Last week, a small crew on skis set out into the high mountains of the Montana wilderness. They were headed into wolverine country, their objective a series of scattered points close to treeline. The points had been obtained during telemetry flights in April, and they indicated that F3, a five year old female wolverine, was restricting her movements to a small portion of her usual range. Under normal conditions, F3 might be found anywhere within an approximate 300 km² sweep of rugged country. Over the past several weeks, however, she had limited herself to a few drainages in close proximity to each other. Her behavior unleashed a wave of excitement among the wolverine crew who had been tracking her since 2007; restricted movement is the classic indication that a female wolverine is in a den with kits.
Determining F3’s reproductive status has become an annual springtime ritual at the Absaroka-Beartooth project, fraught with trepidation, surges of hope, and, inevitably, disappointed resignation to the fact that, once again, the project’s sole instrumented female wolverine has failed to produce kits. We’ve been engaging in this ritual since F3 was first captured in 2007. For the first two years, she was young, and, as far as we knew, there was no male in her territory, so the absence of a den in 2008 and 2009 wasn’t such a surprise.
Then, in spring of 2009, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wolverine project took charge of a young male that had been accidentally caught in a bobcat trap in Idaho. WCS released the wolverine, M57, in Montana, and he promptly headed for F3’s territory. We knew that F3 and this male – notable for his white paws and his unprecedentedly relaxed attitude when captured by the project’s live traps – were traveling together throughout 2009, and the tension over F3’s status in spring of 2010 was palpable. For the first time, we had real grounds to hope for babies.
The question was especially urgent for the project because the work done so far had provided no evidence of reproduction in Yellowstone or the ranges immediately to the north, south, and east. In fact, those ranges seemed strangely vacant; the habitat appeared good, but the wolverine population was sparse even for a rare carnivore. Over the course of five years, the project had documented two immigrants to the study area – M57 and a female, F133, who was born in the Gallatins and who traveled across Yellowstone to take up residence south of the park. But there had been no births. This suggests that, at least in Yellowstone and its immediate surroundings, the wolverine population currently depends on dispersing wolverines from further to the north and west. With only a single den documented in Wyoming – in the Tetons – the data also suggest that Wyoming’s population might rely on input from populations in Montana. And with talk of reintroduction following M56’s trip from Wyoming to Colorado, the need for a healthy region-wide meta-population, with as many interconnected nodes of reproducing wolverines as possible, became even more urgent. Any further understanding of reproductive dynamics and denning characteristics – not to mention the sheer and simple fact of more wolverines on the landscape – would be invaluable.
In 2010, a series of telemetry flights eventually indicated that F3 wasn’t denning. We caught her in March of 2010 and were finally able to determine that she was not nursing, although she and M57 were still traveling together. Disappointed, we held out hopes for 2011, but by now the project was officially over and finding resources to keep it going was becoming more and more challenging.
This season, F3 went into the trap early, in January, and the crew noted that her teats were enlarged – a real reason for hope. The weather remained ferocious throughout the spring, making flights difficult, but when a series of telemetry points finally came in after flights in April, F3’s apparent localization added further evidence to the argument for kits. Finding proof, however, was necessary, and the mission was urgent: wolverine kits leave the den in early May, and the dens themselves, dug in the snow, are ephemeral and nearly impossible to identify once the snow is gone. From the time the points came in, the crew had approximately two weeks to get to the area and figure out what was going on.
The trip in took three hours of skiing, over a steep pass and through heavy snow. At the outset Jason Wilmot, who was leading the trip, listened for F3 and M57 and picked up M57’s signal to the south. There was no indication that F3 was anywhere nearby, and the first point that the crew reached yielded nothing. Jason and the crew pressed on to the next point.
Here, at the pass, they picked up tracks, and then more tracks, and then an explosion of tracks. This, too, was strong indication of a den, and sure enough, backtracking the prints, they found a hole. And then another one. And another. Altogether, the crew discovered six holes in the snow, some apparently linked beneath the surface. The tracks were melted out and the crew were unable to determine whether they came from multiple animals, let alone animals of different sizes. But the evidence for a den and kits was strong.
The crew had already made the decision not to instrument the kits – without the funds for flights to monitor them, it would have placed unnecessary stress on the animals – so they didn’t dig to see if the babies were underground. Instead, they collected DNA samples from the tracks and the entrances to the holes. They listened for F3, but she was still absent. If there were indeed kits, the family might have already left the den permanently, but F3 might just as easily have been out on a foraging run, and the kits could have been curled up in a chamber in the snow beneath the crew’s feet, pondering the strange vibrations of skis and human voices.
Before they left the site, Jason listened again for M57. The signal came in, and it was loud – M57 was somewhere nearby. Employing a trick that wildlife biologists use to determine exactly how close an instrumented animal is, Jason removed the antenna from the receiver and held out the cord with its metal end. If an animal’s signal still comes in without the antenna, the animal is really close. M57’s signal continued to boom in. He was right on top of the crew, probably watching them from somewhere in the trees. As Jason and the remainder of the crew skied out, they crossed M57’s tracks coming into the basin; the wolverine tracks were overlaid on the ski tracks of crew members who had already skied out. From his position far to the south earlier in the day, M57 had traveled directly to the den site. This was further circumstantial evidence that this was indeed a reproductive den, and that M57 was coming to check in on his mate and offspring – a pattern detected on numerous occasions by the Glacier Park and WCS projects.
Without having seen the kits, we can’t confirm that F3 and M57 reproduced. But the evidence is good. From here, we’ll use genetic analysis to try to determine if there are kits and if so, how many. We’ll return to the den site in the summer to gather more DNA samples. If there are kits and if they survive the summer, they are likely to remain within their parents’ territories for the next year, and F3 and M57 are likely to show them all the good foraging spots – including the project’s live traps. We may have the opportunity to capture and examine the kits this winter, to at least determine sex. If we find the funds, we may be able to instrument them and monitor them as they approach dispersal age. This could provide crucial information about connectivity among the different populations, and the extent to which southern populations really are dependent on dispersers from Montana. Overall, it’s exciting and hopeful news for the project and for wolverines at the edge of their range.