This post was written by Joseph Guthrie
“The wolverine is a tremendous character…a personality of unmeasured force, courage, and achievement so enveloped in a mist of legend, superstition, idolatry, fear, and hatred, that one scarcely knows how to begin or what to accept as fact. Picture a weasel – and most of us can do that, for we have met the little demon of destruction, that small atom of insensate courage, that symbol of slaughter, sleeplessness, and tireless, incredible activity – picture that scrap of demoniac fury, multiply that mite by some fifty times, and you have the likeness of a wolverine.” – Ernest Thompson Seton from the Lives of Game Animals: Vol. II, 1925-1927
I lifted this quote from a book called “The Wolverine Way” by Doug Chadwick, a wildlife biologist and journalist. He uses this quote in the opening chapter of the book, and I think it’s fantastic. I just love the language that old naturalists seem to have the ability to tap. Pick any passage in A Sand County Almanac, for instance, and see how Leopold sweeps his gaze from the marshes of his home country over the entire Midwest, and then over the entire span of human industrial enterprise.
Chadwick is not that kind of writer, but he excels at telling the personal stories of the rough-hewn biologists and volunteers who track wolverines in Glacier National Park. The most compelling stories in his book, however, are those of the individual Gulos that populate northwest Montana. We get repeated encounters with several individual wolverines, the coolest of which is known as M3, a young male wolverine possessed by exactly the kind of “demoniac fury” that Seton’s quote suggests. I won’t spoil the story, but the data the team (based at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula) collect from M3 reveal an animal with an other-worldly propensity for movement and aggression.
As a biologist who studies animal movement, I’ve experienced the thrill of opening a set of GPS data you’ve just received from an animal that is capable of moving long distances. Chadwick gets this, and articulates this fascinating part of the life of a biologist in language that is accessible to laypeople. There is something incredibly dramatic and engaging about the movements of big animals. They show those of us who want to know how the landscape appears to them. A craggy, winter shrouded mountain peak is inviting to a wolverine. A hardwood swamp anchors a black bear. A river basin leads a lone male Florida panther northward into uninhabited oak hammocks. A double strand of barbed wire blocks the annual migration of a herd of fifty pronghorn.
To endure over time, animals like the wolverine, the jaguar, the mountain lion (or panther), the lynx, the grizzly, the pronghorn, and even the ubiquitous black bear, are going to need wildland corridors that guarantee individuals the freedom to roam from one clutch of habitat to the next. As wide-ranging species struggle to adapt to changing weather and shifting habitats in the warmer years to come, linkage zones running north-south will prove especially vital. Yet before ecologists can identify the best routes – those wildlands that hold the most promise for keeping groups of animals connected – many more gaps in our knowledge about several of these species natural history will have to be filled in.