Go away for two months, cut yourself off from communication with the outside world, and one of the first things you notice on returning is how little you missed blow-by-blow news updates. While I was buying my ticket back to UB from the provincial capital of Murun, I ran into an Israeli guy who mentioned that some of his friends were headed home from their travels, which, in his opinion, was deeply stupid. I nodded politely and then said, “Wait. Why is it stupid?”
He looked at me as if he might have just found a new definition for the quality we were discussing, and said, “There’s kind of a war going on in Gaza right now.”
And I thought, yes, of course there’s a war in Gaza, and I am back in the real world, which is actually a sort of manufactured world compared to the even more real world of mountains and weather and horses and wildlife in which I’ve been living for the past eight weeks, but this is the world with which I am supposed to be current, and right now I do not care, because there is always conflict in the Middle East and there is nothing I can do about it. In my pocket, during this conversation, I had a USB drive containing all of the photos we’d downloaded from our camera traps, which I hadn’t yet been able to look at, and the sum total of pressingly urgent business in the entire universe revolved around whether or not there was a snow leopard among those pictures. I wanted to ignore everything else.
When I got back to the city, however, and opened up my email, it was full of alerts and messages about other news that I would have preferred to ignore in the excitement of sorting through what turned out to be more than 15,000 photos from the camera traps. I am working on a luxuriantly long set of posts detailing the adventures that led to those photos, because it was an amazing summer and deserves a good story, well and carefully written. But time flows relentlessly here in the clock-and-calendar-governed world, and it turns out that on Monday – while I am on a plane for the 24-hour trip back to the United States – the decision on wolverine listing under the Endangered Species Act will at long last be issued. So before I enter the time warp of jetlag, here are a few thoughts on some recent developments in the wolverine world of the US.
First, a wolverine was finally captured on camera in the Uintas in Utah. The presence of the species there has long been suspected, and after a wolverine was photographed this spring in Evanston, Wyoming, close to the state border, the idea of wolverines in the Uintas picked up even more currency, so it’s nice to have some confirmation. The big question now is whether they’re breeding there, or whether the animals in Utah are dispersers – a great research project for a particularly determined gulo-phile. As recent efforts in Montana make clear, capturing wolverines on camera – let alone figuring out what the animals are up to – is not easy. But people will persist, because this is a compelling species.
Second, in July a leaked memo from a regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service reached the press. The memo, written in late May, ordered the withdrawal of the proposed rule for listing. The author, Noreen Walsh, director of Region 6 of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which includes the Rocky Mountain states, stated that climate change should not be considered a threat to wolverines, since there is “uncertainty” around the scale at which wolverine habitat will be affected by snowpack loss, and also uncertainty about the status of the current population in the Rockies. Walsh made this determination despite the fact that the majority of scientists – including the majority of the original reviewers and the majority of a panel convened to consider the debate over the climate modeling – concurred that wolverines rely on snowpack and are threatened by the future loss of snowpack. The memo includes more detail, and there are some excellent quotes that could be pulled out to highlight and explore her reasoning, but in summary, that is the essence.
Immediately, the environmental community decried the fact that politics were influencing what was supposed to be a neutral decision process governed by scientific reason. The memo makes it clear that an individual is exercising a position of influence to go against the grain of scientific consensus and making an arbitrary decision based on the fact that she does “not believe that the available information indicates that listing as threatened is warranted” (memo, pg 17.) She makes some reasoned points about the scope of the ESA and the limitations of language that require it to assess the threats to a species within “the foreseeable future,” which, when you are dealing with geophysical processes like climate and biological processes like evolution and maintenance of genetic diversity, is, legitimately, difficult to define. But her assessment of the science is simply an exercise in delving into more what-ifs and uncertainties, and this is where the memo becomes a tool for exploring how science really works in environmental policy-making.
Let me make it clear that I don’t know the author of the memo, and I have nothing against her, and I am not trying to use this post as a platform to suggest that she’s scientifically ignorant. In fact, I do not intend to go into the details of the scientific arguments and counterarguments made in the memo. I’ll simply restate my position: Wolverines are cold-climate dependent animals. We don’t understand with precision the mechanisms of their relationship with cold and snow, but we know it’s there, and we have a strong inference that it revolves around snow-obligate denning, and around other benefits accruing to a creature who can monopolize and maximize a snowbound niche for much of the year. We also know that during a colder age, in the Pleistocene, wolverines were much more widespread than they are now, with fossils and human cultural artifacts attesting to their presence as far south as Maryland in the US, and France and Spain in Europe. We have the capacity to observe, though the fossil and archaeological record, the consequences of climatic warming on wolverines during a previous episode of major climate change. They vanished from the southern extent of their range. Whatever human-related factors the species was dealing with at that time, when the entire global population of Homo sapiens was a bare handful of dust tossed into the wind and scattered across the landscape, pale in comparison to what they are coping with now, when there are seven billion of us occupying every spare corner of the planet. I doubt that humans were the decisive factor in the previous range contraction of the wolverine, and I doubt that it’s happenstance that the places in which they persist are Pleistocene-reminiscent swaths of snowbound tundra habitat, with a near-perfect adherence to these conditions, at varying elevations, throughout their global range. I admit that I am unaware of anyone ever having written a paper looking closely at the fossil, archaeological, and climate records as they relate to the previous range contraction of wolverines, so this is off-the-cuff and not backed up by anything in the literature other than the various published reports of wolverine fossils. But when you see a trend in the past, with an animal responding in a particular way under particular conditions, and you see those conditions rolling towards you again, and you have a whole pile of additional evidence, based on what we know about their needs and behavior through observation, about why the animal responded as it did, it seems reasonable to conclude that there is a looming threat.
So much for my opinion. As for politics coming into conflict with science-based decision-making, this is like conflict in the Middle East: inevitable, unless and until there’s consensus among all stakeholders about underlying values and goals. And that’s why I think this memo is particularly illustrative of the role – or non-role – of science in the decision process. Science, to quote my father, is about making natural phenomena incrementally more observable to limited human vision, adding, bit by bit, to our store of knowledge about how the world around (and, in the case of human biology, inside) us might be operating. It is not a process that reveals immutable and absolute truth – not because natural laws somehow change in the face of subjective interpretation, as people on both the right (climate deniers, anti-evolutionists) and the left (certain social science professors, anti-vaccine activists) would have us believe, but because our vision will always be limited, no matter how much technology or philosophy we create to improve it. In the case of ecology and wildlife biology, we are attempting to comprehend incredibly complex systems that operate with different pitches of intensity at different scales. This is not an easy endeavor. The science we produce is, therefore, always going to allow room for uncertainty, which makes it (as opposed to the broad natural laws that it describes) open to differing interpretations. This, in turn, renders our discussions about it, as we seek to create policy, vulnerable to the kind of nit-picking that’s endemic to wildlife policy-making and that has been on display in the case of wolverines over the past year. In short, science is an amazing endeavor, but it is not a good tool for making clear policy decisions, because it very seldom provides a definite description of what is going on. And policy is about the concrete.
Case in point: the memo references two uncertainties, which I’ve mentioned above. One is the “uncertainty” about wolverines being cold-climate dependent and vulnerable to climate change. I put this in quotes because I don’t see that there is uncertainty about this fact; there’s uncertainty about precise mechanisms. The second uncertainty – which is a real uncertainty, because of the difficulty of studying the species – is about the demographics and population status of wolverines in the Lower 48. In the memo, Walsh argues that we don’t know that climate change will have impacts at the scale of wolverine denning habitat, so therefore we shouldn’t worry, because this might not happen, they might be fine. She also argues that we are not certain what is going on with the population, and that the population might just as easily be increasing as decreasing, and that, in the absence of any evidence either way, we might as well assume that they are actually doing really well. This reflects a stance that concludes that we shouldn’t worry about something if we can’t describe the problem with 100% precision, even if we can describe it in broadly accurate terms.
These interpretations could easily be shifted in the opposite direction – that we don’t know how climate change will affect wolverine habitat and that we have little idea of demographics within the population, and so we should therefore take a precautionary approach, list the species, and seek to better understand the demographics and ecology until such a time as we are certain that they are going to be okay (and then delist) or are certain that they are not. This reflects a stance that concludes that we should worry about something if we can describe the problem even in a broadly accurate sense, even if we can’t be 100% precise.
The decision that one makes about how to interpret and deal with these uncertainties – precautionary approach versus doing nothing – will almost certainly rest on one’s pre-existing values and how far one’s sense of obligation extends into the outer reaches of various social ingroups and outgroups through time and space. Some people value the wolverine’s inherent right to exist, other people would like their children and grandchildren to have a chance to see one, still others see the close link between ecological and human well-being, and place priority on these outcomes. Other people see interference in the autonomy of state government and the potential for restriction on the growth of profit for companies operating in wolverine habitat, and place priority on mitigating these possibilities. The marginal scientific uncertainty can be exploited to support policy that benefits either position, but the emotional root of either stance has nothing to do with what the climate models say. There is no consensus that the overarching goal should be fulfillment of a moral obligation to protect a species’ right to exist, or, on the other hand, to ensure that every American citizen has an uninfringed right to profit. We do not agree about these things, and the disagreement mutates and pops up in various distressing ways in policy debates, well beyond the wildlife world, that are supposed to be based in science and evidence, but that very seldom are.
Scientists have subsequently submitted letters urging the Secretary of the Interior to overturn the order to withdraw the listing. Additional letters were submitted by the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Society of Mammalogists. I would have signed the letter too, if I’d been in communication when it was circulating, because I am convinced, through the preponderance of evidence in the published literature, the fossil record, and through unfortunately as-yet-unpublished results from my own work in Mongolia, that wolverines are bound to the cold and snow. Uncertainty is part of science, but uncertainty doesn’t absolve us of what I perceive to be our responsibilities to take a precautionary approach when the evidence supports the fact that there is a threat. But my reasons for supporting a precautionary approach are not rooted in science; they’re rooted in my own values, experiences, and upbringing. And unfortunately, not everyone has the same goals I do. So this sort of debate will continue, on and on into the ever-diminishing future of diverse life on planet earth, well after I’m dead.
This summer, while hiking up precarious 10,000 foot ridges, dodging bolts of lightening, and fording raging rivers through roiling water up to my waist, I spent a lot of time thinking about why I do what I do, and it’s not because I enjoy engaging with people and their issues, nor because I see myself as a warrior committed to a particular side in a predetermined battle of some sort. Nor am I fan of the intricacies of policy-making, because policy-making is inherently about dealing with people and their issues. I do what I do because I’m curious. I do it because I’m addicted to stories, and there is a story about wolverines and I barely even know what that story looks like, and I want to know. I do it because I like pushing myself, physically and intellectually. I do it because I think that this process of making natural phenomena more observable to humans, and of finding a way to explain what we are observing, is infinitely enthralling. And, since I’m as self-indulgent as everyone else, let me admit: I do it because I like being out in the mountains and I like seeing wildlife. I don’t know why, but it makes me happy, and it makes me kinder and more generous and altogether a better person.
I’ve spent the past year not writing much on this blog because the major trends in the wolverine world were about policy and human identity issues, not about wolverines. I’ve tried to figure out how to tell this story alongside the one that I’m really interested in, without pointing fingers or suggesting that individual people are inherently wrong in either their scientific interpretations or their value positions. This is a very tricky thing to pull off, especially since I genuinely do respect everyone involved in the wolverine world, and because no matter how wearying I find segments of society that are more interested in power and profit than in pure intellectual enlightenment, everyone is entitled to their own values and beliefs. I hope now for two things: one, that this situation will be resolved in the best interests of wolverines and their ecosystem, in a way that gives them the most enduring chance for survival over the long term. And two: that I’m able to get back to writing about the species and its ecosystem with an enthusiasm and a clarity of focus that have been lacking. So while I’ll probably write a post on whatever the final decision turns out to be, I’ll keep it brief. There are fantastic stories to be told, about the work in Mongolia and about other research, and that’s where I’ll be putting my creative energy.
Thanks for reading. Onward to an account of Mongolian adventures, and to a better, clearer, and more certain understanding of the wolverine and its ecosystem.