Monday, November 8, 2010

The Wolverine Way

The Wolverine Way, by Douglas H. Chadwick, 2010

Review by Linda Driskill, Grant County Conservationists

It’s interesting that it has taken until the 21st century for research to shed light on the charismatic creature known as the wolverine, perhaps pound-for-pound the most powerful animal in the entire warm-blooded wildlife community. And one of the most vulnerable species in the lower 48 states.

Author and wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick joined a nearly all-volunteer wolverine study team in 2007 then later decided to write a book on both this remarkable animal and the remarkable research team members. Leading this effort in recent years in Glacier National Park was Jeff Copeland, a USFS research scientist.

Wolverines have long had a reputation among trappers as ruthless plunderers (“North Woods Devils”), difficult to catch or kill. Chadwick feels, however, reviling wolverines hasn’t been fundamentally about wolverines but rather about us. We humans have a spectacular ability, he thinks, to maneuver images and thoughts whereby our enemies become no longer ordinary beings but mutate inside our heads into evil things, flaws in the world’s proper order that deserve to be rooted out.

What is “the wolverine way”? Apparently the animals and the particular humans studying and trying to relate to them share an attitude…both have a chip on their shoulders with “no quit” in them. One tale tells of a wolverine with traps on three legs still lunging after bait! Wolverines come preloaded with what looks to us like an “insane amount of attitude” and the 30 lb animal will take on a grizzly bear. Chadwick sees them as living life as fiercely and relentlessly as it has ever been lived. Perhaps wolverines are the ultimate role models for not taking crap from anybody or anything. Wolverines roam mountain peaks at will, scale them, summit them, scavenge in their snow slides, hunt their cliffs and intimidate their largest inhabitants. Following them around in the wild guarantees, he writes, that you will never become one of those people for whom existence begins to feel stale.

Among myths that were shattered by the research team was the one alleging that the wolverine is an intractable loner even to the point of killing its own young. This team instead discovered that words like family ties, cooperation, and affection better describe these animals. They found examples of juveniles becoming independent of Mom’s care only to go off and spend a little time with Dad then maybe back to hang out with Mom - behavior that is virtually nonexistent among other mammals, including most primates.

My favorite wolverine/human story is one told by Copeland about when he and his family were spending the summer on an old sheep ranch in the Glacier area. He writes his youngest daughter was small and agile enough to go down in among boulders and report back to him on what she saw. Once, his slightly older daughter and he were sitting among some boulders after having lost the signal of an older female wolverine. Suddenly he realized there was a wolverine sniffing at his daughter’s leg!

Wolverine may be our subarctic “polar bear”, by having its very existence threatened today by global warming. Unlike most of the large carnivores who are generalists, these animals are cold and snow obligates – they must have these conditions to survive. As the planet warms their existence is threatened. Glacier Park in 1910 had 150 glaciers, it now has 25 and they are shrinking.

The wolverine population of Glacier is known among conservation biologists as a “metapopulation,” a group of a species separate from others but which like a network of villages stay interconnected by movements such as migration or dispersal. The way to manage them is to provide some landscape connectivity or corridors for predators, prey and others to be able to move. Copeland feels the idea can be summed up as “freedom to roam.” For centuries, Glacier to Banff was a corridor allowing animals such as the great predators the ability to disperse safely and survive. It is now filing up with logging operations, busy highways, backcountry roads and new subdivisions.

The wolverine has been designated a “focal species” by the soon-to-be-released draft of the new Blue Mountain Forests Management Plan. Many of us have worked long and hard to convince the USFS management team to include a credible plan to connect wilderness, roadless, recreation areas, etc. into a strategy for landscape connectivity. I personally have submitted maps of how it could be fairly easily done. But lip service is about all we seem to be getting so far. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife with their Oregon Strategic Plan and others such as the Hells Canyon Preservation Council and The Nature Conservancy are much more serious and advanced with maps and proposals to connect key conservation areas. These entities have been well aware for quite some time that the disappearance of a top, or apex, carnivore ripples all the way down the steps of the food pyramid. Each loss skews the balance between other meat eaters causing considerable instability and out-of-balance conditions. Those of us reading of the amazing resurgence of beaver populations and aspen in Yellowstone following the return of the wolves have been following a tale of pure inspiration. Wolves keep elk and moose populations moving and allow the regrowth of willows and restoration of aquatic habitat.

The Wolverine Way is a great read with good photos and lots of adventure and inspiration and is available at local libraries and bookstores.

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