Just in time for the new year, the January 2012 issue of Smithsonian features a short piece about Keith Aubry’s work in Washington, briefly documenting the adventures of the Cascades’ contingent of wolverines – Xena, Rocky, Chewbacca, Melanie, and Sasha. These wolverines have huge territories, among the largest ever reported for North American wolverines. The article suggests that in two possible mated pairs, the females have larger territories than the males (Xena covers 760 square miles to Chewbacca’s 730, and Melanie defends 560 square miles compared to Rocky’s 440), which seems the inverse of the usual observation that male territories are larger than female territories. The usual ratio is roughly two female territories to every male territory, which means that two (or sometimes more) females share a mate. The researchers haven’t proven that reproduction is occurring in the Cascades, so these animals, even if they overlap with each other, may be young animals still exploring the world and not yet defending a true territory. Or we may simply not know enough to make any kind of generalization about how female and male wolverines behave when they are in different environments and circumstances.
So what else does the new year hold for wolverines? 2012 will see more wolverine studies in more locations in the US than ever before – long-term monitoring of wolverines in the Greater Yellowstone region continues for the animals originally collared by the Absaroka-Beartooth project, and for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wolverines. Round River Conservation continues research on the interface between wolverines and winter recreation in Idaho, expanding the study from McCall to Stanley and Fairfield, while further to the north, Idaho Fish and Game, in collaboration with various conservation organizations, launches a second season of camera-trapping for wolverines in the Selkirk, Cabinet, and Purcell ranges. In Oregon, Audrey Magoun and the Oregon Department of Fish and Game are constructing camera trap bait stations across the Wallowa mountains for a second season of work that will hopefully reveal a resident population; the three males photographed this past spring represent the first documentation of wolverines in the range, and if the cameras capture a nursing female this year, it will be the first evidence of a breeding population in the state since the species was declared extirpated in 1936. A camera trap project in Oregon’s Cascades will seek to document wolverines further to the west, while the Cascades Carnivore Project monitors wolverines (among other species) in the Washington Cascades. This means that at least eight projects (there may be more; I’m not sure about the status of the Glacier National Park DNA and camera study) are working on wolverines in the US. Internationally, Canada, Sweden, and Norway continue research on wolverines, and 2012 will see the set-up of camera traps in Mongolia.
2011 was a big year for wolverines. The momentum from the 2010 listing decision and the attention from the PBS wolverine documentary and Doug Chadwick’s book contributed to an increase in public awareness of the species. The discovery of wolverines in the Wallowa mountains in Oregon generated excitement. The launch of three non-invasive, camera and DNA-based studies – one in Oregon, one in Glacier, and one in Idaho – point to the new direction that wolverine research is taking: easier on the animal, and (somewhat) less labor intensive for the people, who have known from the beginning that trying to keep up with this animal is an impossible aspiration.
For me, the year began in Cambodia, contemplating ways to mitigate climate change effects, proceeded to Mongolia for a summer of tracking wolverines through the Altai and Sayan mountains, and wound down in Oregon, where I was privileged to have the opportunity to participate in the Wallowa work. I hope that the coming year holds just as much adventure for everyone, and that 2012 is full of good things for wolverines, wolverine researchers, and wolverine fans everywhere. Thanks to the blog’s readership and to everyone who supports wolverine research and conservation, and Happy New Year!