Today marks the beginning of wolverine trapping season – both live trapping for scientific research, and Montana’s trapping season for pelts. One is reason for excitement, the other for trepidation. The live-trapping effort, run by the Gallatin National Forest in association with the Absaroka-Beartooth Wolverine Project and the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, will monitor and attempt to capture and instrument the four known wolverines in the Absaroka Range, as well as any newcomers or previously undetected animals. This year is critical for several reasons, foremost among them the fact that we have two reproductive-age females in territories that overlap with known males. The females, F3 and F133, are both about four years old and, to our knowledge, neither has had kits before. Of the males, M2 is the elder statesman of the Absarokas, first captured and instrumented in 2005. M2 and F133 – who was born in the Gallatins and later established a home in the southern Absarokas – have shared territory for the past year, but so far we haven’t documented reproduction. The Menan Male, a juvenile, was captured in a bobcat trap in the potato fields of Menan, Idaho, last spring; the trapper called Idaho Game and Fish personnel, who called the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wolverine project biologists, who transported the animal to Montana and released him into the Pioneers. The Menan Male promptly headed east and settled in the Absarokas, in an area encompassing F3’s territory, where the two may have run into each other over the mid-summer breeding season. If either F3 or F133 has kits, the live-trapping effort will be essential in monitoring the females and in capturing and instrumenting the kits. Tracking kits may provide important insight into dispersal and connectivity issues. And by monitoring the males, we may gain a deeper understanding of the role that wolverine fathers play in raising their offspring.
This morning, the phone in the office jangled with calls from wolverine project staff, and the buzz of radio signals filled the office as our executive director programmed a batch of radio collars to be sent to the field crew in Gardiner, Montana. I feverishly read a book on occupancy modeling in an attempt to get into intellectual shape for the upcoming months. The excitement and anticipation make this season akin to Christmas for wildlife science nerds.
The fur-trapping season tempers the hopefulness of the scientific efforts with the reminder that any of these animals might be killed, regardless of their value to the study or to the wider wolverine population of the Rocky Mountains. Montana has maintained a wolverine trapping season for decades, and until two years ago, the quota was set at 12 animals statewide. The quota was reduced to ten, and then, last year, to five, partially in response to pressure from environmental advocacy groups. This year, Montana will permit the trapping of three wolverines in the northwest, adjacent to Glacier National Park, one wolverine in the region around Missoula, and one in the southwest. This southwestern region encompasses F3’s and the Menan Male’s territories, and either one of them could be killed between now and Feburary 15th, when the season ends. Hunting and trapping are an important part of the culture of the Western US, and ethical hunters have made valuable contributions to conservation over the years. But in the case of wolverines, the status of the population is simply too tenuous to support the removal of even one reproductive – and potentially pregnant – female. I’m not the praying type, but if a higher power exists, I’m offering supplications to spare F3 and all the potential that she offers for the future of the wolverines of the Rockies. If she must be drawn to someone’s bait, let it be the live traps of the research project and not the traps of the pelt hunters.
For more information on Montana’s trapping regulations, visit the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website, here.
For more on the individual wolverines mentioned, check out the Dramatis Gulae page, which details the cast of wolverines in the Rockies.