Nothing embodies the spirit of the wilderness quite like wolverines. Fierce and tenacious, these animals live in northern boreal forests and up to the Arctic Circle—one of the most rugged, inhospitable terrains on Earth. These solitary creatures wander huge distances in home ranges that can exceed 500km2, where they forage for fruits and vegetables, hunt prey large and small, and scavenge from any carcass they can get their claws on. In fact, their scientific name, Gulo gulo, comes from the Latin word gulo, which means “glutton”. Their teeth are so sharp and strong that they can even eat bones. It’s hard to believe that this powerful, bear-like creature is actually a member of the weasel family!
But as tough as wolverines are, the species faces big challenges:
1. Wolverines aggressively defends their enormous territories from other wolverines, meaning that their home ranges don’t overlap. Wolverines also don’t like sharing their territory with humans and will sometimes even abandon their dens if they’re disturbed. They need a lot of space, and they need viable corridors to move from one large wilderness to the next. But as land is developed and wolverine territory is increasingly being used for human recreation, the large, contiguous tracts of land available for wolverines to live, hunt, and breed are getting harder to find.
2. Wolverine fur is thick, dark and oily, making it resistant to frost and matting but also historically popular among hunters and trappers for use in hats and clothing. The hunting and trapping seasons for wolverines were closed in 2009, but wolverines remain vulnerable to trapping activities targeting other mammals across their range. Wolverine are often attracted to bait, making them susceptible to being accidently caught in traps set for other species.
3. Wolverines roam the high country, the big mountain peaks and alpine habitat. Whereas most animals struggle in high snow, wolverines may actually need it. They use high snow levels for dens to raise their young and cache food. As climate change intensifies and heavy snow pack areas shrink, wolverine populations may run out of room.
That’s why, together with Sitka Foundation and Teck, Earth Rangers is supporting the University of Calgary researchers Mirjam Barrueto and Marco Musiani as they work to learn more about the habitat needs of Canada’s western wolverine population in a site spanning the Columbia Mountains and the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
The project goals are to assess wolverine abundance, and investigate interactions between natural habitat quality, human activities (like skiing, backcountry tourism, and forestry), and wolverine distribution. Researchers will be using non-invasive methods, or “sampling stations”, to collect data. These will include:
- Camera traps: a remotely activated camera that is equipped with a motion sensor or an infrared sensor, used for capturing wild animals on film.
- Hair traps: a trap that will collect hair from a wild animal if they touch or rub against it. Often appealing odors, like fatty acid or a musky men’s cologne, lure the animals to the traps.
In addition to confirming wolverine presence, the hair traps will also allow for DNA analysis so that researchers can discover things like the genetic relationships between the wolverines sampled.
Putting Results to Work
The more we can learn about how human activities affect habitat quality and wolverine populations the better we can be at protecting their homes. Once this crucial data is collected, work can begin with backcountry tourism partners and provincial land use managers to optimize their wildlife protocols and balance land uses. Over the next few months, expect to see a lot more information on this well-loved but little-known carnivore, and the amazing efforts underway to ensure they have a safe place to call home!
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