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Archive for February, 2010

Here is the piece I wrote for the Chattermarks Blog about our first wolverine capture of the season, almost a month ago now.  I’ll likely post another or two here in the next few weeks, and will let you know here when and if those go up. Enjoy…

Typical wolverine habitat

It’s the radio call we’ve been waiting for all season. Adam and I linger beside the truck, waiting to unload a couple of snowmobiles and get on with our assignment for the day—setting up our first camera station. But our attention is focused on the Forest Service radio. Waiting. Sherrie and John are up Twisp River checking on two wolverine traps that emit a “closed” signal from their radio transmitters. They’ve checked the first, and found it occupied by a marten. They should be at the second trap at any moment.

After fifteen minutes of fidgeting, kicking at snow, and checking our watches, the radio comes to life. We eavesdrop on static and garbled voices, and finally make out words that change our day. There’s a wolverine in the trap. Our afternoon becomes more interesting. And longer. We pile back into the truck and drag our snowmobiles toward Twisp River.

This winter, ten or more Forest Service employees and volunteers tend ten wolverine traps on the outskirts of the North Cascades. We’ve been at it for two weeks already—replacing bait, checking the function of the traps, dealing with radio transmitter malfunctions, and shoveling snow off of the traps. The status of the traps is checked each morning with radio receivers. We physically inspect and test the traps every three days or so. It’s a fair amount of work, and the crew comes home each afternoon a bit weary and smelling of snowmobile exhaust. So far we’ve caught nothing but martens.

Why all the fuss? Because the North Cascades mountain range is home to wolverines, and we know nearly nothing about them. If you were to quiz a wolverine biologist about wolverines here, you would repeatedly hear the words “I don’t know.” How many are there? How big is a home range? Is it a self-sustaining population? Declining? Increasing? What habitats do they use? Are there threats to their continued existence? A single wolverine has a home range that easily exceeds a hundred square miles of rugged, mountainous terrain. Population density is low. They are extremely difficult to study. And yet land managers are still expected to manage them intelligently.

There are studies from the northern Rockies that fill in some of the basics about the species, but there are always regional intricacies of habitat and population that make extrapolating information about Montana wolverines to a Cascades population difficult.

And so here we are.

Near the trap, John and Sherrie build a flat platform out of the most readily available resource—snow. In a few hours the snow table will be the “operating table” as the wolverine is measured and fitted with a GPS collar. We work quietly, trying to disturb the nearby animal as little as possible.

John wants a second look at the wolverine, and I am eager for a first look, so we approach the closed trap. The sound of our footsteps in the snow triggers a deep, throaty growl from the depths of the trap. This is no marten. It sounds like a bear.

And so we peer into the trap, pointing a flashlight and opening the door as little as we need to. The traps are built of solid timber, and the lid takes some effort for us to lift, but still we need additional mechanical stops on the top to prevent the wolverine from pushing the lid up and escaping. Their strength is legendary.

In the light of the flashlight, her eyes reflect green. She stalks back and forth against the back of the trap. The biologist in me carefully studies the ears and makes sure there is no collar already on her—there are wolverines in the area that have been trapped before and may or may not be wearing a defunct collar, and may or may not still have colored ear tags in their ears. This one’s ears show no signs of tags or tears where tags may have once been. This is what we have been hoping for… a new animal.

But for more than a moment, scientific curiosity pales beside the appreciation of seeing the animal with my own eyes. It is dark and hunched at the back of the trap. A rip in its upper lip shows the white of sharp teeth. Her crouched movement suggests a suppressed rage and indignity. We close the trap and begin waiting.

Patience, I think, is one of the defining qualities of anyone who works with or watches wildlife. There are moments of unbelievable beauty or incredible observations, to be sure, but they are earned by thousands of hours of quiet, slow time.

Sedating and handling a large carnivore is not something to be taken lightly. If there is ever a time for professionalism and organization, this is it. While we lean against our snowmobiles and talk quietly, our boss is on the phone, organizing snowmobiles and trucks and people. We re-read our protocol so that we are prepared for what is to come. The wolverine will be sedated for only 45 minutes, and there is a lot to do in that time. People are assigned jobs and responsibilities. Equipment is checked and re-checked. And we wait.

As a group we gather and talk about the process before we approach the trap. John, my supervisor, and Scott (who works for the state) have been at this for the entirety of the project’s five years, and have handled every wolverine captured. They’ve done it enough that they come with an easy confidence that settles the rest of us. We are given assignments, and we’ve read the protocol, but there is no substitute for having done it before. Of primary importance is the well-being of the wolverine. Syringes are filled and put in pockets with hand warmers, equipment is laid out and ready. The less time we spend handling her, the better, and every minute counts.

And in truth, it goes by in a blur.

John jabs her in the flesh of the hip with a syringe mounted on a plastic pole. We all back off and wait for ten minutes. A peek in the trap confirms that she’s out. Scott reaches in and picks her up—twenty pounds or more of live fury is now lolling and quiet as a bag of turnips. He carries her by me and I note the dark chocolate color and the white-yellow claws on the paws like a mini-grizzly. And the smell. She smells deep and animal and wild… like a bull elk in rut or a bear. I am surprised by this, though I shouldn’t be. One thing weasels are known for their musky scent, and this is the king of the weasels.

Immediately, we are into the handling of the animal. Adam and my assignment is to keep track of the wolverine’s vitals. Every ten minutes we take her body temperature, count her heartbeats, and record the number of respirations. An animal under anesthesia is at the mercy of her handlers; she cannot even regulate her own body temperature. We are ready with hand warmers and blankets, but thankfully she stays within the parameters of a healthy animal.

Eowyn, the first capture of 2010, fitted with GPS collar and ear tags. And Adam.

We weigh and measure her. John injects a pit tag between her shoulder blades, giving her a number that can be read with a reader, just like many people do for their pets. And most importantly, we fit a GPS collar on her. For the next eight months or so (until the battery runs out), this collar will connect with orbiting satellites that pinpoint her location and transmit it. E-mailed GPS locations arrive at John’s desk and are promptly mapped. A wonder of technology.

At about 40 minutes she gives a kick or two, and there is time for a few posed photographs before we put her back in the trap. John injects her with another dose that counteracts the sedative. We close the lid and move away. And again we wait.

On a good day, the sedative wears off in an hour or so and we can release the wolverine. Today fades into tonight as we wait for two hours before she is ready to go. John and Scott wait until they see her acting “normally” in the trap—walking without wobbling and biting and snarling like a wolverine should. Anything less is unacceptable. The last thing we want is to release her when she isn’t ready.

When she’s ready she bounds out of the trap. She bounds for ten yards or so, but then stops to look back at us… perhaps gauging which of us she should kill first, but then thinks better of it and slowly walks up the hill. Green eyeshine, a slow, hunched walk. One of the most wild animals in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the rarest to see.

It is then that I sniff the tips of my fingers and smell wolverine. This is the first wolverine I have ever seen. How many people have seen a wolverine? How many have touched one? I feel truly lucky. And in a stunned moment, I realize that this is part of my job. The hours of snowmobiling, shoveling, and checking empty traps that have passed and are yet to come are suddenly a small measure against the privilege of touching something wild, beautiful, rare, and free.

And I am unafraid to tell you that I feel a personal connection that her cut lip and scar, the stink of her, and the unique pattern of color on her chest only help to reinforce. I have touched this animal.

—–

It has been ten days since that wolverine, whom the people in charge are calling Eowyn for our own sake of keeping track of her (I’m sure she has her own name) touched me. Every morning the first question in the office is “where is she?” And when we point to the map, I smell the stink of her on my fingers and remember the bale in her eye.

Until that collar’s battery fails, she is giving scientists a glimpse of how a wolverine uses the landscape, how she travels, and how much space she needs. This is all important information for people and organizations that need to manage wolverines in the Pacific Northwest. If there is a hope for the species, in the face of human expansion and recreation in wolverine habitat, in the face of a warming world that threatens the existence of the persistent snowfields on which they depend, it is in these data points.

At some point last night, Eowyn crossed the border into Canada. It is miles and miles and miles of the heart of the North Cascades between Twisp River and Canada. Steep, rugged terrain that would challenge the best of us. Ten days for her. Where is she going? What is she thinking?

wolverine tracks, probably Eowyn, crossing the Twisp River

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So, as the progenitor of this digital collection of words and images, I have the unique opportunity to see how people get here. One thing I notice is that as I write about wolverines, folk keep finding this site by seeking photographs of wolverine tracks. Well, give the people what they want, I say (it seems like someone else might have said that first).

But not quite yet.

Instead, tonight let’s take a real good look at one picture.

Here’s a photo I took while standing on the seat of a Forest Service snowmobile in the vicinity of Hart’s Pass, WA. You wouldn’ think the tracking conditions were good. A week or more of sun and warm temperatures preceded this day. The snow was a concrete slab, with only hoar frost to provide softness to the surface… and the balm of the midday sun. But at night it would freeze again. So there was a chance at tracks, but only at the right time of day. Well, we got lucky.

Wait, you say, that’s two pictures! Well, not really. The first is a little closer on the wolverine track and the second gives you more of the bigger picture and scale.

Speaking of scale, let me apologize to the tracking community. I know, I know, when I’m taking photos of animal tracks, I’m supposed to put a tape measure in the picture so that everyone can compare it to the various charts that trackers have laboriously come up with to classify animal tracks. Well, sorry to buck tradition, but I think that a tape measure ruins an otherwise artistic masterpiece of a track in snow. And furthermore (sit down for this one), I suggest you throw away your tape measure altogether! Feel the ripples of indignation spreading from the audacity of that statement…

But seriously, there is a place for precise measurements. Maybe in telling a fisher from a marten. But in most cases, to concentrate on measuring track, stride, and straddle is to meticulously look at a tree when the forest could tell you what you want to know.

With that in mind, lets look at our picture. Here’s what I mean about throwing away the tape measure… compare the track and stride size to the snowmobile track next to it, and the result is … it’s big. Not a mouse, not a squirrel, not even a marten. Big, I tell you. We’re on the edge of the North Cascades in Washington… in winter. So big makes our job easy. It’s winter, so bears are out. Lynx, wolverine, wolf. That’s about it.

And so we take a close look.

Lynx falls out real quick. Cat’s have retractable claws that don’t show in the snow. And the individual tracks are asymmetric. Asymmetric? you say?… well, the direction that the pad seems to be pointing and the direction the toes point isn’t quite the same. It’s like they’re pigeon-toed, if that helps you imagine. Plus, they only have four toes.

Look at the photo. Counting individual tracks from the bottom–track 1 is the top of a group cut off by the photo, and then we get 2,3,4,5 with 3 and 4 almost superimposed, and so on.  There’s a hint of something in track number 2… and definitely noticeable in 6 and again in 10. A fifth toe. Of our choices, the weasel family is the only family that shows 5 toes in a track. But even if, for some reason, that toe never registered–theres’ another hint. Thank Rezendes for this one… a typical weasel footprint is 5-toed, but pay attention here) the middle three toes tend to group together.. giving a 1-3-1 pattern to the toes. If you look carefully, you can see this in the photo, even where the 5th toe doesn’t register (a -3-1 if you will). Out goes lynx and wolf. But to be fair, let’s pretend we couldn’t see toes.

We can tell even without toes? Hell yes!

But let me be careful here. On a good track, where you can see a definite pad and toes, you only need look at ten tracks or so before you are pretty certain of the animal you are looking at. When looking at track patterns, it takes a little more work. Most trackers will follow a pattern for at least a hundred yards before making a guess, and even then will be open to other opinions. But some guesses are better than others. And that’s the point… to make an educated guess.

Take another look at the photo. No matter what it is, it is a four-legged creature. So how do the four legs fall? Track 1 is the top of a grouping, so ignore it for now. 2,3,4, and 5 are the four feet landing. How do they land? Well, kind of slanted. And 3 and 4 nearly land on top of each other. Well, folks, what we are looking at here is a classic weasel track pattern. The slant can be right or left, but 4 tracks end up looking like 3 (especially in deeper snow, where the second and third almost direct-register). From an earlier post, here is the two patterns I have seen from a wolverine:

and therefore the track (the right pattern) is called a 3x track pattern (though it is 4 feet). The track pattern in our photo is slanted the other way, but you can still see it.

And there’s more. Take a look at the scratch marks in the snow between tracks. Not only can we see the tracks and track pattern, but we can almost match individual tracks by the toe drag between them! (Please don’t discourage me by rolling your eyes, I’m having fun here). My hero, Rezendes, was kind enough to point out that you can tell hind tracks from front tracks in the weasel family–the hind tracks register toes and a pad, while the front tracks register toes, pad, and an elongated impression of the leg coming into the pad. Look at the picture… you can see this. Two tracks have an elongated pad while the other two are concise tracks. And then look at the toe drag… you see where the rear feet land and where the front feet land. So… the track pattern, as i see it,  is front-(rear-front)-rear. Though the toe drag in the middle tracks is a little muddled, you can see that the lone rear track and the lone front track connect… so the lead foot remains the same throughout the travel! You may think me a dork for being impressed by this insight, but suddenly I can imagine the animal moving… the strange, hunch-backed lope of a weasel… and it all makes sense. And suddenly we connect, the wolverine and I. As if I saw it loping along with my own eyes.

And so maybe you begin to see my celebration of one paltry photograph. But I’m not quite done yet.

What is that above and left of our wolverine track? In the snow there is an old, melted-out track pattern. The quick look is one that would have the sane person saying “not a good enough track, you can’t tell what that is.” And they would be right. Except if we were asked to make an educated guess.

Back to basics. No toes showing. Measurements near to useless. It’s melted out and old. But then again…

It’s a big track, even if melting has exaggerated it. And the lower half of the picture shows a slanted 2x pattern… classic weasel. And the upper part of the picture goes into a slanted 3x pattern… again a weasel pattern. Not definitive, i suppose, but all fingers are pointing away from lynx and wolf and toward marten or wolverine. And… I’ll put my own experience on the line a little here… the wolverine tracks I’ve seen freely switch from 2x to 3x without warning, whereas marten tracks tend to stick to 2x patterns unless they slow down to look at something. This one switches back and forth while traveling a road grade. And it is probably a big track. I f a PhD were to ask me if this (the old track) was a wolverine track, I’d say “probably.” (it doesn’t really matter, they wouldn’t believe me anyway). But if someone were to ask me where to put a camera station or wolverine trap, I would, with confidence, put my finger down on the map… even with just seeing the old track. And you could, too.

Drop the measuring tape. Take a look at the big picture.

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I’m a “special guest” blogger on North Cascade Institute’s Chattermarks Blog this week if you want to check it out. It’s a short piece about our wolverine capture earlier this month.

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Humanity

This morning, on the radio, I heard a guest say that “we have lost our humanity.” In the context I, and everyone else listening, understood this to mean that “we” (I forget who we was) were acting in a way that was not compassionate or kind.

But it made me stop and think.

The first thought was the irony of the statement. To say that a human, or a group of humans, has lost their humanity at first seems strange. Can a cat lose its felinity? A dog its canidity? I tried it on the cat I’m taking care of as a part of my house-sitting — “Puff,” I said, “you’ve lost your humanity.” He blinked at me. Didn’t seem to care.

A little dictionary work followed. One definition of humanity was the quality of being humane. And that’s where it all comes together. To be humane (which is a strong part of being human, when you realize that being humane is a quality of humanity) is to be compassionate and kind.

So our own definition of ourselves  is one of compassion and kindness.

Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a little short-sighted. Being human also encompasses a world of violence, greed, deceit, and killing… lots of killing for lots of different reasons. There’s a part of me that thinks if someone were to tell me I’d lost my humanity, I might be relieved. “Finally,” I might say.

Self-righteousness. Even our words for ourselves displays it. And it is everywhere. Science and discussion of evolution is ripe with the bias that humans are the pinnacle. Religion… well, enough said. The term “wildlife management” comes to mind, or the urging to  “save the earth” (meaning save us, of course). If you start thinking about it, you begin to see it everywhere. We humans really think highly of ourselves.

And that’s what I think “humanity” ought to mean. The quality of seeing oneself or one’s species as the only important measure of the world, to the disregard and detriment of other species and things.

Humanity. I’m ready to lose it. Seems like the Earth might be, too.

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Putative seems to be the new word in the carnivore world. On going over protocols for tracking wolverines this season, every track is considered a “putative” wolverine track. Which is why there is now a heavy emphasis on collecting hair and scat. DNA gleaned from these samples will allow a putative species track to become a confirmed species track. Apparently they don’t think that their field folk can tell a wolverine track from a lynx track. In some cases they are probably right, but I can’t help but feel a little insulted. I’m pretty sure I could tell a good wolverine track from a good lynx track at 25 mph on a snowmobile. In their defense, the world of the PhD is one of lawsuits and defensible science, so perhaps they can be forgiven. But I was supposed to be talking about a bobcat before that putative word got in the way…

Today I discovered an excellent bobcat (putative) track. It was fresh and unchanged by the sun above me. The toes stood out sharp in the snow, slanted like a cat–asymmetric some might say. The feet sank into the snow just enough to leave a track… maybe a quarter inch or so. Great conditions, and a track that looked like the bobcat was just around the corner.

Part of getting good at tracking is to take advantage of opportunities where you have a good track. Putative PhD’s aside, I knew after looking at the first print that this was a bobcat. But still, it pays to look at the bigger picture. It lets you imprint the intricacies of track pattern, stride, straddle, etc. into your mind so that another time, when the tracking condition aren’t good, you can pull it back out and make an educated guess. Kind of like orienteering… you don’t wait until you’re lost to look at the map–you still look it even though you know where you are.

So I looked at the whole track–there was probably 40 yards or so of bobcat trail in a nice, open area. The first thing that registered was that this was not what I am used to seeing in a cat pattern. Cats spend the majority of their time in a very concise and predictable alternating pattern. But this was different… sort of like an alternating track with two prints on each side. Sigh, maybe a diagram would help:

a normal, catlike alternating pattern (left) versus this putative bobcat track (right)

And then, where the cat (putative! I hear them yell…) made a couple of turns it all went to hell… at times it looked even like a weaselish slanted set of four prints (though a weasel would superimpose the middle two on each other to show more of a 3x slant rather than a 4x slant). I heard or read (I paraphrase) that every animal will at some point leave a track that looks exactly like a different animal — it was probably Rezendes again. So I looked at a few more prints… 4 toes, asymmetric, no claws… a bobcat, no doubt. Screw the scientific scrutiny. Just a different track pattern than I’m used to, and therefore a learning opportunity. More pictures:

Kind of interesting if you’re a track nerd like me, but nothing new. Rezendes notes it in his book as a “fast walk” and even shows a slanted 4x pattern as a “lope” for a bobcat (did he have DNA confirmation, one wonders…). But it’s fun to see and discover for yourself.

And in looking at the overall pattern, I suddenly noticed all the drag marks. This cat was dragging toes on every step! Now, Rezendes also notes that bobcats commonly drag their toes in the snow, but when I read this, I assume he is talking about measurable snow amounts. In this case, the animal was barely sinking into the snow at all. Like I said, maybe a quarter inch–and still dragging its toes. As if lifting its feet was such a chore.

It is these little moments that make being outside fun. A little connection with the animal, something different. Not your average bobcat, but the laziest one in the state. It put a little smile on my face and led me to the obvious conclusion — putative bobcats are lazy.

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Today was one of those days. My boss tells me my job for the day is to check three wolverine traps, but to bring the radio telemetry gear and check for signals from the local wolf pack. It’s the north end of the Pacific Northwest, and the right side of the mountains–there are cool critters here. I figure any day I am working with wolves and wolverines is a good day, and getting paid to do it is just a bonus. And to add to it all, the early morning fog and rain quickly gave way to blue skies. And warm. It felt like April out there. These are the days that make it all worth it.

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Farewell to an Old Friend

In 1995, just graduated from college, my father was kind enough to buy me a pack as I looked forward to a trip West and the first step of my after-college life–a job surveying for Mexican spotted owls in southern Utah. It was an expedition-size Lowe Alpine pack that turned out to be much bigger than I needed for the work. As I recall, I was also wearing a pair of work boots that weren’t exactly suited, either. I must have been quite a sight.
A friend on the owl crew had a Kelty Redwing pack that seemed good and he raved about it. So I bought one. Dark blue, internal frame, and plenty of zipper access. Convenient side pockets for water bottles. I wore it that season, and the next, and the next… It experienced the heat, dust, and violent storms of Utah and Arizona. And kept going…
It struggled through high alpine spruce in Vermont, experienced the open pines and thorny underbrush of Mississippi, felt the fall of exhausted spring migrants on the delta in Louisiana, fought the heat and snakes of lowland Arizona, watched whales surface and blow from Santa Catalina Island in California, and carried fall hawk data in Colorado and Washington.
At some point in these journeys I tried to replace it with a smaller REI pack and immediately returned to the trusted Kelty. When I started bird surveys in the ponderosas and Doug firs of eastern Washington, I bought a newer version of the Kelty Redwing (on sale) with newer features– a hydration pouch, built in stretch cords, and even a key clasp and pencil slots in a pocket. But the side pockets were too small for a water bottle, and the pack just didn’t fit the same.
By now one of the aluminum stays had poked through the top of old reliable, which I clumsily repaired with a gob of seam sealer. The main zipper was catching at times despite attempts at lubrication. But still it kept going. Birds in Washington. Four winters of snow-tracking lynx. Two seasons of spotted owls in New Mexico. Even a stint in Alaska.
But a week ago, while carrying gear to check wolverine traps, the main zipper gave way and wouldn’t come back. A fatal injury. And yet the Kelty still sits in the mud room. It’s hard to say goodbye.
Why is it that things can hold such power? It’s nylon and padding and metal surely have no soul… but yet there is so much of my sweat, dirt, and even blood ingrained in it that it almost feels a part of me, or at least like an old friend.
And I suppose I could find a way to repair the zipper, but how long until something else gives out. At some point I have to let go. And so the time comes to unshoulder it finally and say goodbye. And with it goes a little part of me.

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