Monitoring vs. Snapshot

This winter, the states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington have teamed up to participate in a survey that will contribute to our understanding of wolverines in the US Rockies. This multi-state survey is a single season snapshot of wolverine distribution, using cameras and scent lures and some genetic analysis. Articles about this effort continue to pop up here and there; I haven’t highlighted them on the blog because most of the articles are rudimentary and don’t provide a lot of useful information. One trait that a lot of these pieces share, however, is a tendency to mischaracterize this effort as a “monitoring” program rather than a quick, single-season look at a highly dynamic population. Any effort to increase our understanding of wolverines is worthwhile, and the multi-state survey is no exception. It will potentially yield some interesting data. But the ongoing story about this being a monitoring effort that will result in “preserving” wolverines is misleading.

My personal obsession with clarifying all the minute nuances and details around wolverine science and the claims and counterclaims of competing interest groups has seemed, given the broader media landscape and socio-political trends, increasingly quaint and perhaps even Quixotic in recent months. Nevertheless, I’m going to carry on. So let’s take the latest iteration of the claim that the multi-state project is a monitoring project: a piece that appeared today on the KBZK Montana website. The headline states, “Wolverine Preservation Project Underway.” And then, in the space of a 265 word piece, the word “monitor” and variants are used four times. The words “conserve,” “preserve,” and variations thereon are used five times. At no point does the piece offer any substance with regards to what “conservation” or “preservation” entail, or how the survey connects to those objectives, or even what the source of threat is, with the exception of a quote in which Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks biologist Bob Inman talks about re-establishing populations in currently uninhabited former range.

Some earlier articles on this effort were more thorough and, in some cases, highlighted the snapshot nature of this winter’s survey. But even these articles tended to refer to it as a monitoring project, in both headlines and in the content of the articles, as in this piece. Monitoring, to be clear, involves the long-term observation of a process of interest to track trends or changes. A snapshot is a look at what’s going on with that process within a bounded period of time. A one-season survey is useful for offering insight into baseline conditions – but of course, we still have to keep in mind that the “baseline” is a fairly arbitrary moment, the significance of which hasn’t really been established. And with a highly mobile, sparsely distributed meta-population, in which habitat patches may move through cycles of occupancy and non-occupancy, we have to think critically about what the “baseline” information actually tells us about the population at large. The publicity around this project is interesting – the elisions in the narrative may just be the result of incomplete reporting, or they may represent intentional messaging, but either way, it’s a key example of a story being purveyed in the media in a way that doesn’t look closely enough at the scientific and policy contexts.

Again, any attempt to gain more information about wolverines is worthwhile and potentially valuable, and that’s true for the multi-state study, so my critique here isn’t necessarily of that effort (I’ll have more to say about that later, though). My concern is with the way media stories about wildlife science and policy create simplistic narratives about single studies leading to particular outcomes. Anyone reading these pieces should immediately ask whether the scope of the study matches the scale of the claims about the knowledge that will come out of it, and the level of protection and conservation that will be implemented as a result. Just something to consider as these stories continue to appear. I’ll be writing more on this topic in the future.

In the meantime, have a great weekend – hope it includes some good wolverine weather for all of you.

 

Wolverine Presentation in Washington

For those interested in learning more about wolverines in the north Cascades, Dr. Keith Aubry will give a talk about his work on November 5th at 7 pm, at the Adopt A Stream Foundation’s North Stream Center in Snohomish County’s McCollum Park, 600-128th Street SE, Everett WA 98208.  Dr. Aubry conducted the first study of wolverines in the Cascades, and this is a great opportunity to hear about this work. More details are available here.

Other exciting wolverine-related news is in the works, so check back over the next few weeks.

Wolverine News From All Over

Wolverines have made the news fairly frequently over the past few weeks. Here are a few articles that just came out, and a few that I missed posting earlier.

First, another update on the Alberta wolverine research, which I discussed briefly last week, can be found here. This article is longer and does a much better job of discussing the varied factors that influence where wolverines appear on the landscape.

Second, DNA tests confirm that the wolverine recently spotted in California is the same wolverine first detected in 2008. An article in the LA Times contends that this means that the animal is nearing the end of its life, since wolverines are generally thought to average about a ten year lifespan, and this animal is at least seven. I’ve heard rumors that a wolverine known to be much older was recently recaptured on a project, however, so let’s hope that the Sierra wolverine proves to be equally long-lived – maybe by then a female will find her way to California as well.

In the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, forest biologists are continuing a project to assess the wolverine population, using DNA and Audrey Magoun’s camera techniques. This is one of the many wolverine projects that have sprung up over the past few years, indication of a heightened interest in a species that was once overlooked. Another ongoing project continues the work begun in Idaho to assess the influence of motorized and non-motorized backcountry recreation on wolverines. Operating for a second year in the Tetons, this study was featured in a June 2014 article that I missed posting because I was in Mongolia. It’s worth the read, and it’s great to think how much this project has accomplished since it started in 2009. Although this article has a typically controversy-generating headline (“Can wolverines and backcountry skiers coexist?”), the alarm is misplaced. The answer to the question is “yes,” so let’s dispense with the need to get people worked up. The real question revolves around whether either of these snow-obligate species will continue to prosper in the era of diminishing snowpack.

In Washington, researchers recently captured a 30 pound (!) male wolverine, as part of the final season of the decade-long North Cascades wolverine project. The article is fairly detailed and I’d like to focus a little more on this project in a separate post, but in the meantime, four observations. One – that’s an impressively large wolverine! Two, I’m so glad to hear that at least a few people did something interesting on Super Bowl Sunday – not just this year, but last year as well. Three, I’m assuming they named this wolverine “Special K” after the ketamine used in the capture, which betrays a somewhat dark aesthetic on the part of the researchers. Four, and most interesting, it appears that this wolverine is the son of Rocky, the original male occupying the area. Rocky vanished and was replaced by his son, Logan, who has now moved to a different location, apparently displaced by his half-brother Special K – the one named after the drug. Definitely some interesting social interaction data, but it also really piques my interest in how wolverines maintain enough genetic diversity to avoid fatal bottle-necks, since these males are taking over territories that most likely overlap with those of their mothers and/or their sisters.

Also in Washington, a news video and an article with a second video feature work on wolverines near Snoqualmie Pass. This is interesting, but the reporter does the same thing that generally drives me crazy when people talk about wolverines: he equates presence with a reproductive population, stating that wolverines are “moving south in spite of climate change,” which implies that there’s a resident population. I’m excited to see wolverine detections in new locations, but there are two things to keep in mind: first, as I mentioned, a wolverine or two is not necessarily a breeding population, and second, are these detections the result of wolverines moving in to new locations and expanding south, or are we finding them because we now have the motivation and the technology to look in places where we weren’t looking before? (I incline towards the former because I’m invested in the idea that wolverines are recolonizing, but that may just be my bias. It’s a question worth asking. Cameras and DNA make it easier to ‘observe’ the landscape in a sustained way that was unavailable to us until recently.) In any case, it’s nice to see yet another study utilizing Audrey Magoun’s camera technique.

Finally, for Montana residents, if you have ever felt the need to declare your allegiance to the conservation of climate-sensitive wildlife with a license plate for your (hopefully hybrid) car, you can now buy a specialty plate featuring a wolverine. The proceeds benefit the Swan Ecosystem Center and Northwest Connections, environmental groups that help monitor wildlife and work towards ecosystem conservation.

Wolverines may or may not be expanding their range, but interest in wolverines definitely is. It’s exciting to see.

 

 

 

 

 

Wolverine Talk in Washington State

Keith Aubry, who runs wolverine research for the Forest Service in the North Cascades, will give a talk next Thursday, September 19th, 7pm, at the Northwest Stream Center in McCollum Park, Everett, Washington. The talk will cover his seven years of work on wolverines in Washington, including last year’s discovery of the region’s first documented reproductive dens. Attending the talk requires advance registration and a ticket. Details can be found here.

My talk last week in Jackson went well – the Jackson Hole Bird and Nature club comprises a great group of dedicated naturalists and scientists, and it was a pleasure to talk to such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience. I also appreciated the fact that a number of people who showed up for a misadvertised geology talk stuck around to learn about wolverines instead.

Over the course of the past several years, Jason Wilmot, Jeff Copeland, Gianna Savoie, and Doug Chadwick have been periodically involved in a series of talks about wolverine science and conservation. Much of their effort focused on introducing the species to the public, talking about basic biology and ecology, coaching people on how to ID the animal and its tracks, outlining threats and conservation challenges, and emphasizing the climate change issues. As I put together my talk, I had to make some choices about how to balance the “This is a Wolverine and Here’s Why It’s Amazing” theme with the “Here’s What I Do in Mongolia, and Here’s Why It’s Important” theme. In an effort to assess how much background I needed to give, I gave the audience a quick quiz at the beginning of the talk. I was struck by the fact that they knew all the answers, which left me free to move on to the story of working on wolverines in Mongolia. Admittedly this was a group of naturalists, but I wonder whether we’ve now moved to a second phase in conveying information about the species. Maybe all those earlier efforts have paid off, and we have a more broadly educated wolverine constituency? I certainly hope so.

Many thanks again to all those who came to the talk.

 

 

 

Haplotype C in the Cascades

The Cascades have a new female wolverine. She was camera-trapped in the Chiwaukum Mountains in the Weenatchee National Forest, about 100 miles northeast of Mount Ranier. DNA analysis suggests that she is not related to any of the wolverines yet recorded in the Cascades. The analysis also confirmed that, like other Cascades wolverines, her haplotype is C, which, in a 2007 study by the Rocky Mountain Research Station, was found only in wolverines from the Northwest Territories and Alberta, Canada. Here’s an excerpt from the project’s explanation of why the presence of this haplotype might be important:

Halotypes are a part of the DNA that can tell us a bit about the evolutionary history of the animal. All of the wolverines recorded in the North Cascades to date are halotype C. This halotype does not occur in the Rocky Mountains, where extensive genetic research has occurred on their wolverine populations. Because of this, researchers believe that our Cascades’ wolverine population comes from the north not the east, and that our Washington Cascades’ population is genetically unique from other US wolverine populations.

Look at a map, and this seems logical; the Canadian Rockies make a perfect travel corridor for wolverines dispersing into Washington. The fact that this wolverine is a female, at the southernmost tip of known resident wolverine distribution in Washington, is interesting, particularly if she is unrelated to other Cascades wolverines. Some people have suggested that female wolverines don’t disperse over the same distances as males, that they inevitably occupy territories as close to their mothers as possible; this wolverine might suggest that the hypothesis of more home-bound females is incorrect. It might also suggest that there are undetected wolverines in the Cascades, and that she is related to one of them. Either (or both) could be true. I’m curious about the haplotypes of the wolverines detected in northern Idaho, since they, too, could be easily influenced by animals from the Canadian Rockies, but are also in very close proximity to the Glacier population in Montana.

For people who enjoy the occasional visual of a wolverine, here’s a short video of a wolverine feeding on a brown bear carcass in Alaska. This is on a hunting site, and I had to endure an advertisement for four-wheelers before getting to the wolverine, but there’s some reasonable footage of the wolverine running, illustrating that unique gulo gait that might help you determine that you’re looking at a wolverine if you see one in the field.

For people looking for a consistent social-media stream of wolverine images, I’d also suggest “liking” the Scandinavian Lynx Project’s facebook page. In addition to images of wolverines, you’ll get some insight into how wolverines are interacting with the rest of their ecosystem in Scandinavia. And also, of course, don’t forget to “like” the Mongolian Wildlife and Climate Change Project’s facebook page, where updates on my own work in Mongolia will be posted.

note: In an earlier version of this post, I stated that this was the southernmost confirmed sighting in Washington. Wolverines have been confirmed near Mt Adams, which is further to the south – for some reason, I tend to confuse Mt. Hood, which is in Oregon, with Mt. Adams, which is in Washington. This wolverine has been sighted as recently as January of 2012. Thanks to Jocelyn Akins for some updated info on the Mt. Adams work. 

Wolverines in the New Year

Just in time for the new year, the January 2012 issue of Smithsonian features a short piece about Keith Aubry’s work in Washington, briefly documenting the adventures of the Cascades’ contingent of wolverines – Xena, Rocky, Chewbacca, Melanie, and Sasha. These wolverines have huge territories, among the largest ever reported for North American wolverines. The article suggests that in two possible mated pairs, the females have larger territories than the males (Xena covers 760 square miles to Chewbacca’s 730, and Melanie defends 560 square miles compared to Rocky’s 440), which seems the inverse of the usual observation that male territories are larger than female territories. The usual ratio is roughly two female territories to every male territory, which means that two (or sometimes more) females share a mate. The researchers haven’t proven that reproduction is occurring in the Cascades, so these animals, even if they overlap with each other, may  be young animals still exploring the world and not yet defending a true territory. Or we may simply not know enough to make any kind of generalization about how female and male wolverines behave when they are in different environments and circumstances.

So what else does the new year hold for wolverines? 2012 will see more wolverine studies in more locations in the US than ever before – long-term monitoring of wolverines in the Greater Yellowstone region continues for the animals originally collared by the Absaroka-Beartooth project, and for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wolverines. Round River Conservation continues research on the interface between wolverines and winter recreation in Idaho, expanding the study from McCall to Stanley and Fairfield, while further to the north, Idaho Fish and Game, in collaboration with various conservation organizations, launches a second season of camera-trapping for wolverines in the Selkirk, Cabinet, and Purcell ranges. In Oregon, Audrey Magoun and the Oregon Department of Fish and Game are constructing camera trap bait stations across the Wallowa mountains for a second season of work that will hopefully reveal a resident population; the three males photographed this past spring represent the first documentation of wolverines in the range, and if the cameras capture a nursing female this year, it will be the first evidence of a breeding population in the state since the species was declared extirpated in 1936. A camera trap project in Oregon’s Cascades will seek to document wolverines further to the west, while the Cascades Carnivore Project monitors wolverines (among other species) in the Washington Cascades. This means that at least eight projects (there may be more; I’m not sure about the status of the Glacier National Park DNA and camera study) are working on wolverines in the US. Internationally, Canada, Sweden, and Norway continue research on wolverines, and 2012 will see the set-up of camera traps in Mongolia.

2011 was a big year for wolverines. The momentum from the 2010 listing decision and the attention from the PBS wolverine documentary and Doug Chadwick’s book contributed to an increase in public awareness of the species. The discovery of wolverines in the Wallowa mountains in Oregon generated excitement. The launch of three non-invasive, camera and DNA-based studies – one in Oregon, one in Glacier, and one in Idaho – point to the new direction that wolverine research is taking: easier on the animal, and (somewhat) less labor intensive for the people, who have known from the beginning that trying to keep up with this animal is an impossible aspiration.

For me, the year began in Cambodia, contemplating ways to mitigate climate change effects, proceeded to Mongolia for a summer of tracking wolverines through the Altai and Sayan mountains, and wound down in Oregon, where I was privileged to have the opportunity to participate in the Wallowa work. I hope that the coming year holds just as much adventure for everyone, and that 2012 is full of good things for wolverines, wolverine researchers, and wolverine fans everywhere. Thanks to the blog’s readership and to everyone who supports wolverine research and conservation, and Happy New Year!

Wolverine the Creator

Here’s a brief legend about Wolverine the Creator, from the Innu tribe of Quebec:

” Long ago, Kuekuatsheu [wolverine] built a big boat like Noah’s Ark, and put all the various animal species in it. There was a great deal of rain and the land was flooded. He told the mink to dive into the water to retrieve some mud and rocks, which he mixed together to make an island. This island is the world which we presently inhabit along with all the animals.”

I took this from an article in the Boise Weekly about a Jeff Copeland lecture last week. Unfortunately I didn’t know about the lecture beforehand, or I would have publicized it, but the legend is nice. ‘Kuekuatsheu’ is the word from which one of the animal’s French names, ‘caracajou,’ derives; early French trappers in Quebec knew the animal by its Innu name and adapted it to a French pronunciation.

Closer to home, a writer in Washington state had an encounter with a wolverine in the Cascades, and if the author of the post wasn’t impressed enough to consider the wolverine a Creator God, the degree of excitement was a near miss. It’s nice to see people so amped up about gulos.

Closer still, dogs treed a wolverine in a campground just south of Glacier National Park. The wolverine, which the campground caretaker speculated was a young animal, was unhurt and later left the area. It might have been a dispersing juvenile who happened into the campground, but in any case, it’s further evidence that attractants such as garbage should be managed carefully at campground – not just for the sake of bears, but for wolverines as well.

Related to issues facing the wolverine, a recent study suggests that the consequences of species loss to climate change may be greater than originally thought. Up to a third of all species may go extinct, but even within species that remain, up to 80% of genetic diversity may be lost. In the case of wolverines, we might see this if gulos remained on the landscape in the Arctic, but populations with unique haplotypes were lost as populations further south died off. Mongolian wolverines, for example, possess an apparently unique haplotype (mng1) that would disappear if wolverines were knocked out of mountain ranges at the southern margin of their range. In turn, this would reduce the genetic diversity of the species as a whole, reducing options for the remaining wolverines and eventually leading to genetic bottlenecking and perhaps extinction further down the road. Not a happy thought, for wolverines or for the other species who might be affected.

And finally – just to end on a happier, although not-entirely-gulocentric, note – a grizzly bear with two cubs has been sighted near Shelby, Montana – the furthest east of any grizzly since they were nearly wiped out in the 19th century. The fact that the bear is a female is significant; like wolverines, a female bear tends to adopt a territory close to her mother’s, which means that the benchmark of population expansion is reproductive females (as opposed to the more wide-ranging young males.) Hopefully this bear and her cubs will stay out of trouble and continue to boost the grizzly population and range.