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Wolverines As A Litmus Test On Human Values

Whether these charismatic animals persist first requires an honest reflection on our own biases

Photo courtesy Barney Moss (www.flickr.com/photos/barneymoss)
Photo courtesy Barney Moss (www.flickr.com/photos/barneymoss)
Here’s a confession: I got involved with wolverine work to escape the controversies of the wolf debate. 

Back in 2006, I came out West initially to do my master’s research on the social and biological consequences of the wolf reintroduction a decade earlier. After an unsettling summer of interviewing people on all sides of the wolf debate, I went searching for a species that would keep me well away from toxic discourses that had more to do with identity politics and value conflicts than with the animal itself.

Wolverines were ideal – they lived in the cold, high places I loved, and most Americans didn’t even know what a wolverine was. No one had invested their identity—and ego— in wolverines the way they had in wolves. No one cared about wolverine policy except for a tiny group of wolverine biologists and a few dedicated wolverine fans. I could count this entire cadre of people on my fingers.

 When I came West permanently in 2008, it was with the intention of focusing on Gulo gulo and staying firmly away from Homo sapiens

Twelve years later, observing the fifth iteration of proposed listing for wolverines under the Endangered Species Act, my optimistic naïveté in trying to evade the West’s conflicts over wildlife policy makes me laugh.

There’s no way to escape these dynamics when you work on carnivores. Despite the best efforts of a group of wolverine researchers who saw this coming, none of us could prevent the species from being co-opted into the heated pre-existing discourse around western wildlife.

With a new listing decision due out before the end of 2018, and the recent publication of a report suggesting that wolverines are sensitive to disturbance by recreation, wolverines are firmly in the zone of conflict discourse. At its root, of course, this discourse is not really about wildlife so much as it is about competing interests trying to advance their own values and worldviews.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the two divergent narratives that have sprung up around  wolverine science. In this piece and several pieces to follow, I’ll consider the outlines of these narratives, the body of science behind them, the policy implications, and the underlying and often unacknowledged worldview and power negotiations that propel the debate.

To understand the two wolverine narratives, we first have to take a brief look at the history of the species, and the science, in the Rockies. Wolverines were probably wiped out of the Lower 48 as a byproduct of predator eradication campaigns in the early 20th century.

Highly adept scavengers with a nose for carrion, wolverines were susceptible to poisoned bait put out for wolves and coyotes. They were also trapped for their fur, which took an additional toll. For the past 50 years, they’ve staged a slow but steady comeback as they’ve dispersed south from Canada, repopulating the northern Rockies as far south as the Tetons, the location of the southernmost recorded den in the US.

The earliest telemetry study of wolverines in Montana was conducted in the 1980s. In the 1990s and 2000s, GPS and satellite collars allowed for more refined data collection, leading to a greater understanding of wolverine social dynamics and habitat requirements.

Genetics opened another avenue of scientific exploration, and widespread and relatively cheap automatic cameras permitted new forms of survey from about 2005 on. At the end of the first two decades of systematic wolverine research, we understood that wolverines are naturally rare, highly territorial, and extremely mobile, capable of dispersing hundreds of miles, and of ceaselessly patrolling enormous home ranges.

The genetics also told us that as of 2009 there were somewhere between 28 and 52 individual wolverines contributing to the genetics of the population in the entire Rockies, with maybe 300 individuals on the landscape in total.
The genetics told us that as of 2009 there were somewhere between 28 and 52 individual wolverines contributing to the genetics of the population in the entire Rockies, with maybe 300 individuals on the landscape in total.
Perhaps most importantly, we understood that wolverines were tied to cold and snowy climates. In a 2010 paper drawing on telemetry and satellite datasets from all preceding wolverine research projects worldwide, as well as expert input from wolverine researchers around the globe, every wolverine scientist in the world signed on to a paper showing that wolverine distribution was constrained by availability of late spring snowpack and low summer temperatures.

The authors proposed that the distribution pattern indicated an obligate relationship between persistent wolverine populations and spring snowpack, which wolverines use for denning between February and May. Obligate means that wolverines rely on snowpack; their natural history shaped by it.

The paper left open the possibility that other mechanisms besides denning might contribute to this global distribution pattern as well, and specified that the pattern held true only south of 54°N latitude.

North of 54°N, the paper stated that the strict relationship between mid-May snowpack and wolverine distribution broke down, for reasons that are as yet unclear. This paper, and a second one modeling decreasing spring snowpack in the Rockies over the coming decades, were the basis for the 2013 proposed rule to list wolverines due to risk from climate change.
These two wolverine narratives fighting for dominance in the listing debate start in the same place – with wolverine extirpation and recolonization. The first story, however, takes a trend from the past century and projects it infinitely into the future. This story claims that because the wolverine population has been expanding, both numerically and spatially, it will continue to expand in the same way indefinitely. 

Under this sceneario, which I’ll refer to as the “Wolverines Are Fine” narrative, ecology proceeds in a linear and relatively static fashion, without dynamic or potentially confounding factors to disrupt patterns observed in the past. It suggests says that inaction on potential threats is acceptable, and even goes so far as to support the renewal of a Montana trapping season that was closed in 2012 by court order.

The second story, which I’ll call the “Wolverines are Vulnerable” narrative, acknowledges the numerous human-related trends that are about to collide head-on with the wolverine’s once-expanding population. Climate change is one of those. Development and its attendant challenges, including growing recreation pressure, is another.

This scenario suggests that we are capable of taking precautionary action by acknowledging and attempting to mitigate threats to the species. It also bows to the reality that ecology is a complex set of processes with interlinked causal relationships, and trends that can reverse themselves. This multi-variable view says that wolverines will decline in the coming decades as we lose low summer temperatures and late spring snowpack, and that the threat requires action.

At this point, most people would be inclined to ask which narrative is “true.” A better question to ask is which narrative the best available science supports. But before that, an even better preliminary question is this: which narrative do you instinctively gravitate towards? Answer honestly.
Most people would be inclined to ask which narrative is “true.” A better question to ask is which narrative the best available science supports. But before that, an even better preliminary question is this: which narrative do you instinctively gravitate towards? Answer honestly.
Now ask yourself an equally important follow-up: Why? What cultural factors or biases do you bring to your reading of this situation? Where do you align your interests and values when it comes to wildlife issues? How do you see the outcome of the wolverine decision benefiting or threatening those values and interests?

In my attempts to dodge the human side of wildlife issues by approaching wolverines as a question of science and research, I’ve been asked again and again, by individuals and by organizations, to clarify what the science “really” says about wolverines.

In many cases, what people are asking for when they ask this question is either a vindication/validation of their own pre-existing values through the medium of expertise, or else an excuse to argue because the science challenges their pre-existing values and they must discredit that expertise.

I intend to write more about the wolverine science here, but before I do that, I want to invite readers who are interested in this topic to reflect deeply about their own values, positions, and interests in this debate.

 I’d like all of us to be clear about when we’re talking about science, and when we’re talking about advancing our interests and values, either through the medium of science, or in spite of what the science says. If we can disentangle these things and talk about them with awareness, wolverines might yet avoid fully becoming a casualty of the West’s wildlife wars.
Rebecca Watters
About Rebecca Watters

Rebecca Watters is a wildlife biologist, research associate with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative in Jackson, Wyoming and executive director of The Wolverine Foundation based in Bozeman, Montana.
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