September 17, 2008
On the Trail of Wolverine F3
A Report from the Field
Keeping up with Jason—traveling up a 45% grade—is about as easy as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, or more appropriately a wolverine in the Absaroka Mountains. Nothing exists up here except swirling space punctuated by the buzz and clips of late summer crickets and the occasional rock fall set off by our boots. For Jason, it's another day in the office. He’s the Executive Director of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative and Field Director of the Yellowstone Wolverine Conservation Study.
Jason patrols these mountain peaks by helicopter when they're covered in thick snowfields, by mouse clicks combing GPS data points in a digital GIS program, and on foot guided by telemetry in the more forgiving summer months. He and fellow Yellowstone scientists are gathering data about wolverine distribution, survival, predation habits, habitat selection, and breeding to address basic information needs about this fierce, elusive creature.
The object of Jason’s searching—and the point of our sheer route up one side and down the other of this unnamed mountain on this August day—is a petite, 20-pound Gulo gulo that I met face-to-face not so long ago.
In March of 2007, I answered an invitation to view the first female wolverine captured by the Yellowstone Wolverine Conservation Study. By snowmobile on a midnight expedition, our goal was to garner valuable information from weighing and measuring this wily creature. The project’s wildlife veterinarian would collect a bit of tissue for genetic analysis and she would be equipped with VHF and GPS transmitters. We huddled in a small circle and assigned tasks while Jason approached the live-trap to administer sedative to F3. Her snarls, barks and growls echoed through the lodgepoles with the depth and breadth of a much larger and menacing beast.
I could understand her frustration at being caged but, more so, I admired her anger. Anger that we would have the audacity to enter her world. There aren't many things as "wild" as a wolverine. Naturalist and theorist E. O. Wilson calls Gulo gulo “the embodiment of wildness…they proclaim the mystery of the world.” You can look up at distant mountain peaks, as I do, and know that a wolverine would scale up, down, and all around the craggiest points and a man could never follow in her steps. Because wolverines want nothing to do with us and think the most distant, difficult snowy reaches are the best places to inhabit; I am satisfied in knowing their happiness exists outside of our influence.
Because of these habitat preferences, we know very little about these elusive creatures. And as I find, scrambling up crags and circumventing cliff sides, they always manage to stay a step—or several miles rather—ahead of us. Wolverines are masters at slipping GPS collars off their necks and leaving them in a deep burrow, or tunneling through dense tree falls under the snow and effectively muffling their signals from researchers' receivers. Over the past four years, the Yellowstone Wolverine Conservation Study has detected and collared just four wolverines in the eastern portion of Yellowstone. And not for a lack of trying.
Wolverine researchers, I'm learning, are bred to track wolverines. With a stride twice the length of my own, Jason preps me for this backpacking trek by telling me how he drove one research volunteer into a nauseating state of dehydration hiking 40 miles in pursuit of a wolverine. My consoling thought is that Jason's stature—especially with an expedition pack—rivals a grizzly and surely towers over any black bear that should cross our path. And like grizzlies, wolverines are territorial loners—one wolverine may claim hundreds of miles of square miles to itself. F3's territory gives us 122 square miles at an average of 8,700 feet in elevation to pick through, and we've decided to tackle just a few of them.
So here I am, eyes to the rocky ground searching for signs of little F3. Her GPS collar relays a scatter plot of data points and clusters laid across a map of this terrain. Data points that were recorded by satellite at three hour intervals over a six-month period provide us with a snapshot of where F3’s nose and stomach led her. Scat, even more than a year old, can tell us if F3, or another wolverine, traveled through this high mountain pass and what she chose to eat that winter. The true gold mine is to find a mountain goat carcass, likely beneath a short cliff where she may have stalked and chased the goat to its fall. At one data site we investigate, Jason spots one solitary hair—possibly wolverine—that, pending lab analysis, could divulge reams about F3.
It's a bit maddening, when you consider the extremes required to gather such delicate evidence. It certainly explains the glint in Jason's eye when he talks about a harebrain dream of running teams of researchers on-foot, connected by radio to pilots following a wolverine's real-time movements with GPS in order to investigate fresh haunts and hunts. "Air miles" becomes the running joke, and Jason can't bring himself to announce the next read-out from his GPS unit without chuckling. One air mile may take several hours of scrambling up and down, balancing on loose talus and backtracking. The reality is that our trip is cut much short of the intended route because this unchartered terrain followed in pursuit of a wolverine contains impassable obstacles and sheer cliffs.
Our last night camped above the trees on the scree field, I dream under the half-moon of F3, traipsing up the mountainside and following our scent, marveling at what creature dared to wander into her backyard. I wonder if she recalls a distant dream and can remember my scent. I wonder if she remembers a cold March night when I entered her life and held the sedated, musky wildness of her being in my arms. I wonder if she senses how unique each of us is. F3—among wolverines—to be held by a human, and I to clutch all that is wild and unknown in my own embrace.
To learn more about this wolverine research, and other wildlife projects funded by the Yellowstone Park Foundation, visit www.ypf.org/wildlife.