scientists within USFWS or beyond were given time to respond. I don’t recall a direct answer to this question, but the implied answer was no, and as the exchange continued, the judge said, “So the same people who were tasked with the listing rule were then tasked with coming up with the exact opposite decision? That must have been distressing, if not demoralizing.” Crable stated that it was not the “exact opposite view, just a different conclusion.”

At this point, Crable steered the discussion back to McKelvey, saying that although McKelvey represents sophisticated science, the question was whether that single paper was enough to list. The USFWS contended that it wasn’t because it doesn’t tell us what will happen to habitat in the future, which is the real issue. He then stated that the burden of proof is on the USFWS to show why a species should be listed, not why it shouldn’t be listed, and said, “This is the law for listing under section 4.”

Despite his contention that other arguments about secondary threats should not be at issue, population trend was a theme with both Crable and the other lawyers at his table. Most of their arguments relied on Aubry 2007, a paper about historic range; they were using this paper to build an argument that wolverines have recovered in the US Rockies following an early-20th-century extirpation. Crable did venture into discussing genetic diversity and the 50/500 rule, stating that this rule was difficult to demonstrate in reality and that “small population sizes don’t necessarily mean that there is a threat,” and – again, drawing presumably on Aubry – “Population size is probably not substantially lower than prior to European colonization.”

I found the breadth of assumption in this statement so astonishing that I was scribbling notes and missed the exact flow of the next few moments of argument, but soon thereafter, the issue of trapping was raised. Montana maintained a trapping season – at first unlimited and then, after 2008, much more carefully managed – until it was shut down by court order several years ago, pending the listing decision. Crable said that “no trapping of wolverines is allowed,” in response to a line of discussion about the potential effects of trapping on the population. The judge said that he understood that the closure was the result of a court order, and Crable confirmed this, but said that the court order was lifted and that trapping had not resumed.

This was the conclusion of Crable’s argument, and he took a seat, while the lawyer from Wyoming, whose name was Peterson, stood up to speak for the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. He talked about the environmentalists using whatever means necessary in “attempting to achieve their goal, which is listing the wolverine.” He argued an equivalence in uncertainty over population growth and the uncertainty in Copeland and McKelvey, saying that “environmentalists” were applying a double standard by invoking lack of evidence of population growth to justify listing, while ignoring uncertainty in Copeland and McKelvey that suggested that wolverines might not be threatened. He said that it was the responsibility of the USFWS to decide what represented an acceptable level of uncertainty for a particular decision. “At heart,” he said, “This is about a difference of opinion” – again, neatly implying a scientific equivalence between the two sides of the discussion.

Peterson brought up the fact that wolverines had been extirpated and then rebounded over the past century as evidence of population growth, in spite of a continuing trapping season, and then said that “there was no trapping when the decision was made,” reiterating Crable’s implication that trapping was not something to worry about. Here, Judge Christensen interjected, bringing up emails sent by the USFWS about potential reactions by various parties to the reversal of the decision to list. Among these, the section about the reaction of the states proclaimed that they were unlikely to object, since “many of the arguments for the withdrawal of the listing decision originated with the states.” The email also clearly said that Montana intended to reopen the trapping season. The judge questioned the intent of the states. Peterson quickly deferred to the lawyer for Montana, who stood up and stated that “We’d like to keep a limited and carefully controlled trapping season on the table.”

The states took a seat, and the lawyer for the “non-government defendant intervenors,” a coalition representing farm bureaus and snowmobile associations, took his turn at the podium. This was by far the wackiest segment of the hearing, because the lawyer, Blevins, argued that wolverines in the US Rockies should not be considered a listable entity since they are a subspecies with conspecifics in Eurasia, and in order to list them, we would need to do a review of the global population. I’m going to let my bias out to play here and get it over with so I can focus on more relevant discussions in subsequent posts – this argument was ridiculous, but in light of who the lawyer was representing, the absurdity may have an explanation. As I understand it, he was attempting to get into the record a nitpicking dispute over semantic ambiguity in the ESA, which is certainly an object of almost totemic hatred among farm bureaus in the western US. I’m pretty sure I saw people of significant stature rolling their eyes when he stood up. During the rebuttal, Crable disavowed association with Blevins’ line of argument. Enough said.

Next up were the “energy intervenors,” the American Petroleum Institute, and the Montana Petroleum Institute. The lawyer for the Montana Petroleum Institute, D’Angelo, stood up to present the energy industry’s arguments, but before he could begin, the judge interjected to ask, “Please tell me why the American Petroleum Institute and the Montana Petroleum Institute have a dog in this fight?”

D’Angelo responded by citing concerns about restrictions on operating in wolverine habitat if the species is listed, and then quickly went on to state that the USWFS started with a conclusion that wolverines should be listed, and then backfit evidence to that conclusion.

The judge here interjected again to ask, “Where’s the evidence in the record? That’s a serious contention.”

D’Angelo brought up emails from Shawn Sartorius, who wrote the listing decision. In the courtroom, Sartorius was quoted as writing that “wolverines will have a proposed rule,” and D’Angelo argued that this was evidence that the USFWS was biased. Again, I’m going to get this out of the way by contextualizing where the lawyer failed to do so. I don’t know what was going on in Sartorius’ mind when he wrote that, but these emails were sent at a specific moment in the listing debate. In 2010, wolverines were deemed warranted-but-precluded, which meant that a scientific analysis found that there was justified evidence of a threat, but that the USWFS did not currently have the resources to list the species, particularly in light of more immediate and habitat-based threats facing other species. In essence, and perhaps with some defensible logic, the decision said that the resources of the agency should be applied to species who are threatened by something that the ESA is capable of dealing with (in situ habitat-based threats) rather than something that the ESA is not authorized to regulate (carbon emissions). A warranted-but-precluded ruling places a species in limbo, which can last for many years. Shortly after the 2010 wolverine decision, environmental groups sued over undecided ESA cases, including warranted-but-precluded decisions, and won an order that all of these cases had to be decided within a limited time frame. The wolverine was one of the first to go up for consideration. The McKelvey et al 2011 paper that is the object of so much dispute had entered the literature in the interim, but beyond that there was no new peer-reviewed science to consider. Since wolverines had already been found warranted for listing, and McKelvey added substantiation to the idea of threat, Sartorius’ emails at this point are less evidence of a nefarious plot to rig scientific data to fit a pre-ordained, agenda-based conclusion, and more a logical outgrowth of the fact that a very recent review of the science had reached a particular scientific conclusion that suggested that a listing rule would follow.

The judge didn’t get into any of this, he let the matter sit, and D’Angelo went on to assert that, “It’s not reasonable to dispute that the population is increasing….and projected to increase.” He referenced an Inman paper from 2013 and Aubry 2007 to back his claim, but the judge again began to question him, saying that, “Within the [proposed listing] rule, scientists disagree [about population trajectory], I can’t see where everyone agrees that population will increase forever – maybe you weren’t saying that?”

D’Angelo replied, “I wasn’t. I apologize.”

The judge said, “It sounded like you were.”

D’Angelo managed to recontextualize his argument and put some time scale boundaries on his contentions about population growth. He then ventured into a criticism of Copeland and the snow modeling, stating, among other arguments, that the obligate relationship between wolverines and snowpack was “on a denning scale,” and that “Copeland describes where wolverines are, not what they need.” He said that the authors on Copeland et al “drew a line around the wolverine population” and then backfit the snow data. He concluded by saying that the paper was good for predicting where wolverines are found, but not as a premise for the McKelvey paper, which relied on Copeland to model habitat loss.

With this, the defendants concluded, and the rebuttals began.

During the rebuttal, Preso talked about modeling and uncertainty, saying that McKelvey was not a stand-alone, that the expert panel convened by the USFWS agreed with him, and then said that the USFWS had in the past relied on the same kind of modeling to conclude that pikas were not warranted for listing – that decision stands. Preso stated, regarding the contention that Copeland shows where wolverines live but not what they require, that it was unreasonable to assume that wolverines were living in places that didn’t provide what they needed. He again talked about uncertainty in population trend, citing a number of studies including Inman 2013 to highlight the lack of any kind of evidence about current demographics. He reiterated the lack of connectivity with Canada, and said that the 50/500 rule was “basic biology” and that it should apply to wolverines. The judge briefly questioned him about the uncertainty in modelling precipitation versus the relative ease of modeling temperature. Bishop then spoke again, briefly, about the fact that trapping was “still on the table” by the admission of the lawyer for Montana. The judge sought some clarification about the concerns over trapping, saying that he understood that incidental take was a possible source of mortality on top of the prospect of a managed season, and Bishop confirmed this.

Crable then gave his rebuttal, drawing again on Aubry to contend that the population is increasing and will continue to do so. He said that decline in snowpack doesn’t mean that wolverines are threatened, nor does inbreeding or genetic depression, and that there was not enough evidence of any of it to warrant listing, He again came back to population growth, saying that “estimates have gone up in published literature,” that there was no evidence that the population was declining, and that – again – there were no grounds to list.

He then ventured into the trapping discussion, saying that Inman had argued at some point – I missed the paper reference – that trapping was not a problem and might even be good for the effective (breeding) population, “because if you take out a male and he’s replaced by multiple other males, it will increase the effective population.”

The judge intervened here and said, “I don’t suppose that you’re suggesting that we resume trapping in wolverine habitat to increase the population?”

Crable looked somewhat sheepish and said no, that wasn’t what he was suggesting.

He concluded by saying that this was not “a coin flip” between equally robust sets of evidence. He emphasized again that a single study (McKelvey) was not enough to justify the listing, and said, “just because they [the USFWS] said that there was another way to do this doesn’t mean it was a coin flip.”

With that, the hearing concluded. The judge stated that he had “a lot of work to do” on this decision. We will probably have to wait at least six months for a ruling.

Thoughts and comments welcome. Stay tuned for some analysis over the next week or so.












A Question of Scale

Two weeks ago, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and the coalition of environmental groups who sued the state to end wolverine trapping withdrew from a hearing that was scheduled for January 10th, after the USFWS indicated that they will recommend wolverines for listing under the ESA. This meant the total closure of the 2012-2013 trapping season and, pending the ESA recommendation, possible closure of wolverine trapping in Montana until the species recovers. The relief among wolverine enthusiasts, advocates, and researchers was tempered by Montana’s announcement that they will pursue an exemption if the species is listed, in order to continue to trap. Presumably, the legal argument for an exemption comes from the fact that, in the 2010 “warranted but precluded” decision, climate change is listed as the primary threat, with trapping as a secondary factor. Advocates issued responses (here and here) condemning Montana’s decision and deriding MFWP for “brash intransigence” and for making politicized decisions that ignore the “best available science.”

While all of this has been unfolding, I’ve been involved in some wider discussions, and some private consideration, about what science is, what it means when an individual claims to do science or to be a scientist, and the consequences of granting prestige to ‘science-based decision-making,’ especially in a culture where scientific literacy remains hazy. I could take this post in several directions, all of which I hope to eventually address on this blog, but I am going to focus here on the immediate questions at hand: What is going on with these competing claims about managing wolverines based on the “best available science?”  What is the “best available science?” And is it possible that no one is incompetent in this scenario, and that two sets of science, with evidently conflicting results, are both correct?

Here’s the background – MFWP contends that it has managed wolverines and continues to manage wolverines based on ‘sound science,’ and that years of data from track surveys and from carcasses turned in by trappers suggest that the population is healthy enough to bear the low levels of mortality caused by trapping (the current season is set at five individuals, with a female subquota of three.) They claim that wolverines have continued to expand their range despite a season that until a few years ago had no quota. They are also defending a methodology that they developed at a time when no one else was keeping track of wolverines at all and when there was very little precedent – or technology – available for more sophisticated studies. This methodology was applied, and apparently worked, for decades, and institutions are slow to change systems that have worked.

Over the past 15 years, however, a set of studies, funded and implemented by federal agencies (including the Forest Service and the National Park Service) and non-profit research organizations (including my host institution, the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, as well as the Wolverine Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and a number of others) have employed much more sophisticated technology and analytical methods to investigate wolverine populations in the Rockies. Many of these studies have been based primarily in Montana, but they have also documented reproductive wolverine populations in Wyoming, Idaho, and the Cascades, and dispersers as far abroad as Colorado, California, and eastern Oregon. These studies suggest two things: the wolverine population in the western US is indeed continuing to expand, and it is also under threat from shrinking snowpack as temperatures increase in the face of climate change. Taken together, the research from both MFWP and these wider studies paints a striking and complicated picture: a story of a species that is poised at a tipping point between a triumphant, unassisted return to habitat from which it was extirpated a century before, and a coming century in which the species might suffer a second extirpation, much more final than the last. These stories both seem to be true, and like everything else about the species, the conservation debate is therefore uniquely challenging.

Both sides of the discussion want to default to well-worn arguments: the advocates claim critical danger (in some cases, erroneously, because of ‘declining populations’) and the pro-trapping managers claim that the rebounding population indicates that there is no problem with removing such a small number of animals each year. I obviously am a biased individual in this debate, and those biases run too deep for me to be truly objective, but I hope that I can make an honest attempt to illustrate why we need to push for a different understanding of conservation when we think about wolverines, and why that understanding can encompass both of these perspectives and still end up requiring the closure of the trapping season. So let’s start, today, with how you do ecological research. Later this week, I’ll get into the implications of the science that has been done, but for now, I’ll focus on the question of scale.

When you ask an ecological question, scale is one of the most important and immediate parameters to define. There are several types of scale to consider, and the most obvious is geographical scale. For example, if you’re interested in wolverines, are you interested in a single population node (a mountain range with at least one reproductive female), several interacting population nodes (say, the several occupied mountain ranges of southwestern Montana and northwestern Wyoming), or the entire metapopulation of the US Rockies, the Cascades, and maybe even the Sierra Nevada? You can ask the question “Is the population healthy?” at one geographical scale, and get a very different answer at that scale than you might at another scale.

In the world we live in, we also have to consider questions of jurisdiction, and whether or not we are spatially bounding our questions based on political borders. If we are, we have to ask whether imposing these artificial boundaries on our research limits the results – in other words, if we’re asking questions about twenty population nodes in a metapopulation that contains a hundred population nodes, are our answers applicable to the entire population? Or just to our study nodes? And if we ask only about the population nodes within our jurisdiction, are we confident that we understand the relationships among the study nodes and the nodes outside the study area?

Scale is also temporal, and temporal scale is directional, so your questions and your answers will be further bounded by whether you ask about trends that have occurred in the distant past or the recent past, and trends that you predict in the immediate future or the distant future. The question “Has the wolverine population in Montana been healthy enough to bear trapping in the past century?,” is substantially different from “Is the wolverine population healthy enough to bear trapping for the next two decades?” And that question, in turn, is different from the query, “Will trapping now have an effect on wolverine populations a century from now?”

These are management questions, not questions about simple knowledge (“What happened to the wolverines of Maryland, Virginia, Spain, and the Czech Republic at the end of the Pleistocene?” is an example of a question that is mostly about knowledge, with very few management implications) and at this point in the post, there’s an implicit subtext involving the influence of values on science and management, but we’ll get into that later. Right now, I’m going to assert that wolverines exist in a metapopulation that is interconnected throughout the Rockies, and that we must ask questions at that scale, and with a forward-looking temporal orientation, if we are going to figure out how to conserve the species.

MFWP has been asking questions about the population in Montana, based primarily on data and trends from the past, and without a clear articulation of how those trends might change in the face of climate change. The broader body of science conducted by other agencies and groups has been asking forward-looking questions, with data-collection frequently occurring at limited scales (Glacier National Park, the Greater Yellowstone region, the Payette National Forest) but always with a view to extracting broader trends in addition to information about specific populations. Papers like Copeland’s 2010 article on climate change and snowpack, Inman’s recent work on habitat modeling, and Schwartz’s papers on genetics all come out of large-scale questions.

Wolverines are in a unique situation: a once wide-ranging species was inadvertently extirpated and then began a process of recolonization that was monitored for decades by a state management agency at a small scale, and then other scientists began larger-scale studies that included some speculation about the future, and the results have entered the conservation debate at a moment when the trends of the past will be skewed by unprecedented climate disruption in the future. If we hope to protect the species, the science that we look to for management insight will have to be multi-scale, and it will have to integrate past trends with what we know about wolverines’ habitat requirements and our understanding of what will happen to that habitat in the future. There are, of course, serious political considerations at play in the discussion as well, but from a purely scientific standpoint, this is how these different studies operate and interact – not entirely at odds with each other, but at different scales, using different methodologies, and looking in different directions.

This is a pretty basic analysis. I have a series of doodles, constructed while watching the series Firefly during an epic descent into purely visual thinking (more about that later, too), which attempt to illustrate a model that encompasses both sets of science and that also tries to create a working picture of a wolverine metapopulation from 1900 through about 2100. Needless to say, it’s pretty rough, but if I can make it comprehensible, I might put a version up here. In the meantime, here’s another article, concise but nuanced, that also features a video of F5 in one of the live-traps in Glacier. This film highlights the endearing nature of the species. Enjoy.

Wolverines to be Listed as Threatened?

With apologies for the long silence, here’s an article in the Missoulian, more or less officially confirming news that we’ve been expecting – wolverines will be listed as threatened later this month. The news comes as part of a district’s judge’s decision not to hear a case, scheduled for January 10th, about the Montana trapping season: “District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled it made little sense to debate a trapping season that was soon to become moot.” More details are available in an article from the Great Falls Tribune, which makes clear that the judge signed an order ending the 2012-2013 trapping season, even without the hearing, and that Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks decided not to fight the decision. In another piece in the Helena Independent Record, however, FWP indicated that they do plan to contest the lawsuit, should it go forward in March or April of this year. If wolverines are listed, though, today’s decision should represent the permanent closure of Montana’s trapping season – except in the unlikely event that we can slow down the effects of climate change enough to protect the population, or in the equally unlikely event that science somehow determines that trapping is not a threat despite the risks of climate change. This would be scientifically tricky to uphold, though, since removal of reproductive females from the population has the potential to significantly disrupt source nodes within the metapopulation, especially when habitat is decreasing.

More about this soon; I’m in the middle of several wolverine related projects (naturally) and haven’t had much time to write.  Meanwhile, here are a few other articles that have appeared over the past month:

NRCC Executive Director Jason Wilmot weighs in on the upcoming decision in a Greenwire article. This, too, basically stated that a “threatened” status was recommended; I plead guilty to being too absorbed in hanging out with my family over the holidays to post.

The Billing’s Gazette profiles the WCS wolverine study and the work of Bob Inman. The descriptions of the rigors of wolverine field work are pretty accurate, so if you’re contemplating a career in wolverine biology, ponder these carefully. He also raises an important but generally neglected question: the status and distribution of wolverines in Wyoming. This could be critical for a fully interconnected Rocky Mountain population, particularly if wolverines ever make it to Colorado. I hope that the state of Wyoming takes note, and prioritizes a study immediately. Bob also raises the issue of the inherently transboundary and transjurisdictional nature of wolverine conservation, which I hope will provide us with a new model for conservation of widely-dispersed metapopulations.

Much further afield, here’s an update on the tour of Michigan’s last known wolverine, tracked by teacher Jeff Ford for several years until her death in 2009.

Finally, here’s an interesting piece from Smithsonian, looking at adaptive plasticity in tree frogs in Panama. What does this have to do with wolverines in the Rockies? Adaptive plasticity is the range of behavior available to a species in light of environmental variation – including changes in climate. Since we cannot, as a society, muster the will to do anything about emissions, the continued presence of wolverines in the Rockies may well depend on the species’ degree of adaptive plasticity. This is one of the most important aspects of the comparative work in Mongolia and the US, too.

So there it is, for now. Enjoy the good news – but remember that putting a species on the list is not the equivalent of actually conserving it, and that the challenge for wolverines (and for other species) will be moving from symbolic protection to actual management strategies in the years to come.

note: I originally posted this as “Wolverines to be Listed as Threatened,” statement, not question. I was reiterating the headline of the first article that my friend sent me; I don’t have independent confirmation of this, and on reflection, I shouldn’t have stated this as a fact. Although the decision is due out sometime soon, and although we have indications that they will be recommended for protections, I do not actually know that they will. Hopefully this hasn’t caused any confusion or bad feeling, and hopefully readers will forgive the lapse in the usually-rigorous standards on this blog. 

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.

Montana’s Trapping Season Suspended

A judge in Montana today placed the state’s wolverine trapping season on hold until at least January 10th as the court prepares to hear arguments that may close the trapping season permanently – always assuming that an endangered species listing doesn’t preempt the process, since a listing decision is due out in mid-January. The trapping season was due to open tomorrow. The notice is up on the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks website, and also on the Western Environmental Law website. A longer article from the San Fransisco Chronicle gives further details. At posting time, articles continue to pop up from various sources around the West, so google it if you want to keep up with all the reporting.

Although I am not philosophically opposed to hunting or trapping, and although I remain skeptical of endless litigation as a means of accomplishing environmental objectives, I’m also not going to pretend that I am anything but pleased to hear this. Montana’s wolverine population has continued to expand despite a trapping season that, until a few years ago, was unlimited, so FWP’s contention that management has been based on sound science is reasonable. As the effects of climate change accelerate, however, the resilience of the population may diminish, and a pause to talk about this issue is probably a good idea. Maybe we will find that there are indeed enough wolverines in Montana that offtake of five animals per year – the current quota, although actual harvest tends to be lower – is sustainable. But let’s make sure of that, and let’s take the time to consider the extent to which extra dispersers contribute to genetic diversity in other states, and how connectivity is likely to be affected by diminishing snowpack, and what the implications are of removing reproductive females from the landscape, before continuing.

I know that trappers, for whom wolverines are a sort of holy grail, will be disappointed, and I know that environmentalists, for whom rare carnivores are a different sort of holy grail, will be excited. I’d ask environmentalists to please take this as an opportunity to focus on the science and on communicating about climate issues, and to be conscientious about avoiding negative comments about trappers and trapping in general, or about the acumen of wildlife management agencies. Wolverines are awe-inspiring animals and although some people are inevitably going to be frustrated by this decision, we’d like to see as broad-based a constituency as possible for wolverine conservation – and we definitely don’t want a dedicated group of people opposed to it because wolverines have become a symbol of environmental moral hauteur. Likewise, I hope that trappers who are interested in one day getting a wolverine will express their respect for the animal by prioritizing its continued presence on the landscape, if the science says that is what is needed.

This doesn’t mean that the Montana wolverine trapping season is over forever, and it certainly doesn’t indicate anything about a listing decision, but it does give wolverines, including F3, M57, and their (as-yet undocumented) kits a bit of breathing room, and perhaps, for kits all over the state, a few weeks head start on setting out for Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, California….or beyond.

Pointless Petition

Yesterday, this petition was circulated to a number of people involved in wolverine conservation:

The email that accompanied the petition ran as follows:


Wolverines have been on the U.S. Endangered Species List for almost two years. But apparently that doesn’t matter in Montana — the only state where it’s still legal to trap them.

Tell the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission to not open wolverine trapping season!

There are no more than 300 wolverines left in the West, and warming temperatures in future years will only reduce the population further. Of those, up to two-thirds live in Montana. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that wolverines if aren’t protected in Montana, it”s almost as if they aren’t protected at all.

Trapping season starts Dec. 1. That gives us just over a month to get through to state wildlife officials.

Urge wildlife officials to protect endangered species and shut down this year’s wolverine trapping season.

This petition contains a couple of glaring errors, as well as some questionable statements. First of all, wolverines have never been on the endangered list, and the implication that Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks would continue to trap an endangered species does a disservice to the attention that this agency pays to maintaining Montana’s wildlife. Second, we don’t know how many wolverines actually live in the Rockies, and making appeals based on numbers is not the way to discuss wolverines – or, I would contend, any wildlife species. These things should be discussed in terms of population trends, demographics, and ecological process, not numbers. (And the cut-and-paste of the earlier inaccurate statement that wolverines were once “prolific across the West” is also aggravating, if strictly on vocabulary grounds, but the misuse of vocabulary has implications for what is being said about past and current population trends.)

I’m asking people NOT to sign this petition. I am fully in favor of individuals expressing their opinions, but non-experts make appeals based purely on emotion, and when those appeals are inaccurate to the greatest degree, they do more harm than good. These acontextual animal-rights based pleas tend not to register with decision-makers, and when they are as full of errors as this one is, they make all of us who are contextually and scientifically working on this issue look bad. And they make the originators and signers of such petitions into laughingstocks, further discrediting the idea that people who attach themselves to such efforts have even the remotest clue what is going on.

If you want Montana to shut its trapping season prior to a listing decision – I’m strongly doubtful that they will, but there’s always a chance, and again, I’m fully in favor of freedom of expression – please write them a respectful letter that discusses the science. Do not accuse them of incompetence (this does nothing to endear you to the people you’re trying to influence); this includes subtle accusations such as use of the phrases “get through to” and “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist…” And do not get into your moral position on trapping. These things are counterproductive. (If you’ve already signed….I don’t mean to make you feel badly. Just read things carefully next time.)

I’m going to write more about this soon – I’ve been promising a series on the science/ advocacy interface for awhile, but it will be posted over the next week. I am sure that people who are inured to the usual script for “action” have trouble understanding my objections to these tactics, and I want to explain in a more thorough way why the script needs to be rewritten in the case of wolverine conservation. For now, though, take my word for it, and please don’t engage with these efforts.

(While I’m ranting about other people’s inaccuracies, I should acknowledge that this petition did make me realize a mistake of my own; I previously stated that Montana’s trapping season begins on December 15th. It does in fact begin on the 1st. I’m mildly numerically dyslexic, and the season ends February 15th, so that was the number that stuck in my head. I don’t want people to think I’m hypocritical in throwing a fit about other people’s errors in precision while not acknowledging my own.)

Montana Judge Upholds Wolverine Listing Lawsuit

Very briefly, here’s something for people following wolverine news in minute detail. Apparently a group of environmental organizations sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service, asserting that the warranted-but-precluded decision of 2010 was incorrect because it evaluated Montana’s trapping season as only a secondary threat to the wolverine population in the Lower 48 (climate change being the primary threat.) The USFWS responded by urging dismissal of the lawsuit since they are already on track to issue a final decision on the wolverine’s status by sometime in 2013, possibly as early as January. A judge refused to dismiss the lawsuit yesterday, but ruled that the lawsuit will be considered moot if the USFWS issues a decision by January 18th, 2013. The judge also ordered that the USFWS must tell the court whether it will issue a January decision on or before December 14th – the day before Montana’s trapping season begins.

It’s exciting to have a potential date on which the decision will be issued, and I look forward to hearing whether this is a definite deadline. The actual media article – widely published in news outlets throughout the west – is pretty short, so we’ll have to wait for more information. There’s are a few more details at Ralph Maughn’s Wildlife News blog. Maughn’s post discusses some of the reasoning behind this lawsuit and the timing – mainly having to do with the implications of both the wolverine trapping season, and possible accidental deaths as wolf trapping is opened statewide. I don’t have time or inclination for further commentary on trapping, advocacy, strategy, and lawsuits, so I’ll leave you all to your own opinions. I will say, though, that I was recently face-to-face with a wolf trap out in the Mongolian countryside, and the park ranger with whom I was talking at the time said that wolverines are caught, with some regularity, in wolf traps here. I’ve heard the same story again and again from herders for the past three years. So while I’m not sure that constant lawsuits are the best way to go, there may be some cause to worry about wolverines getting into wolf traps. Of course, that assumes that wolverines and wolves are using habitat the same way in Mongolia and in the US, which doesn’t seem to be the case. I hope wolverines stay well out of the way as wolf trapping goes forward in the States.