Part XI. Wolverines, Winter, March 2011

I spent the majority of time in silence, with either a helmet on my head prohibiting communication or skiing uphill with gear strapped to my back, the task of inhaling cold air while climbing uphill likewise creating a state of solitary confinement.  The crystalline vibration of a ten-degree day channeled through the nostrils sharpened every cell with frigid air.  My mind wrapped around nothing or everything, moving from one side of the infinity sign to the other.

At times, the landscape was a blank sheet, an invitation to a perfect void, a place to take note of the frozen subtleties of the mountains. There was an occasional glimpse of activity, like the tracks of mice, skittering exclamation points that led to the wing prints of a raptor pressed into the white clay surface, talon slashes marking a violent end.   But most of the time, the snow offered a simple companion with little to say but, “White, white, white” as we plodded along with our heads down in concentrated effort with each pole plant.

Jed Smith

The movement to which I refer is not careless, but a movement in which your head empties and your lungs, arms, legs become intensely mindful, your heart keeping them all in check, paying attention in three hundred and sixty degrees, every gliding step a blinking podiatritic rumination upon the contour of terrain that lies beneath the foot.

When my thoughts did arise, they often rolled like a skipped record, like clips of the Ke$ha lyrics from Nichole’s truck playlist.  Or sometimes I recited over and over the first two lines of a Johnny Cash song, You can run on for a long time, run on for a long time.  I couldn’t remember the rest, but it kept me moving.

If I were a more sophisticated scientist, I would have spent these moments mulling over the details of the study.  I confess, sometimes, I thought about everything but wolverines. Most of the time I asked for my thoughts to find a place to rest upon the blank sheet of  slope for all of eternity.

Up, up the mountain we went to the exposed places, where the gnarled, black branches of a lone krummholz etched the crusted surface, presenting a lithograph of the neural pathways etched in the mind.  Occasionally, my ski caught beneath a log, lurching me into the present.

I pulled my ski free of the obstruction.  I was soaked and tired.  I sipped water and kept moving upward, before my sweat began to dry.

Wolverine 1

Wolverine 2

Wolverine 3

Wolverine 5

Wolverine 6

Wolverine 7

Wolverine 8

Wolverine 9

Wolverine 10

(A note to readers: The essay beings here.)

©  S. Harrison Grigg and Anatomy of a Wolverine Trap, 2012.

Part IX. Wolverines, Winter, March 2011

Moose

This is not a wolverine.

After all nineteen traps were set, we monitored them on two-week cycles, downloading photos from the camera memory cards, replenishing the bait, and re-applying the scent lure.  The stations attracted all kinds of wildlife: moose, pine martens, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, wolves, Canada Jays and wolverines.  Nichole and I had yet to see any activity on the ski-in traps that we set together.  We were concerned that we missed a minor detail in the trap design, until we hit upon some luck.

Wolf

Find the wolf.

We were granted permission to park on a ranch at the base of the Madison Range.  From the driveway, Nichole and I rode sleds one way and the guys split in the other direction to check another site.  We covered a short distance, parked the machines at the mouth of a deep draw and skied up to the trap, winding along the edge of the precipitous drainage.  We were wind-exposed for the majority of the climb, with sweeping views, the Madison River a steely vein cutting through the white valley below. The drainage tightened as we headed toward the peak, the opposite wall drawing nearer to us, the kind of place a wolverine would like to hang out.

madison valley 2

Their dens are located in high-elevation basins, often in talus fields or under avalanche debris piles.  Wolverines bore through the snow, carving out tunnels and chambers.  These deep caverns provide a place to give birth in February and then rear cubs.  With the ability to smell out a meal miles away, the animals patrol avalanche slides for buried victims and excavate the carcasses of mountain goats or big horn sheep to feast upon.  Leftovers are carried back to the den site and cached nearby in snow, providing sustenance for females while caring for young.  With the loss of snow pack, wolverines lose this natural refrigeration system.

We found the big, dead tree that marked the spot.  We veered away from the edge and headed into the timber, the trap situated about twenty yards from the edge of the escarpment.  Something looked amiss.  Around the base of the platform, there were fresh tracks, the likeness of which I had never seen.  Chevron-shaped main pads. Five toes, a claw mark at the end of each.  Wolverine tracks.

Woverine Foot

Wolverine Right Front and Left Hind Tracks
(Illustration: Mammals of Wisconsin by Hartley H.T. Jackson [1961])

We jumped up and down like kids who won goldfish at the county fair and then dropped to our hands and knees to inspect the alien prints.

“Let’s get a picture!” We dug through our backpacks. Shit. Neither of us brought a camera.

“Well then, let’s switch out the memory card and head back.”

Nichole sat on a log and uploaded photos from the used card to her small laptop.  Numerous shots of wolverines and pine martens filled the screen.  The final photo captured a wolverine at the trap, about an hour before we reached the site, when we arrived at the base of the ridge.  The sound of our sleds more than likely gave fair warning and spooked it off.

I spackled more of the bewitching Magnum Marten on the bark of surrounding trees.  Nichole monkeyed around with the bait and camera and I followed the wolverine’s trail downhill, into thick pines, wanting to see where a wolverine chose to walk.  The snow was deep and it was apparent from the one-track trail that the animal left the site running.  I punched through for a ways and then let it go.

We skied downhill, strapped our gear to the sleds and rode back to the ranch.  The manager invited us inside for tea while we waited for the other two and we showed her the wolverine photos.  She poured over them, thrilled to know there was at least one wandering through the mountains that towered over her house.

Bryan showed up and we handed over the evidence.  He decided that he wouldn’t have to toss us to the curb and run an ad in the Yukon for real wolverine trappers after all.  Nichole and I were quite pleased with ourselves.  But you couldn’t help but wonder if to see a wolverine on camera, or to see fresh tracks, was enough to count, to really understand what it meant if the species survived or perished.

Going for it Contemplating jumping

(A note to readers: The essay beings here.)

©  S. Harrison Grigg and Anatomy of a Wolverine Trap, 2012.

Part VII. Wolverines, Winter, February 2011

Nichole and I were charged with constructing and monitoring traps in non-motorized areas, including the Lee Metcalf Wilderness just north of Big Sky, Montana.  Cy knew the place well:  “We used to chase mountain lions up there.  Lots of good places for them to perch.”

A mountain lion is one of the North American carnivores I haven’t seen on foot, though I’m sure they’ve watched me go by a time or two.  In fact, the only wild felids I’ve seen are bobcats—one standing on the edge of a cornfield with a rabbit dangling from its mouth and another that darted across a hiking trail.

But even Bryan had a certain regard for mountain lions.  I was an avid trail runner and asked him about them.  His answer was less scientifically authoritative than usual:  “You know when a cat’s really watching you because the hair on the back of your neck will stand on end.” It was the closest I heard him say anything that bordered on superstition, so I took careful note.

It wasn’t necessarily that mountain lions—or any carnivores, really—intentionally wanted to eat you, but rather, that you were moving in a way that mimicked their prey and therefore, triggered a predatory response.  That’s why so many bikers get nailed—their heads are low and forward, necks exposed, in the exact same position and moving in a gait similar to a deer.  He added a few more pointers:  “Never wear headphones.  Be sure to look up if you’re running at the base of a ledge or on a trail with heavy tree branches overhead.  And never crouch down to tie your shoe.”  I’ve run many miles on certain trails with a shoelace flailing around my ankles.

Bryan and Cy pointed us toward the right drainage and took off with the truck and trailered sleds to the next site.  Nichole brought her boyfriend Sage along to carry the frozen roadkill.  He was a well digger from Ennis and would have hauled an entire moose on his back if Nichole had asked him to, or even killed a moose with his bare hands if she requested it.

I carried the power drill, cables, bolts and camera.  Nichole packed the two-by-four and other platform pieces. We snapped into our skis and embarked on a path where the tracks of backcountry skiers created a trench. Diverging from the main trail, we trudged around for a few hours attempting to find a path upward, following the contours of the GPS up and down the side of a ridge, winding through thick stands of pines.  Nichole and I took turns breaking trail like bison through the heavy snow, as Sage had the greatest burden, which tipped his solid frame off center on steeper slopes.  We couldn’t hit a straight shot, running into heavy downfall or a thinly-iced creek that blocked the way across the drainage.

After a few hours, we doubled backed to our starting point and crossed the creek to find a steadily climbing ridge.  Narrow, tar-black lodgepole grew in a dense labyrinth along the entire stretch. The forest looked the same every which way, without significant markers to recall a stopping point or turn. Our ski tracks were the only breadcrumbs back to the trailhead.

Lodgepole, Lee Metcalf

Through the tree maze

One sign of human presence showed itself, as we came upon long-forgotten primitive hunting stands, crafted to wilderness standards.  They were made of limbs, black platforms of peeling bark that resembled scaffold graves.  It was a fine spot for a hunter to perch, seated on the spine of the ridge with views uphill and down, where one could easily spot a deer cautiously making its way between the trees in the same way we were breaking trail.

Nothing showed sign of touching the snow between the hash mark trunks except chance dollops of snow that occasionally fell from the still branches, leaving pockmarks in the plain surface.  It was my turn in the front and I found an irregularity in the infinite white—tracks.

“I’m hot on the trail of something. I think we’ve got a cougar.”

Nichole caught up and investigated.  “Snowshoe hare.  See, front tracks, back tracks.” The prints were close together and a little blurred in between from snow clumps falling on them.  Anyone could have mistaken them for something larger.

After two hours, we arrived at the base of an open, steep slope, dotted with nothing but a few twisted, wind-blown white bark pines.  The peak was somewhere above, impossible to see beyond the steepness of the slope.  The wind blew forcefully as we emerged from the shelter of the heavy timber and hit the open face.

“Let’s put the trap there.”  Nicole pointed with her ski pole up the marble façade to a forlorn outcropping of gnarled trees.

“I think it’ll be just fine down here. A wolverine will find it.  We’ll really juice it up with scent.” I would not traverse that slope.

“Nope. It has to go in documented core habitat.  According to the GPS, that begins another 500 yards or so above us. The wind will catch the scent better up there. Come on. I’ve listened to the avalanche report and we’re on the windward side. The snow’s great today.  Buck up.”

Lee Metcalf

Toward the open expanse of slope

We inched uphill, spread out at our own pace, switchbacking one at a time, staggered across the white wall, two of us waiting off to the sides while one person trekked across the middle.  If it slid out, at least the other two were available to do something useful.

Our trio reached the lone outcropping, popped off skis and tucked into the pines.  We built the trap as the wind howled around our small mountainside fort, like a squall tossing a ship while the crew battened down the hatches.  I gave up on walking, my cross-country boots busting post holes into the surface and sinking me to my thighs.  I scooped out a seat for myself in the snow and curled into it as I tinkered with the hair clips and camera, retrieving parts for the other two while they tackled the main body of the trap.

Watching someone set a trap for wildlife, large or small, is about as exciting as staring at a watchmaker as he pedantically toils at his bench.  The most action might take place when he drops an impossibly small spring or gear onto the workshop floor. That was me with the small parts, trying to perform surgical movements, dropping a bolt or screw and spending the next ten minutes crawling over the snow, scraping around for it. In eleven degree weather, it’s all the more tedious a spectacle, a dull lethargy settling into your bones and tensely pulling you into the fading warmth of your core, your body searching for some untapped insulation and instead met with nothing except your sweat-soaked layers.

The return downhill

Back down the ridge

The trap was set, the camera switched on, and we bombed downhill, cutting perpendicularly through the sideswiping wind, to the tree line.  We ricocheted between the closely set trees down the long ridge, all the way to the truck.

“Well, let’s head to the next site.”

“What?’

“We’ve got another one to set up, a few drainages over.  We need to get it done so we can start monitoring.”

“You’re kidding me.”

But it was the awful truth. The other two were unmoved.  We had permission to drive through a private ski resort community to access the forest.

Beyond climate change, human development—like mountain resort communities and roads—is another threat to wolverine habitat.  The varied landscape of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is naturally fragmented, offering isolated habitat islands for wolverines.  The species spends about eighty percent of its time at 8,000 feet of elevation or higher, only crossing through lower valleys and other “dead zones” to reach the next suitable patch of high mountain. This limited high-elevation habitat naturally restrains the animal’s population size, along with stringent territorials habits.  Even if the species achieves a biologically and socially acceptable range and population size, no more than a few, if any, wolverines will be found in a broad sample area.

Adult females cover territories a few hundred square kilometers in size and adult males average more than 500 square kilometers.  While males will tolerate females and cubs within their staked claim, they are highly intolerant of sub-adult and adult males, fiercely defending it from potential competitors. Once cubs are kicked out on their own, young males may remain in the maternal range for a few months, but will soon be perceived as a threat by older males, and hence, must head across lower elevations to find the next available, high territory.

Wolverine population numbers have rebounded in the lower 48 contiguous United States since hitting all-time lows in the 1930s, but the species is still a variable in a complex sociological-biological equation.  Add mountainside cul-de-sac developments, golf courses and other human structure to the coefficients of climate change, natural habitat availability and animal behavior, and it seems a miracle is required for the wolverine to continue on its upward trajectory.

We parked, loaded up our packs and went through the same routine before the sun set.  It was a shorter trek from the trailhead, but one mile too long. By the end, I was soaked, blister-heeled, and exceptionally whiney.  After applying Icy Hot head-to-toe and band-aids to shredded heels, we topped off the treatment with Moscow Mules at the Silver Dollar Bar in Ennis, a muscle recovery plan recommended by all professional sports trainers.

The cowboys lined along the bar had more wolverine stories than I will ever have.  One old timer described watching a pair:  “I’ve only seen ‘em once.  Way up high, when we rode into Bear Creek to hunt in the seventies, I saw two playing together.  They were scrambling up a scree field and sliding down it on their backs and bellies, having a grand old time, doing it over and over again.  We sat and watched them until they got tired of it and ran off. That’s the last I saw a wolverine.”

If this guy spent decades on horseback in the mountains and stumbled upon wolverines on this sole occasion, what were my chances of seeing just one, even while consciously attempting to camera trap them?  I wondered if to see the animal was to be catapulted into some new rank of legitimacy and knowledge, if it would allow me to move onward and upward.  It very well could have been some kind of damned-if-you-don’t test.

For the next weeks, Nichole and I trudged into the Lee Metcalf to check the camera memory cards, re-plowing our path each time. The cloud cover was often low and gray.  Creeping between the labyrinthine trunks, it felt like the onset of night even in morning. It was always snow-silent, the textured silence of a blank movie reel running through a projector where there’s sound, but not-sound, just emptiness moving through the speakers, the kind of emptiness that makes you wonder if you really belong there, no matter what your business may be.

Occasionally, avalanches fractured the stillness, splitting from the anchored mountains and sending out a roar that filled the forest.  We paused and stood perfectly still each time a slide announced its thundering course, as if we had never heard the sound before, turning our ears uphill to detect whether it was directly above us and heading for the trees.  Some sounds are imprinted in the mind and others, in the sternum, quivering through your ribs, down to your feet.  The echo of cascading tons of snow filled our chests, like bombs dropped in the distance.

We reached the base of the dreaded open slope.  Nichole humored me by digging a test pit at the base of the treeless expanse.  She set a shovel flush with the top of the snow column and pounded the plastic with her open palm, starting light and increasing to severe hammering.  The snow held beneath the varying pressure.

“Solid as a rock. Let’s go.”

Nichole - Lee Metcalf

Nichole inching uphill

So we went climbing, followed by more climbing.  We checked the memory card and there was nothing—just branches blown by the wind setting off the camera, endless shots of branches in repose.  The card cleared, the camera re-set, there was nothing to do but turn around.  We skied downhill, pin-balling down the ridge.  All that effort for nothing.  And not a single sign of wolverine.

(A note to readers: The essay beings here.)

©  S. Harrison Grigg and Anatomy of a Wolverine Trap, 2012.

Part V. Wolverines, Winter, February 2011

For the wolverine expedition, there wasn’t a photographer tagging along, snapping shots that would be used in glossy promotional pieces.  No filmmakers, no journalists. No sponsors to outfit us in top-of-the-line gear.  I wasn’t sure if what we were doing could really be called an act of conservation, for there was no qualified person there to legitimize what we were doing through a lens or a trademark.  Besides, we didn’t look like a crew that belonged in a coffee table book on the Yellowstone to Yukon wilderness corridor.

There were four of us total, with Bryan in charge, coordinating with the study’s lead scientist.  His role was that of a hybrid go-between, in that his position as a carnivore biologist was paid by a state agency, a federal agency and a non-profit.

I first met Bryan in 2008, on the first day of my job as a public educator on grizzly bears in southeast Idaho.  He was charged with monitoring the wildlife and habitat of nearly 700,000-acres of National Forest. A trapper-biologist in his late 40s, he had worked for the USFS since the late 70s and could be dropped in the middle of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest with a spoon and a roll of duct tape and would make it out alive, probably weighing more than he did previously.  He could track anything from a pine marten to a wolf for miles or days on end.

Over the years, he watched all the big wildlife cases debated first-hand, wolves, grizzlies, wolverines, but he was never on center stage giving soliloquies on the Plight of the Carnivores.  He taught me how to talk about bears in a way that didn’t turn them into bloodthirsty baby killers or stuffed animals.  On day one, he gave me a lecture on how to frame the issue for the public.

“Don’t you ever say you love or hate bears. I don’t love them, I don’t hate them. I view them as an important piece of the ecosystem, just as important as every other part.  If I ever hear you say either of those things when talking to the general public, I’ll use you as grizzly trap bait. You got that?”

I didn’t doubt it.  At one point during the season he plucked a dying weasel off the side of the road, brought the bleeding and wheezing mass into the truck cab and pressed his packer boot on its chest to quickly put it out of its misery.

To help with the wolverine study, Cy served as the other volunteer.  He was a forest fire crew leader in his late thirties who volunteered on past wolverine research projects. A Crow cowboy, he was raised on a ranch in the Madison Valley and could ride a snowmobile through the deepest powder and up the steepest hills as if he were on a well broke horse gliding over smooth grassy knolls.  As we drove across the landscape, he pointed to peaks and talked about skiing the Madison Range, about studying falcon nests; he told stories of hay trucks tipping over, of his grandmother who collected rain in a barrel with which to wash her hair that hung past her waist.

And then there was me, the profession-less volunteer.  I had taken an avalanche education course about six years before during my ski instructing days and vaguely recalled hazy details about unstable snow layers and instructions to swim like hell if the bottom slid out. I borrowed a mish mash of equipment and duct taped old skins to my metal-edged cross country skis, which would serve as mediocre conveyances uphill and knee-twisting death skates on the way down.  I didn’t know what I had to offer, but Bryan insisted that in spite of my jimmy-rigging, I would be useful.

On the first day, we rose at 6 a.m. and set out toward the Gallatin National Forest on the western border of Yellowstone, stopping first at a gas station.  We would begin each day like this, standing in the cold on the trailer silently fueling and oiling the sleds.  The sky was always low and a shade of dim steel during this morning ritual, the wind blowing snowflakes sideways onto our cheeks.  On a warm day it was 15 degrees Fahrenheit and at the coldest, 20 below.

When we were through, Bryan and Cy went inside to buy coffee and cans of chew and I sat in the cab and stuffed down an extra energy bar and a bottle of electrolyte water in hopes of improving my chances of maintaining warmth.  They climbed back into the truck.  I sat with my green tea  between the trapper and the fireman with their black coffee and plugs of Copenhagen, all of us a pile of Gortex and too many breathable layers in the front seat.  We drove through West Yellowstone, over the Madison, through the Park, headed for the Gallatin National Forest.  I buried my nose into my parka to doze off, my clothes and hair smelling of grease from Bryan’s cast iron pan breakfast of bacon and antelope sausage.

“Hey, there’s a wolf,” Cy spotted it on a snow bank near the shoulder of the road. I stirred and looked out the window, seeing only the snow bank and thick lodge pole pine beyond.  “You missed it; ducked back into the timber.”  Most of the wolves I had seen in that part of the Ecosystem were at long range, or more commonly, airbrushed on the sides of RV’s, or in advocacy campaign ads picturing a loner howling against a mountain backdrop, sometimes with a conservationist kneeling beside it, an arm wrapped around the animal in a lover’s embrace.

I sulked back into my parka cocoon.  White swells of open meadow billowed across the landscape like a sheet being pulled over the head, further lulling me to sleep.  We made it to the Taylor Fork area and met Nichole in the parking lot.

She was the only field tech the study could afford, a recent biology grad from the University of Montana.  She was a North Dakota potato farm girl and wore her father’s vintage ATV helmet and a one-piece blue snowsuit, secured with a bungee cord around her waist, topping the ensemble with a fur-lined bomber hat that she had owned since middle school.  She listened to Reba McEntire and Ke$ha in her work truck and snacked on baked Pontiac reds, eating them like apples.

The guys started the sleds to let them warm on the trailer.  Cy gave me a quick beacon review and loaded me up with a shovel and probe for my backpack.  They unlocked the t-bars and offloaded the sleds, bungee cording packs, skis, and snowshoes to the seat and sides.  Bryan handed me a helmet and pointed to a government-issued red Ski-Doo.  He imparted the first snowmobile lesson:  “Gas here, break here, reverse here. I’ll ride behind you until you get it.” Thus began my on-going battle with the Ski-Doo.

I realized during that first day that you’ve got to sucker punch people into helping you set up wolverine camera traps, because it’s not for lanky folk, or in my case, you can be on the smaller side, but it will hurt.  The mountainous terrain that must be crossed to reach trap sites is not for the light of heart and barely suitable for the light of ass.

Bryan failed to mention that I would have to drive my own snowmobile through steep backcountry powder and rotten snow, between tight trees and down precipitously steep bowls that could slab off and swallow you into the white depths.  He figured, with a shrug of the shoulders as I gave him a few choice words in the parking lot at the end of that first day, “that you would just pick it up.”

That first morning, we started on groomed Forest Service road, the early morning low cloud cover burning off, revealing the perfect pyramid peak of Lone Mountain in the distance against clear skies. I got the sled up to 45 mph and was feeling confident as we cruised across the open meadow.  But then we turned off-trail, shooting over a snow bank into deep, untouched powder and this is where the trouble began.

Driving a modern sled in powder is like windsurfing, where you constantly shift your weight from side-to-side to maneuver over changing snow pack, stumps, varying slopes, every moment requiring a perfectly executed movement.  I thought you just sat on the seat and let the machine do the work while you hit the gas with one hand and sipped a Piña Colada with the other.

I tried to keep up with men who had a good 100 pounds on me and could merely shift weight from one foot to the other to turn the sled. Nichole seemed to take nicely to the mechanical beast in spite of being a fellow initiate.

The entire season, I flew like a one-winged bat behind the pack, all my weight thrown to one running board trying to cling to steep side hills, attempting to keep a straight traverse with the H-bars perpendicular to the fall line and not roll downhill.  In deep snow, I took 50 yards to make a turn that could be executed in five by any normal person, my tail hanging off the running board as I tried to muscle the turns.  The 500-pound machine owned me every time.  I don’t think I once during the season had that magical, buttery moment in which it just “clicked.”

It was always thus, having a moment of confidence as I gassed it up to 60 on a packed down surface, but then took a corner and caught a ski in the deep bank lining the side, getting hopelessly sucked off the trail and dragged further and further away as I desperately tried to re-set the course, dodging buried stumps and creek beds, the rest of the rest of the crew stopping to watch me sail across the great white open to Timbuktu, drawing straws to see who would have to jump in and help me dig out when I finally came to a lurching, hopelessly buried stop.

They tried their best to coach me, even taking me out to wide, open flat fields to practice on days off, yelling, “More throttle, you’re going to need speed to get your scrawny ass to turn on that thing and keep from sinking.”  After a few downhill rolls and some serious lactic acid hangovers from excavating the buried metal heap from the snow, I began to love that throttle. I loved it so much in fact, that I wanted a t-shirt, a belt buckle, a bumper sticker for my low-emissions Subaru, proclaiming:  “When in doubt, throttle out.” They were right. I would have to go really fast before I sank with my worthless weight flopping around the running board like a trout in the bottom of a boat.

I had always viewed sledding as an activity for Old Milwaukee-guzzling chainsaw salesmen, people who talked about burned up belts and torn up tracks and God-knows-what-else.  I will now stand before every sledneck in this nation and offer my sincerest apology, a shot of Jäger to each and every one of you for this unfair assessment, because throwing a sled around in backcountry powder is tough.

While I never became a diehard bubblehead, I decided that Lucifer’s Chariot wasn’t all bad and in fact, required some know-how to maneuver and maintain. Besides, from a wolverine’s point of view, there is no such thing as a non-consumptive user.  When you’re a climate-vulnerable mustelid, it doesn’t matter if the person burning fossil fuel is a wildlife non-profit executive flying from D.C. to Bozeman for a fly fishing vacation or a bus driver on the L.A. Freeway—we’re all pitching in.

There was no lying about what we were doing:  we were using a research tool that potentially contributed to the loss of snowpack that characterized the habitat of the very same animal we sought to understand and protect.  And there was no lying about what everyone else was doing:  driving, flying internationally or domestically, mowing the lawn, living a daily fossil-fueled existence.

As for the undeniably obnoxious whine of the throttle, when you reach the middle of nowhere and turn the machine off, it was quiet, perfect silence.  The kind of silence during which God fills your bubble-encrusted parietal lobes and Buddha strikes you in the heart.  Sometimes we reached the top of a peak and turned off the machines and just sat, looking out over iced ranges, meadows, rivers.  It was silent.

After two hours of riding, we reached our stopping point.  I was drenched in sweat from stomp-packing snow around the belt of the stuck sled every half mile or so.  I just wanted to sit down and eat a horse, a wolverine, anything.  But it was time to set up the trap.  We strapped on snowshoes, waddling for a short 40 yards like a line of penguins, looking for a suitable stand of pines.

Everyone seemed to know their role, pulling two-by-fours, lag bolts, cables, cameras, power drills from their packs.  I stood back and watched as they assembled the trap.

I really didn’t know what help I was going to be in this operation. I could tell mastering the snowmobile was going to present an on-going challenge that would cost everyone extra time and calories.  And I couldn’t carry the heavy roadkill pieces or planks, especially over some of the longer, steeper climbs that we would have to do on skis.

“Ok, your turn.”  Bryan was looking at me and pointing up the tree.  I looked at him blankly.

“This is what we brought you along for. Get up there. You’re the tree specialist. We need someone with little fingers who can climb up there and screw together the u-bolts to secure the cable around the tree.”

Of course! I was a tree specialist.  I shimmied up the trunk, sawing off branches to clear a spot for the cable.  I balanced on a branch as I reached my arms around the subalpine fir, pulling the cable around and securing it to the main line with a small u-bolt that was impossible to twist into place with frigid, bare hands.  Bryan and Nichole stood patiently below, Cy stood on the two-by-four plank across from me, holding up the weight of the moose leg while I secured the bolt.  I got it.  The cable held the bait perfectly above the platform.

A tree specialist's perspective: U-bolts and bark.

A tree specialist’s perspective: U-bolts and bark.

We smudged the gag-inducing Magnum Marten on a few surrounding trees, packed up our bags, turned the camera on and left the site.  We trudged back to the sleds and pulled out our semi-frozen lunches, lying back on the seats as if they were beach chairs.

I was a mass of gelatin on the ride back to the truck, my fists clenched in an arthritic grip on the brake and gas, my legs toast.  We stopped at the bar across from the Forest Service housing compound and ate I-don’t-know-what.  I fell asleep on a heating pad by eight and awakened at six, ready to head into the cold again.  This was it for the next three months: a blur of snow, equipment and soreness.

(A note to readers: The essay begins here.)

©  S. Harrison Grigg and Anatomy of a Wolverine Trap, 2012.

Part III. Wolverines, Winter, February 2011

In the past, data on wolverines was collected primarily through live capture, an approach that allowed biologists to place GPS collars on individuals.  Some live captures required implanting a radio transceiver in the wolverine’s gut and wildlife veterinarians were sometimes flown in to trap sites by helicopter to perform surgery in minus 20 degrees Farenheit.  Needless to say, the whole operation was all around quite invasive and expensive.  However, these studies provided data that revealed wolverine core habitat and ranges, showing that perhaps they were roaming further than estimated and inhabiting areas previously unconsidered by biologists.

In 2009, a wolverine trapped and tagged in Grand Teton National Park made its way from Wyoming across sagebrush flats, desert, highways, and all the way to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, clocking 500 miles in two months.  It was the first time a wolverine was documented in Colorado since 1919, causing a flurry of excitement and celebration.  However, there was one problem: just because this one carefully monitored wolverine was documented in Colorado didn’t mean there weren’t other non-collared wolverines already inhabiting the area.  If you aren’t intentionally looking for a highly elusive species, it’s not likely you’re just going to stumble across it.

The study in which I partook sought to develop a protocol for taking inventory of wolverine presence or absence over large areas in the Lower 48 to determine whether protection needed to be extended beyond the obvious places for critical habitat in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.  For all everyone knew, there could be wolverines living in Colorado, Utah, Washington, and Oregon, and even northern California.

The trap design followed the work of Dr. Audrey Magoun, the Wolverine Queen in Alaska.  The anatomy of a wolverine trap is really quite simple.

Board and camera

A board and motion-detection camera are set about 15 feet apart.

A cable is run 11 feet off the ground between two solid trees, spaced about 15 feet apart. A two-by-four plank is affixed to one tree trunk, 5.5 feet above the snow pack, creating a sort of diving board. Two small posts with alligator clips are affixed to the end of the plank.  Directly above, road-kill elk or moose haunches are wired to the cable, dangling above the end of the board.  On the opposite tree, a motion detection camera is mounted level with the plank.  The bark of surrounding trees is smeared with a scent lure, called Magnum Marten, which essentially smells like a skunk mercilessly unleashed the contents of its glands into a teensy jar of petroleum jelly.

The goal is to coax the wolverine to climb the tree trunk to the board, walk to the end, thereby brushing through the alligator clips.  These clips catch the coat of the animal and provide a hair sample for DNA-analysis.  Once the wolverine reaches the end of the board, it hopefully stops beneath the hovering bait and stands on its hind legs.  The motion detection camera snaps photos of the wolverine’s belly as it reaches for the meat.

A complete wolverine camera trap.

A completed wolverine camera trap.

Each wolverine has a pattern of light brown to blond fur on this ventral side that is like a human thumbprint, distinct to each individual.  From these fine patterns, individual animals may be identified.  The photos could also be used to specify the sex of each animal.  In the case of females, lactation may be determined, meaning there are cubs nearby.

A wolverine taking the bait.

A wolverine taking the bait.

That was all it would take to trap a mountain devil in digital.  Sled, ski, or snowshoe into wolverine territory with the equipment, assemble the camera trap, check it every two weeks, and there you have it, an answer to the question:  Are there wolverines here, or not?  The truth, the final word on the wolverine, would lie somewhere between a motion detection camera and a road kill moose leg dangling in the breeze.

(A note to readers: The essay begins here.)

 

©  S. Harrison Grigg and Anatomy of a Wolverine Trap, 2012.