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Wolverine: Chasing the phantom

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rebeccaw | Nov 10, 2010 01:15 PM

Rebecca Watters researches wolverines (gulos) and other large carnivores for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative. She recently lent her expertise and tracking skills to the new PBS documentary Wolverine, Chasing the Phantom. Here, she presents a review and overview of the film, which airs on PBS November 14, 2010.

When PBS Nature called Gianna Savoie in 2008 and asked if she'd be interested in making a film about the wolverine, her first reaction was exhilaration at the thought of creating a documentary on a little-known animal. Her second was trepidation: how do you make a movie about an animal that is impossible to find?

The tensions between the mystery, the quest for knowledge, and the intense personality of wolverines hold together the film that Savoie eventually created. From the extraordinary commitment of the scientists who track wolverines through Montana and Alaska with barely a hope of ever seeing the animal, to the quirky and energetic antics of the two captive kits who provide most of the film's footage of actual wolverines, Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom is an hour of pure gulo charm. Getting to an hour, however, was nearly as epic as some of the wolverine feats the film documents

.Wolverine by river

Wildlife rehabilitator Steve Kroschel with Jasper, a wolverine featured in the film. Photo by Gianna Savoie.

Savoie's initial instinct, as the film took shape, was to build the story around the non-appearance of the wolverine, allowing the very fact of its absence to speak to the rarity of the species and the difficulty of studying (never mind filming) it. But during research for the documentary, she became more and more interested in the lives of individual wolverines, and had a transformative encounter with captive wolverines in Washington state. She says that she can't exactly explain the feeling, but whatever it was, it was unexpected. "They were really curious, intense...I got this feeling that they were thinking something, and they were thinking something about me...there was something that inspired me on every level. They're tenacious, smart, good moms, survivors - I just respect them." She knew that wolverines had to be characters in the film.

That still left her with the problem of how to bring wolverine charisma to the screen when they remained so difficult to find. In August of 2008, Jason Wilmot, of the Absaroka Beartooth Wolverine Project, and I led a cameraman into the remote Absaroka wilderness as we attempted to locate a GPS cluster from one of our project wolverine’s collars. The payoff for our pains, a full day of bushwhacking and a near tumble off a cliff, was a single mountain goat mandible. Throughout the ensuing winter, the cameraman in Montana was on high alert as we monitored our traps, hoping to film a capture. But between December and March, a wolverine went into the trap only once, and the collaring was called off when a blizzard closed the roads to the site. Getting a wild wolverine on film was proving even harder than anticipated.

Fate intervened when a fellow filmmaker and wildlife rehabilitator in Alaska, Steve Kroschel, was left with two orphaned male kits, offering a unique opportunity to film wolverines up close. Raising and educating these kits provides one of the central story arcs of the documentary, and their vibrant personalities as they romp, tumble, and wreak periodic havoc through the Alaska landscape instantly transform wolverines from the ferocious devils of myth to engaging wilderness spirits that you might not mind meeting.

Jasper and Banff - as the two kits are eventually named - give a face to the phantom, but the brief glimpses of wild wolverines are equally compelling. The documentary opens with home footage from a capture of M3, the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project's superstar male, who later climbed the nearly vertical 5000 foot face of Mt. Cleveland, the highest peak in the park, in the space of 90 minutes. M3's growl resonates through the opening scene. Nothing can replicate the experience of hearing this sound in real life, but the documentary gives a good idea of what it's like to feel that rumble shooting through your very bones -- and when he charges the camera, you have to admire the spirit of a 30 pound animal willing to take on the humans converging on the trap.

Glacier wolverine interview

Wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland is interviewed at work in Glacier National Park for 'Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom.' Photo by Gianna Savoie.

As the film follows the Glacier Project and expands to encompass research in Alaska, the story of M3, his father M1, and M1's mate, F4, becomes as compelling as the story of Jasper and Banff, even though there's almost no footage of the animals themselves. The film illuminates the unexpected family dynamics of wolverines, the dedication of gulo mothers, the role that fathers play in raising kits, and the tenacity required for a young wolverine to make it in a rugged world. With shots of shrinking glaciers juxtaposed against snowbound wilds, the film also highlights the dependence of wolverines on snow, and the threats that they will face in a warming world. Snow-dependent in order to den successfully, female wolverines raise their babies in snow caves that provide protection and insulation. Wolverine populations cannot survive in areas without persistent deep snowpack through mid-May, when kits are weaned. In highlighting the wolverine as an icon of fierce attitude and survival, the film also brings to light the dismaying truth that a species so well adapted to an extreme environment may be profoundly vulnerable.

Interwoven with the stories of the wolverines are the stories of the researchers - Jeff Copeland, Rick Yates, and Doug Chadwick on the Glacier Project, and Audrey Magoun in Alaska - whose dedication to the species transcends even the most rigorous work ethic, approaching something akin to spiritual faith. As Copeland, Yates, and Chadwick push forward through blizzards and up vertical scree slopes, as Magoun battles overgrown forests and scours the vast Alaskan wilderness for a sighting of a wolverine, the audience gains a brief glimpse of the great wolverine paradox: these animals are incredibly, almost indescribably compelling for the people who follow them and want to learn about them, and yet part of what draws us to wolverines is the very mystery and unknowability of the species. If it sounds mystical and over-the-top coming from me, just listen to the scientists as they talk about what wolverine research means to them. Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom won a well-deserved award for scientific content, but even for the scientists, it's about more than hypotheses and methods and numbers. Magoun speaks of wolverines as the embodying spirit of wilderness, and in a question-and-answer session after an advance screening in Bozeman in October, Rick Yates told the audience of his own initial foray into wolverine work: "Jeff Copeland told me I should work on the project. He said, 'If you work with wolverines, it'll change your life.'" Yates paused, let this sink in, and added, simply, "He was right."

Savoie draws this passion out of her subjects with skill. She speaks with enthusiasm of her own academic research on bats, talking about what amazing animals they are, and lamenting the spread of the whitenose fungus that is wiping out bat colonies throughout the US. Part of the way through her master's research, Savoie says, she realized that she was as interested in communicating the science as she was in doing the science. As she put it, "There's a gap between the science and the story," and she was interested in bridging that gap. She worked for Nature, and then became a freelance filmmaker. She produced the award-winning PBS film Life in Death Valley and several other projects before being asked to make a documentary about wolverines. On her website, she refers to the wolverine project as the 'most ambitious and important' of her career. If her choice of species seems heavily weighed towards the disreputable -- there's a smooth trajectory from the misunderstood and culturally suspect bat to the misunderstood and culturally suspect glutton -- you have to admire her for taking on the task of redeeming overlooked but fascinating creatures.

The film brings to light the world of an extraordinary animal, but wolverine researchers are left to wonder what good a single hour-long film can do. Savoie's commitment to conservation outcomes is as evident as her commitment to making good films, but how do you harness the enthusiasm for wolverines that the film will undoubtedly generate? One obvious potential pitfall is the fact that Jasper and Banff are so interesting that a horde of people will want wolverines as pets. (Savoie, in an interview in April, said that she was utterly opposed to this as an outcome of the film. One hopes that Jasper and Banff's tendency to chew through everything they encounter - gloves, power cords, frozen-solid dead moose - would serve as further discouragement.)

Another, more subtle potential pitfall is a sense of futility. The wolverine is up for listing under the Endangered Species Act, with a decision due in December of this year, but even if it is listed, mitigating threats will be a challenge. In past species conservation efforts, the barriers to recovery have been relatively easy to identify and deal with: ending direct sources of morality, or preserving and managing habitat, for example. For wolverines, the biggest long-term threats are most likely your car, your neighbor's car, the millions of cars zipping across America, the power plants and the factory farms - in short, the entire infrastructure of our country. And that's not something that can be changed with a $50 donation to wolverine research or an adjustment to the legal status of the species.

Nevertheless, in the short term, the wolverine needs an informed constituency to support research and conservation. Jason Wilmot, who helped start the Glacier project and worked on it as a volunteer before becoming the field director for the Absoroka-Beartooth Project, says, "We've come a long way. Ten years ago, no one even knew what a wolverine was. This film is going to raise the level of awareness to a point that's never existed before, and that's a good thing for wolverines."

As for Savoie, her own hope is that people become interested, get informed, and figure out what needs to be done to keep wolverines on the landscape. So far, generating interest seems to be working, as she engages with audiences across the country to help raise awareness and sort out the basics of what a wolverine is and what it needs to survive (she describes a favorite moment, when she asked an audience of children what they thought a wolverine was. One girl said, "An orange wolf," imagining a cross between a wolf and a tangerine.)

Savoie is talking about a sequel, too. Her commitment to wolverines has only grown deeper in the aftermath of making Chasing the Phantom, and she explains that she wants to play a role in their conservation. An upcoming semester teaching wildlife film-making at Montana State University in Bozeman will allow her a full winter in wolverine habitat and a chance to investigate topics and regional wolverine research projects that didn't make it into this film. Frustrated by the limits of an hour-long show, she wants to create a second piece that will focus on conservation and research and raise the serious questions of 'what next?' in a more direct way. At the same time, of the secret lives of wild wolverines, she says, "I don't know if I want to know. I like the fact that there are some animals that are able to keep us at bay. We need to find out their status, but they do embody the wilderness - if they're still out there, the wilderness is still okay."

In one of the climactic scenes of the film, the camera catches a flashing glimpse of F4, the matriarch of the Glacier wolverines. She pauses, looks over at the camera, and you have to hope, for F4's sake, that Savoie is right. Then, with a flick of her tail, the wolverine is gone.

Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom airs on PBS on November 14th.

Rebecca Watters blogs about wolverines at The Wolverine Blog.

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