Get Ready for a ‘Wild’ Anthropocene

The wildlife biologists are breathless with excitement.

After a century’s absence, images of both male and female wolverines have been captured by wildlife cameras in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. This evidence suggests that this most mythic of carnivores could be breeding further south in Wyoming than anyone thought possible.

Zack Walker of Wyoming Fish and Game expressed his delight that the Winds are now “the southern edge of recolonization.” More new territory, the biologists all hope, might soon follow.

The wolverine is one of North America’s most storied creatures. It is a member of the weasel family with a reputation – mostly warranted – as both a ferocious carnivore and a creature of legendary endurance. Bear-like in appearance, wolf-like in name, the wolverine resists easy attempts at categorization.

wolverine2
Photo courtesy of Wolverine Watchers/Bitterroot Mesocarnivore Monitoring Project

Tracking collars placed on wolverine have demonstrated their tendency to travel straight up and over mountains rather than to negotiate ways around them. At around fifty-five pounds, their huge paws keep them buoyant on top of the snow in winter. Wolverines can easily cover twenty miles per day across territory that leaves mere mortals shattered. Energetic beyond all expectations, they don’t even bother with hibernation. The deep snows of the high country are thought to be the wolverine’s favored environments for birthing their young.

Under the right snow conditions, wolverine will kill moose or caribou and they will show no compunction about taking on bears and wolves when threatened. They can swim and climb trees like experts. The power stored up in their jaws allows them to scavenge frozen carcasses they have cached in the snow and to crack open bones to feed on the marrow inside. Their thick hides make them difficult adversaries for any clawed and toothed attacker.

It is hardly surprising that the wolverine regales under the nickname “mountain devil.”

More relevant to our current story, wolverines can also be prodigious dispersers. Lone males have been spotted in recent years in the Sierra Nevada’s, the Colorado Rockies, and in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. Journeys of five hundred miles or more are not unheard of.

Despite the phenomenal physical stamina and tenacity, wolverines breed perilously slowly and require huge territories. As a consequence, there are believed to be less than three hundred individuals left in the lower forty eight. Decreasing snow cover due to climate change suggests a perilous future for this remarkable species.

For reasons that are (shall we say) “opaque,” wolverines have never been listed under the Endangered Species Act. (Incredibly, trapping of the wolverine was still permitted in Montana as late as 2011). Due to a court decision in 2016, the wolverine is now officially proposed for listing as a threatened species, although little progress in the direction of a formal listing has happened over the last two years.

Last week’s report that wolverines are breeding in places where they have not denned for a hundred years is good news for those with worries about this over-sized mustelid’s future. At the same time, it is also a good opportunity to reflect on the future of wildlife in the Anthropocene.

One might suggest two opposing lines of thinking about the wolverine’s reappearance in the Winds.

Victor Bernard
Photo by Victor Bernard

The first line is an optimistic one.  When regulations change and public attitudes shift in an animal’s favor, certain wildlife species seem to have a surprising and reassuring capacity to bounce back.

This is no reason for complacency, for sure. But the recovery of wolves and grizzly bears in the northern Rockies over the last two decades exemplifies just how much some species of wildlife want to live, if humans will give them half a chance. If humans decide to take their foot off an animal’s neck, even the rarest species can hold their own and recover. The wolverine may have the potential for a similar, if less dramatic, trajectory. This might even be true despite the dramatic changes to ecosystems humans are causing with each passing Anthropocene year.

The second way to think about this recent development is more complex and disorienting for us. This line of thought taps more deeply into what is ‘wild’ about wildlife.

‘Wild’ in this context means spontaneous and self-willed. Being spontaneous and self-willed, animals will show up in places you don’t expect them and they will behave in ways that wildlife managers can’t predict.

Two years ago, the first wolverine in North Dakota for one hundred and fifty years was shot dead by a rancher while standing in the middle of a field surrounded by cattle. It was the very same wolverine that had been tracked on a five hundred mile excursion from Wyoming into Colorado (and back) six years previously. During the earlier excursion it became the first wolverine to show its face in Colorado for ninety years. Just what that wolverine was doing more than four hundred miles from the Rocky Mountains in ranch country in North Dakota is unclear.

But that is just the point.

It is the spontaneity and unpredictability of wildlife that makes them so intriguing. “In wildness resides mystery,” says author Jason Mark, “and we need mystery in our lives like we need our daily bread.”

With wolverines expanding their range to the south, there are some questions being asked about the standard understanding of the relationship between wolverines and the deep snow of the northern mountains. While their historic range is clearly focused on Arctic and sub-Arctic boreal forests and high country, it is possible that the wolverine  shot in North Dakota was beginning a process of adapting to a different kind of lifestyle.

Similar questions have been raised about the wolves that have started to explore densely populated human environments in the Netherlands and in Belgium. According to the wildlife biologists, wolves arriving in the Netherlands from Germany weren’t supposed to be comfortable walking through suburban streets and passing through the parking lots of shopping malls. They weren’t supposed to trot comfortably alongside cultivated farmer’s fields. Polar bears breeding with grizzly bears far away from ice floes are another example of how Anthropocene nature can startle us.

This should not be a complete surprise. Wildlife is by definition unpredictable. It exceeds our ability to completely understand it.

Some might interpret these sorts of surprises as unequivocally good news. Species are creative and adaptable, confounding the experts and behaving in ways that are often not anticipated. Up to a point, this is encouraging.

The flip side of this is the necessity of acknowledging how we don’t fully understand what species need. We can’t fully anticipate how certain individuals will behave when their circumstances change. The future prospects of some wildlife species are not only unknown but also, given the inherent randomness in genetics, population dynamics, and ecological conditions, simply unknowable.

This impenetrability must be viewed as a reason for concern. Populations are every bit as likely to crash under changing Anthropocene conditions as they are to expand.

For those who are interested in the survival of wildlife in an epoch of dramatic change, the future is deeply uncertain. This should sound a serious note of caution at the same time as it provides just a tiny glimmer of hope.

 

 

 

3 Replies to “Get Ready for a ‘Wild’ Anthropocene”

  1. We’ve known that there were female wolverines in the Winds since the early 2000s; a young female from the Tetons was documented dispersing there in around 2005 or 2006. We know that M56 passed through there and the fact that he didn’t stick suggests (though does not prove) that there were males in the range as well. We also have confirmed tracks from the range around 2012, and other photos from the past few years. So this really isn’t news; it’s confirmation of something we’ve suspected, and it reflects increased human search effort, not an actual increased wolverine population or – VERY IMPORTANTLY – an ongoing “expansion to the south.”

    Also, wolverines are a whole lot smaller than you suggest. A big male would weigh in at around 30-35 pounds.

    Finally, it’s frankly ridiculous to suggest that a single dispersing male in North Dakota represents the beginning of an adaptation to “a different kind of lifestyle.” Putting aside the fact that adaptation is a long evolutionary process and isn’t indicated by a single male animal, let’s talk about what we do and do not expect from wolverines. Contrary to your premise, it’s not unexpected to find wolverines in a meta-population situation way outside of core habitat. They range widely and we fully expect this. In my work with the wolverine population in Mongolia, where the population is structured similarly to that in the Rockies, we often find them in areas we don’t define as habitat. What we don’t see in these non-habitat areas is sustained reproduction. Adaptation to new habitat would require a persistent territorial, reproductive population over time, not a single animal out of context. In a fully healthy wolverine population, we’d expect to see a number of dispersers traveling out into non-habitat and dying without finding a mate or a territory. This is classic source-sink dynamics. It’s precisely what the experts expect.

    M56’s presence in North Dakota was surprising only because it’s one of the very few occasions where we have actually seen wolverines way outside of habitat here in the Lower 48 since we nearly wiped them out a century ago. It’s not unexpected inherently, only because of the history and context. And of course it got way more attention because he was the same wolverine who went to Colorado.

    I appreciate your attempt to reflect on how people relate to and react to wildlife, but am frustrated by the way folks with a particular take on things try to use wolverines to prove whatever their pet point is, even when that involves being entirely inaccurate about the species they’re using to make this point. You’re right that wildlife behaves in unexpected ways and that we don’t understand everything about adaptive plasticity in various populations, but you’re incorrect about what, exactly, we’re not understanding in the particular case of wolverines.

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    1. Your points are well taken, Rebecca, and much appreciated. I did not recognize how confident biologists were that wolverines had already take up residence in the Wind Rivers.

      I still think it important to recognize that the unpredictability of wildlife is part of what captivates people about them. Notwithstanding the great work that wildlife biologists do to fill out a picture of these sorts of animals, wolverine and other species still behave in ways that surprise us. They will almost certainly continue to do so as climate change unleashes more and more of its effects.

      Charismatic species – even particular individuals within those species (e.g. M56) – are inevitably freighted with a ton of cultural baggage. But I think that is okay. They are important symbols of a world that exist outside of human control. For better or worse, they shoulder that burden and it is a burden that becomes more and more significant as time goes on.

      People the world over continue to celebrate these essential non-human elements of the world around us. As part of that celebration, they should support the work of people like you who are doing what they can to make sure these species survive.

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      1. I take no issue with the importance of recognizing the unpredictability of wildlife behavior, only with the inaccurate portrayal of where that unpredictability resides. And also, somewhat, with the conflation of being surprised because the actual behavior itself is “unpredictable,” vs. being surprised because we’ve previously failed to dedicate the effort to looking at or thinking about the particular question.

        Wolves in cities, for example, represent nothing unpredictable about wolf behavior; it’s entirely predictable if you look at your nearest domestic dog and reflect on its evolutionary history, which revolves around wolves scrounging off human garbage and liking it so much they became our boon companions. It’s only surprising to have them turn up in cities insofar as we haven’t observed this in the recent past – it’s not an adaptive or new behavior on their part. It’s just something we never bothered to actually predict. See why the confusion between “unpredictable,” “adaptive,” “previously unobserved,” and “surprising” is a problem for the argument you’re trying to construct? An animal behavior may be very surprising to us, but the measure of our emotional and intellectual reaction to it – surprise – is totally unrelated to whether it’s actually representative of adaptive plasticity, which is a question of genetics, epi-genetics, environmental drivers, and so forth. So reaching any conclusion, hopeful or despairing, about the future of wildlife on the basis of our degree of “surprise” about a behavior is a really unreliable way to formulate an approach to wildlife, climate change, and the anthropocene.

        You are talking about how we freight animals with symbolic cultural baggage and that’s a good discussion to have. But just don’t confuse human surprise at an animal behavior with adaptation by the animal. Not the same thing.

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