Wolverine : a need for undisturbed wilderness

Updated April 17, 2011

For some who yearn for unspoiled wild areas far from the urban sprawl and contrivances of civilization the wolverine represents the very essence of freedom.

With its prodigious strength, its endurance and capacity to live at extreme subzero temperatures it also seems on occasion to have an ability to outwit our own species – a worthy achievement in the eyes of many.

Description

The largest land member of the weasel family, the wolverine looks rather like a bear cub with a long tail. Its large feet – equipped with impressive claws – act as snowshoes on deep snow. Traveling at a tireless lope it averages about 30 km a day on the lookout for food – a pretty remarkable feat for an animal with relatively short legs. Its tracks in the snow could be mistaken for those of the wolf, but it has the five toes of the weasel family and runs with the distinctive offset twin-print pattern of that family. It easily climbs trees and is a good swimmer.

With heavy jaws for crushing bones, it is both predator and scavenger. It will eat almost anything: birds, frogs, small mammals, carrion and may even kill weakened mountain goats and caribou; it takes advantage of leftovers from wolf kills; it scavenges the spring slopes for avalanche winter-kills; and will dig 10-12 feet down through snow and rocks to get at hibernating marmot families.

A male may have a territory of nearly 1000 square kilometers covering the territories of two or three females. Mating takes place between April and June and the 2-3 kits are born after delayed implantation late the following winter – pure white like little polar bears.

Reputation

First Nations people regarded the wolverine as a ‘spirit helper’ and it had other admirers: Dr. Olaus Murie, who spent six years on the Alaskan peninsula, wrote, ‘I wonder if there is another inhabitant of northern wilderness that so excites the imagination’ and the great naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton, described it as ‘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.’

But trappers and others who suffered from its ability to break into cabins and steal from traps, demonized the species and many people now think of it as a skulking, intractable loner and a threat to any human unlucky enough to meet it. Even its Latin name is uncomplimentary – Gulo gulo meaning ‘glutton glutton’. It was believed to only get together with a female to mate and would even kill its own kits (in which case the species surely would have become extinct eons ago).

New insight

A new book ‘The Wolverine Way’ by biologist Douglas H. Chadwick on recent research carried out in US Glacier National Park sheds some light on this ‘legendary enigma’ and turns much of what people imagined wolverines to be on its head.

For one thing, they seem to lead a rather exemplary family life and mates actually form long-term relationships outside the breeding season. Males will even go and check out the females and kits in their dens. Both parents and a young of the year have been recorded traveling together and, in another study, a five-month old female kit whose mother had recently died joined up with her father and traveled with him – learning the ropes.

The Glacier Park research also uncovered some rather unusual wolverine travel routes. In January a male went straight up the almost vertical ice-coated side of Mount Cleveland – at more than 10,400 feet the highest peak in the park. To an animal with seemingly tireless energy that appears to regard the world as being flat this was probably the most practical and shortest route between two valleys in its territory.

Status

Wolverines are found throughout the circumpolar boreal regions of the world but numbers have plummeted in the past 200 years due to trapping, poisoning and disturbance of its once remote habitats.

In North America it is found mostly in Alaska and mountainous areas of western Canada. In the contiguous United States only Montana and possibly Idaho still have viable populations. In eastern Canada it is now listed as ‘endangered’ under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).
In western Canada it is listed as a species ‘of special concern’ by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada (COSEWIC). Although its numbers in southern Alberta and British Columbia may now be very low there is strong opposition by trappers and hunters to listing it here as ‘threatened’ under SARA while there are still fairly healthy populations in the north.

Threats

In British Columbia studies have shown that where wolverine populations are declining, the primary cause is trapping. Unless it is given protected status each population in a national park – already constrained by a small gene pool – will slowly blink out as individual emigrating animals are killed on provincial land.

Resource extraction in the western provinces as well as recreational use by snowmobilers, snowboarders and skiers in the high country has rendered a lot of habitat unusable for this wary species. Females denning high on subalpine slopes are particularly vulnerable to disturbance: it could cause them to abandon their kits – a serious setback for a species that occurs in low densities, has small litters, and does not breed every year.

Jasper National Park

In Jasper National Park there is little data on the species. Their tracks may occasionally be seen crossing snow-covered Maligne Lake in winter. Tracks in the dust on the trail up Bonhomme Mountain within sight of the town of Jasper may indicate an individual’s territory. From tracks and encounters it is evident the area around the Marmot Basin ski hill and the adjacent Whistlers Creek Valley is important habitat for them.

One of Jasper’s most interesting – albeit elusive – animals, the wolverine needs vast, undisturbed wilderness. The park still offers that – for now. While data on them may be lacking, this rarely seen presence roaming the high country needs protection in a national park because it is not yet likely to get it anywhere else.