Exposing the weaknesses of wolverines could ultimately help strengthen their population numbers between Kootenay National Park and Cranbrook.
Wildlife biologist Dr. Tony Clevenger’s newest study, titled “Mapping the Wolverine’s Way,” is investigating whether or not wolverine populations between the United States and Canada are connected and how best to manage the landscape in an attempt to preserve the wolverine’s habitat.
The scope of the project aims to ensure the safety of one of the most mysterious animals known to mankind.
“The challenges to the project are that we are studying a wide-ranging, rare-occurring species that is difficult to detect because of the large home range sizes (males occupy 700 to 1,500 square kilometres) and extremely low density populations,” said Clevenger in an email. “That was on top of the fact that wolverines typically occupy the most remote and rugged habitats in the Canadian Rockies, areas that are difficult to access in summer and particularly in winter. To conduct our survey, we access our hair trap sites by 4WD truck, snowmobile and the most remote inaccessible sites by helicopter. The logistics of carrying out the survey are complex as we set up sites and have to check them every 30 days over a four-month period.”
The cost of Clevenger’s study has also proved difficult.
“Having adequate funding for the research is also a challenge in itself,” said Clevenger. “Because of the large area we survey and the remoteness of many survey sites and how we access them, it is expensive compared to other wildlife surveys.”
Funding for the project is primarily from private conservation foundations and also the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative grant in 2014.
The wolverine is an enigmatic creature that belongs to the otter, weasel and mink family.
The animal is distinct because it has a broad head, small eyes and short round ears with dark brown fur and a slightly lighter-coloured face mask with a strip running down the side of its body, according to the Defenders of Wildlife website.
Wolverines are a vital part of the ecosystem and scientists estimate there aren’t many of the animals left in their natural environments.
“Our work is designed to shed light on wolverine distribution, population size and habitat needs in the vast area between the protected areas of Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks in the north and Waterton/Glacier Nation Parks in the south,” said Clevenger. “Wolverines were a candidate species for listing as threatened in the contiguous United States in 2014; there are only approximately 35 breeding females left.”
These animals are listed as a species at risk in Canada and are still being reviewed for the same status in the U.S. Genetic studies have shown that the future survival of wolverines in the U.S. is tied to the larger population across the border in Canada.
“A critical linkage area for their survival is the area we are conducting our research,” explained Clevenger. “It is an area that is bisected by Highway 3 — there are industrial activities (oil, gas, timber harvesting), motorized recreation and trapping occurring in this area. It is believed that the cumulative effects of these activities have an effect on the persistence of wolverines in this area over the long term. Our work is designed to identify key habitat corridors for movement and gene flow at a transboundary level so that land management agencies can manage areas for wolverine conservation.”
It is believed that a combination of logging, mining and roadways are threatening the remote block of wilderness that are imperative for wolverines to survive, but there are many questions about the species that remain unanswered and people from all walks of life are entertaining ideas about conservation.
“I think wolverines are a very important part of the Rocky Mountain landscape and we have very, very little information, not only on wolverines, but generally on carnivores, especially the furry critters,” said John Bergenske, Wildsight conservation director. “It is that group of animals that have very little research done to understand them; what the population densities are and whether or not they are doing very well.”
Although Bergenske doesn’t have statistics available through Wildsight’s volunteer efforts with Clevenger’s project, he remains well-versed in the importance of raising awareness on these issues in the East Kootenay.
“Wildsight has volunteered to help out and I’ve been helping out with the research in terms of just doing some of the checks at research stations, but generally speaking, wolverines have been found,” said Bergenske. “It’s been very, very consistent that they’ve been in the most remote locations and most often, interestingly, these remote areas are directly associated with protected areas. There haven’t been any locations in the front country or the lower elevations (such as) Rocky Mountain trench to date but this is, of course, ongoing research.”
The study area includes the area proposed by Wildsight and the Flathead Wild Coalition for a Wildlife Management Area and Flatland National Park Reserve. It is part of an area known as the Crown of the Continent that runs down the core of the core of the Rocky Mountains from Banff to Missoula, Montana.
The Canadian portion of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem has been crucial for wolverines north of the United States of America.
“Wolverines are really the largest of the weasel family,” Bergenske added. “They’re very significant in terms of letting us know where things stand in the health of the backcountry and some of those higher elevation landscapes because they really depend on that remoteness.
“There are concerns that, over time, wolverines depend on snow cover. They’re directly linked up to the areas where there is snow cover later into the year and, with the climate changes, there are a lot of concerns that wolverine habitat zones will be decreased so following wolverines also gives us information on a lot of the changes that have taken place.”
There have been 46 hair traps set up with carcasses and the scent of musk near trail cameras to collect samples of hair and photos and obtain information on the wolverine population and habitat relationships in the region. It is expected the project will last for three years.
“I’m just helping out and Wildsight has been really supportive of the work, but it’s really a project that Tony’s headed up in the area,” Bergenske concluded. “If people are interested in wolverines at all, there’s a book called The Wolverine Way by Doug Chadwick and it is one of the best natural history books a person’s going to read for information’s sake. It’s a very, very entertaining book and when people talk about wolverine’s, I always promote Chadwick’s book because I put it at the very top of the list of natural history book that I’ve ever read. It’s a really fun book and you get a lot of information about these animals, their habits and what they do.”
For more information about the project or to get involved, visit www.wolverinewatch.org.
—With files from John Bergenske, Wildsight conservation director