Seeley Swan Pathfinder
January 28, 1999
by Mike Thompson,
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
The only thing that allowed me to survive a Friday afternoon of mandatory computer training in Missoula was that morning's discussion about wolverine, lynx and marten with local trappers in Seeley Lake.
And, I'll confess, the quick return trip from Seeley to Missoula in my 3/4-ton time capsule was not nearly long enough to prepare my psyche for an abrupt transition from the very roots of wildlife science to the work environment of the modern biologist.
The profession of scientific wildlife management originated about 60 years ago from the interests, talents and discoveries of skilled outdoorsmen like those trappers who gathered at the invitation of the Seeley Lake Ranger District a couple weeks back. The most secretive denizens of the backcountry (other than the trappers themselves) have so far eluded definitive scientific study. Especially for species such as wolverine, the observations of local trappers are the best information available to land and wildlife managers, and their experiences also fill local gaps in our understanding of many well-studied species.
Recently, the wolverine has suffered a degree of political notoriety because of its apparent tendency to use snow-filled, alpine basins for giving birth to its young during the same time that snowmobilers love to play in the same kinds of areas. Some of the older trappers reminded us that notoriety is nothing new to the wolverine. Many early-day homesteaders in the Seeley-Swan (and elsewhere across North America, Scandinavia and Siberia) were pestered by the wolverine's habits of breaking into cabins and following trappers' traplines to devour their catches.
Naturally, homesteaders trapped wolverine hard to rid themselves of this nuisance, and like many other species of wildlife, wolverine were severely reduced in numbers and distribution in the early part of this century. But, since that early period of persecution, local trappers report that wolverine have made a slow, steady recovery to this day. Even so, the wolverine appears to be limited in distribution to primitive landscapes, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness is probably the center of a wolverine population that spills over into the most undisturbed portions of the Clearwater and Swan drainages.
None of the trappers in our gathering had ever found the maternal den of a wolverine, nor had they been possessed to snowshoe across mountain tops and alpine basins in pursuit of one. After all, successful trappers are sensible, as well as rugged.
It was the consensus of this group that changes in habitat cause the most pronounced effects on small forest carnivores today, whether we're talking about wolverine, lynx or marten. Even as the gradual, slow recovery of the wolverine was viewed as something of a "success story," trappers described how local pockets of wolverine activity are being lost outside the wilderness where once-remote forests are being harvested.
Although I didn't get a clear sense of how forest management practices could be adjusted to conserve wolverine habitat, the trappers were able to make specific recommendations regarding problems and solutions in the management of forests for lynx and marten.
Thinning practices, past and present, on both public and private timberlands, were named as a serious problem for lynx. Lynx rely on snowshoe hare for food, and hare, in turn, feed on buds and twigs within their reach. When timber stands are thinned to reduce competition for nutrients and increase growth rates of commercially valuable trees, food for hare may be removed. Several of the trappers described specific examples in their experience where thinning operations were especially enthusiastically undertaken, and where losses of hare and lynx habitat were especially serious.
We're all aware of the negative effects of "clean farming" practices on habitat for pheasant and grouse on agricultural lands, and we appreciate the benefits of leaving some "waste ground" for wildlife. It sounds to me like wildlife could also benefit from some increased cooperation to avoid extreme examples of "clean forestry" in lynx habitat.
Another troublesome trend identified by the trappers was the removal of densely forested corridors across logging units, and the loss of connectivity between remaining patches of forest cover for lynx and marten. One theory was that lynx will cross reasonably small-sized clearcuts to reach known food sources and suitable habitat on the other side. But, over a period of years, the knowledge of which clearcuts are worth crossing may be lost to the lynx population as older animals die out. Without cover corridors to connect good habitat patches, it was suggested that lynx may eventually be lost to an area.
In the case of marten, the need for corridors of mature standing timber and large downfall is even more dramatic. Considerable scientific research is available to back up trappers; observations that marten do not use intensively managed timberlands as habitat. It was suggested that streamside management zones provide excellent opportunities to maintain and enhance habitat connectivity for both lynx and marten. These streamsides are natural corridors where Montana law currently requires extra care in logging practices. By treading even more lightly in streamside management zones, and by modestly expanding the size of these areas to enhance their function as corridors, the trappers see great potential to do some good for lynx and marten.
Throughout our discussions, I was especially impressed by how careful these local naturalists were to stick to the facts of their direct observations, and how cautious they were about speculating on things they could not be sure of. What a treat it was to be allowed to sit like the proverbial mouse in the corner as our local old-timers and up-and-coming mountain trappers compared notes from times past and present, with credibility you can take to the bank.
It made me wonder why it had been so long since I last talked with these guys.