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Know the West

Wolverines, snowmobilers, and the ESA


Last week, the Idaho Statesman newspaper published an article about recreational vehicle impacts on wolverines in the Payette, Boise, and Sawtooth National Forests. The piece focused on a study investigating questions about the extent to which snowmobilers and

skiers disturb denning female wolverines, and researchers' desire to find out whether winter backcountry recreation really does threaten the animals. Now that the wolverine is up for consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act, answering this question has become pretty important.

Snowmobilers, backcountry skiers, and advocacy groups all have a stake in the outcome of this study.  The script of the traditional Western endangered species conflict [PDF] calls for outraged recreationists to accuse environmental advocacy groups and the federal government of infringing on their rights, while environmental advocacy groups evoke wilderness and science to enforce their aims. Meanwhile the researchers remain stuck in the limbo of trying to maintain objectivity while taking shots from all sides. Wolves and spotted owls are probably the best examples of this predictable drama, which serves--over and over again, ad nauseum--as a proxy for deeply rooted values conflicts.

If the US Fish and Wildlife Service determines that wolverines are threatened, land managers may have the latitude to make land use changes to remote backcountry in order to protect wolverines--if  researchers determine that human disturbance actually does result in den abandonment.

Hidden in the Statesman article, however, is a line that suggests that the wolverine case could turn out differently: "The study about wolverines is co-sponsored by the Idaho Snowmobile Association." In 2009, the Idaho Snowmobile Association approached the Rocky Mountain Research Station and asked to partner to research the effects of backcountry recreation on wolverines. Over the past few years, major environmental advocacy groups have intimated that wolverine safety is a justification for restricting snowmobile access to the backcountry.

The vigorous debate over snowmobiles in places like Yellowstone has a history dating back to a time before wolverines were of interest to anyone, and from a certain cynical perspective, it's easy to suggest that environmental advocacy groups perceive the wolverine as just one more piece of ammunition--a particularly charismatic cannonball, perhaps--to be employed in a battle that ultimately has to do with aesthetics. It's worth reiterating that to date, there is no scientific proof that backcountry use results in wolverine kit mortality, despite the fact that certain groups are using that claim to try to restrict snowmobile access. On the other hand, the lack of proof doesn 't mean that backcountry recreation doesn't affect wolverines. It's frequently at this point, when proof is still lacking, that many endangered species debates get derailed into arguments over the accuracy of the science, rather than addressing those much more complicated underlying values conflicts.

This time, though, someone was smart enough to think ahead and at least narrow the margin of uncertainty around the science.  Snowmobilers are willingly taking GPS dataloggers with them into the backcountry to map their use patterns, while wolverine biologists are tracking instrumented animals. The study results may not quantify with absolute certainty the effects of human activity on wolverines, but it will perhaps allow less room for speculative claims. With the backing of well-known wolverine biologists and the participation of snowmobilers and skiers, everyone has a share in the research and, to a certain extent, everyone owns the outcome. Whether this will make everyone more amenable to resulting management decisions remains to be seen, but this departure from the same old script is also an experiment well worth conducting.

Rebecca Watters is a Project Manager for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, where she conducts research on wolverine ecology. She also blogs at The Wolverine Blog

Photo of wolverine tracks in snow by Jason Wilmot, NRCC.