The wolverine: one gnarly dude…who needs our help

Click image for Gulo gulo natural history

Updated 7/5/14: Politics trumps science; USFWS reverses ESA listing proposal – here. Leaked FWS memo is here.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the stinkiest, snarliest, gnarliest, wildest of them all? Why, Gulo gulo–the amazing wolverine–of course!

And the gnarly little being needs our help within the next few days (5/6/13 deadline). Unless you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll probably never see a wolverine in your lifetime, at least not outside of a zoo–and that’s a hideous thought for any wild animal, but especially for this wide-ranging, endlessly-moving dynamo. But even so–a mere few minutes to help save the wildest of the wild? A bargain at any price! Read on…

The First People have a long history with the wolverine on our continent:

Fearless, tenacious, and always on the go, the “skunk bear” is the largest land-dwelling member of the weasel family. Their extremely low population densities make them vulnerable to external pressures like trapping and habitat fragmentation, and, indeed, humans hold the top spot for wolverine predation, according to The Wolverine Foundation. You can’t do better than to watch their three-minute video, “The Need to Move“–gorgeous scenery, fantastic wolverine shots, and the lowdown from a top researcher. Watch it and you’ll be ready to go to bat for this wild one.

Wolverines were caught up in predator eradication programs and fell upon hard times in the first half of the 20th century: “To the best of our knowledge,wolverines were pushed back and pretty much extirpated in the contiguous US due to a combination of trapping and, perhaps more devastatingly, poison-baiting intended for other carnivores (primarily wolves)…” (Wolverine Blog).

The Northern Rockies continue to host small pockets of populations; Montana’s has been the subject of intense debate given that trapping continues here–the only state in the lower 48 to allow it. I’ve heard tell that trappers consider the wolverine their “Holy Grail,” and the state management agency stands firmly with trappers–a minute fraction of all Montana citizens (see “Montana will oppose protections for wolverines“).

The real game-changer for wolverines

Though a scrappy, 40-pound wolverine might challenge a grizzly bear for scavenging rights at the Carrion Cafe, there’s one thing wolverines can’t take on: Climate change. Cold temperatures and deep snow aren’t preferences–they’re species requirements. Babies (called kits) are born in birthing dens buried deep in snow–persistent, stable snow greater than five feet deep for security and insulation and lasting well into April and May (source). If Glacier National Park’s glaciers are doomed (video)–some say gone by 2020!–what’s to become of the wolverine? This is where you and I come in. The following comment deadlines have all passed.

(Previous) COMMENT DEADLINE: Monday, May 6, 2013 at 11:59 pm ET

Click here; you’ll find a short summary of the issue–well worth the minute it takes to read. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposes listing the wolverine as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in the contiguous United States, thereby protecting the species and its diminishing habitat. Over to the right on that page, you can check the number of comments received since the 90-day comment period opened. As I write, it’s at 9518, having jumped by several hundred overnight. Add your voice by clicking the “comment now” button. If all you’ve got time for is some variation of “Please list the wolverine as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in the contiguous states,” that’ll do! Click “submit” and you’re done.

Then reward yourself with this 2-1/2 minute video from the author of The Wolverine Way, featuring crazy-beautiful shots of wolverines at work and play in Glacier National Park. Can’t get enough? Here a wolverine takes on an intruding black bear. Guess who wins?!? Want more? Wolverine vs. wolf…wow, check out the headlocks! Betcha can’t guess who walks away with a bloody nose!

If, by now, you’ve been bitten by gulomania, welcome to the club! Supporting ESA listing for this bodacious brawler is the most important thing you’ll do today, and if wolverines were known to display genteel manners, maybe they’d roar their thanks your way.

Then again, maybe they’d just as soon rassle you into a headlock.
Also: The Wolverine Foundation’s kids page; map of worldwide wolverine distribution; “Whither the wolverine” at Counterpunch
Nov. 2013: The comment period on wolverine listing was re-opened on 10/31/13. Click here for info and links. Comment deadline is Dec. 2, 2013.

Comment on this post at animal law blog Animal Blawg.

A tale of two wildlife babies–and human motives for good and bad

Photo: Four Rivers Fishing Co. via AP

A newborn moose calf. A fast-moving river swollen with spring runoff. But for the presence of humans willing to intervene–a fishing outfitter and his client–the calf’s probable drowning in Montana’s Big Hole River would have passed unnoticed. Mom Moose–she herself struggled against the current–would have spent frantic moments scouring the riverbank. And because grief is not the exclusive domain of Homo sapiens, it can’t be said, categorically, that she would not have grieved the loss of her little one.

I would rather a newborn moose live a full life; I’d be heartbroken to witness one’s death. But I also recognize that human values come into play here, and that nature isn’t cruel (as many are fond of claiming)–nature just is. Some animals live; other animals die. Fanged predators eat some animals; disease and rivers eat others. Mom Moose miscalculates. Or Baby Moose isn’t the fittest one to survive. The little body becomes nutrients for others and for the Earth. Wrote Emerson, “…there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.”

But that scenario didn’t play out. “Anglers save baby moose on Big Hole River” read the headline in our local paper the other day. What was bad luck for fish was good luck for moose; the calf was plucked from the current and delivered to the riverbank where mom was waiting. The outfitter posted the happy story on the company’s Facebook page, where it had nearly 200 “likes” within hours. Three days later, it had over 12,000 and had been picked up by Huffington Post, MSN, USA Today, and so many more. A comment posted to our local newspaper summed it up: “I love this story. Anything with an animal in it. Thank God for our humanity in dealing with animals.”

Jim Peaco image

Humanity gone missing and captured on video

Let’s turn the page on the lucky moose calf media sensation in the Big Hole River and peruse the next page on the not-so-lucky bison calves struggling–where are the media?–in the Madison River. Formed by the confluence of the Firehole and the Gibbon rivers, the Madison flows out of Yellowstone National Park swollen with snowmelt in late spring. The Yellowstone area’s shaggy, wild bison use the river valley to exit the park, as well, in search of nutritious, early spring grass at lower elevations. Moms give birth on sunny slopes and eat their fill after a long, harsh winter.

But politics is a cruel taskmaster and native, wild bison aren’t tolerated on land that “belongs” to cattle (including, even, our collectively-owned public land!). Their peaceful respite is shattered when Montana’s livestock industry demands that bison be driven off their own traditional, migratory habitat–even when no cattle are present–and back into the park. Personnel from five state and federal agencies mercilessly haze the animals on horseback, ATVs, snowmobiles and with vehicles and even helicopters, running them for exhausting miles before forcing them into the swift river where calves are nearly overwhelmed in a current so strong that even grown bison struggle. Grassroots advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign has filmed the harrowing river crossing (watch it here) along with brutal helicopter hazing (watch it here; if the tiny, injured–and doomed–calf at 1:50 doesn’t break your heart, you might not have one).

I wish the 12,000+ folks who “liked” the baby moose story just as equally “disliked” the baby bison abuse (but of course, they’d have to know about it, first). After all, they have more invested in it–our tax dollars are funding the persecution. I wish they could see the irony that I see: “Our humanity” and compassion rescue one baby from a perilous river, while our greed and a market for beef drive other babies into a perilous river. Though it’s not as easy as clicking a “like” button, I wish they could take action that might actually make a difference.

If just half–heck, even just a third–of those 12,000+ would send an e-mail to Montana’s governor (click and scroll to bottom) protesting this abusive wildlife action, and/or would send just a buck or two to Buffalo Field Campaign to fuel their grassroots activism (they operate on the thinnest of shoestrings), what a difference we might make!

But “liking” a baby moose rescued from random danger is easy. It’s warm, fuzzy, and casts a collective glow that makes us proud of our humanity. Going to bat for baby bison intentionally put in harm’s way asks more of us individually. It demands moral certitude and effort, and perhaps reminds us that dietary choices aren’t always benign. It demands that we act to correct a wrong–not just click to express a “like.” It requires that we not just thank God for our humanity in dealing with animals, but that we actually exercise it.
For a more in-depth look at the politics driving bison mismanagement in Montana, visit Encyclopedia Britannica Advocacy for Animals– “Wild bison in the American West: Beloved icons inside Yellowstone National Park; persecuted and slaughtered outside its boundaries”
Comment on this post at animal law blog Animal Blawg.

Win a few, lose a few: Animal fighting, commercial breeding get another pass


Dog fighter in training (ASPCA image) – click for story

Seventy percent of U.S. adults have a favorable opinion of the animal protection movement–so says recent research–which leads me to think that the other 30% serve in the Montana legislature. Animals lost what should have been a couple of slam-dunks during the 2015 biennial session, but that’s not unusual in a state where the unofficial motto might be “if it’s brown, it’s down; if it flies, it dies; if it hooks, it cooks.” Wildlife are under constant siege from arrows, bullets, hooks, and traps, while laws protecting companion animals don’t have a prayer if they can be twisted–no matter how remotely in the exploiters’ minds–to hold rodeo and animal agriculture to some minuscule standard of decency.

In the ‘animals win’ column is the defeat of a bill strengthening Montana’s ag-gag law (defined here)–the Treasure State having passed one of the nation’s earliest (1991). This year, an attempt was made to add a quick reporting law, requiring witnesses to report animal cruelty within 24 hours or be charged with animal cruelty themselves (read SB 285 here). The bill’s Republican sponsor fretted that animal rights people, conducting undercover investigations in factory farms and other animal hellholes, would hang onto evidence to use when the time is right–he mentioned Christmas–to raise money and gain members (listen in here). The reality? Because gathering documentation that establishes a pattern of abuse happens over time, forced 24-hour reporting stymies the ability to build a case for prosecution. No time? No case. This bill got the Big Needle–and deserved it.

Another win for animals (and taxpayers) was the defeat of HB 179, a bill aiming to eliminate the ability of law enforcement to call on humane organizations to help with rescue and subsequent sheltering in alleged cruelty cases–think puppy mill busts or hoarding cases. Listen to the bill’s Republican sponsor as she conflates the Humane Society of the United States with your local rescue shelter and trots out the bogeymen of extremism and terrorist threats. Would Montana’s 2011 malamute puppy mill bust have even been possible without outside rescue operations and shelter organizations assisting law enforcement (video)? Or the epic rescue of 800 neglected sanctuary animals in Niarada beginning in late 2010? Putting this wacky bill down was the humane thing to do.

In the ‘animals lose’ column, a couple of significant defeats offset these wins, starting with the failure–yet again–of a commercial pet breeder regulation bill (Dem-sponsored HB 608). Montana remains one of several states without any regulation–which makes our huge, rural state with its abundant isolation (did you check out that malamute video?) and no oversight look good to exploiters. Enacting minimal standards to regulate large-scale breeders would seem like a no-brainer, but the American Kennel Club–the so-called “dog’s champion” —lobbied against the bill.

Exploiters also perceive the dreaded slippery slope: A few years ago, I attended a pro-horse slaughter seminar (offered, incidentally, by the sponsor of HB 179 before she ran for the legislature) where a Wyoming legislator told this whopper: “USDA is overregulating dog breeding to an incredible degree and it’s bleeding over: Well, we inspect dogs, why can’t we inspect sheep?” (Peruse these 33 pages of violations and inhumane but legal conditions at USDA-licensed breeding mills.) What kind of warped logic is this? Sheep aren’t even covered under the federal Animal Welfare Act when used for food and fiber, yet the fear of having inspectors look in on their welfare is so great that cash-crop companion animals must pay the price in suffering?!

Finally, a huge and shameful loss is the failure of bipartisan HB 378, yet another attempt to close the state’s dog fighting spectator loophole–a circumstance resulting from an omission in the original bill’s text. Montana remains the ONLY state where a spectator can legally attend a felony dog fight. Spectators matter because they enable dog fighting–making it lucrative (admission fees, wagers) and providing cover for criminal organizers who melt into the crowd if The Man shows up. “If you don’t have a penalty for being a spectator, everyone becomes a spectator,” said bill sponsor Rep. Tom Richmond, R-Billings. “It’s like a kegger where everyone scatters” (source). HB 378’s original language read,

But even this was too much penalty for some on the committee, and ‘shall’ was replaced with ‘may’ while $1500 was reduced to $500. And still the bill failed in the Senate after passing the House. Why? For one senator, it was simple spite:

For others, it was the inability to think critically:

Law enforcement, legal personnel, and animal control officers have repeatedly called for a spectator bill, asserting that spectators thwart finding and prosecuting fight organizers. How convenient that, when busts can’t be made, legislators like these have “proof” that dog fighting isn’t a problem! And suggesting that the bill’s intent was to sneak animal rights into Montana law is bald-faced ignorance when 49 of 50 states impose spectator fines, jail time, or both. It’s hard not to feel embarrassed for this senator–for all of them who threw animals (maybe even your companion dog and mine) under the bus for their petty biases, cruel selfishness, and inability (or worse–refusal) to evaluate facts and act for the public good.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Republican-sponsored SB 334, which redefined “fur bearers” (animals trapped for the commercial value of their fur) as “game animals” in an attempt to bring trapping in line with Montana’s constitutionally-guaranteed right to “harvest” wild fish and game–thereby thwarting any citizens’ ballot initiative to eliminate the cruel anachronism of trapping on public land. This wily bill made it clear to the governor’s desk, where the “unintended consequences” resulting from self-serving, legislative meddling moved him to harvest it with his veto gun.

Montana is often called the last best place, and it is–for criminals who fly under the radar, capitalizing on illicit gatherings where dogs (or roosters) rip each other to bloody shreds (graphic photos). It’s also one of the last best places for puppy millers who leave in their wake the living detritus of their cash crop–unhealthy, neglected animals and worn-out breeder moms facing physical and psychological problems for the rest of their lives. For the animals, Montana isn’t the last best place–it’s often just the last place.
Learn more:

  • All states’ ag-gag laws – here
  • Puppy mill regulations by state – here
  • Other Nations puppy mills page
  • Federal & state dog fighting statutes
  • “Spectating at dog fights: Still legal thanks to…rodeo?” – blog post written after the 2013 spectator bill lost. Contains links to videos, FAQs, and “Dogfighting: The Voiceless Victims” exhibit.
  • Added 1/3/17: “Learning about dog fighting in order to stop it,” Boston Globe.
  • Bait dog found with duct-taped muzzle, extreme injuries – news report video

Comment on this post at Montana Cowgirl political blog–where it appears as a guest post.