Wolverine World Tour, and Wolverines Near Glacier Park(s)

It’s mid-March, the grizzlies are up and about, and wolverine research season is drawing to a close. Wolverine kits all over the Rockies (and presumably the world) are marking their one-month birthdays, and wolverine researchers are gearing up for the tasks that can be accomplished during the snow-free months – investigating GPS collar food sites and exploring possible den locations, trekking back to Mongolia to interview herders and explore summer snow-patch methods for finding tracks, writing up the winter’s results, and, of course, preparing for next season’s work.

Among the interesting projects in store this summer, Evergreen College student Dallas LaDucer is preparing for a Wolverine World Tour to study the interactions of captive wolverines in zoos around the world. As a researcher and as a writer, the wolverine fixation can be challenging, because we have very few opportunities to interact face-to-face with wolverines. The animal’s elusiveness is part of its mystique, but it also leaves us with big gaps in both scientific understanding and compelling narrative about individual animals. Dallas, on the other hand, is one of the fortunate people who get to spend a lot of time with actual wolverines. From raising a captive female kit, to working as a zookeeper, to his current senior project investigating the interactions of wolverines to better understand their body language and social life, he’s spent a lot of time with gulos, and has observed that interactions vary according to the individual personalities of the animals, as opposed to strict gender or age hierarchies. He has looked at only a very small sample, however, because so few zoos in North America have more than one captive wolverine. His senior project will take him to Europe to watch wolverines in zoos in Russia, Finland, and Sweden. The major application of the work may be to help zookeepers better understand how to care for captive animals, but more knowledge about wolverine sociability could also inform conservation efforts. And, from an authorial perspective, I simply want to know more about what makes individual wolverines tick, because that information helps make good stories. So there are a lot of reasons to be interested in this project, and I am eager to hear how things go. Dallas is fundraising for the project here, so if anyone is interested in contributing, check it out.

A few other news items of interest have, as usual, slipped by me in the rush of activity that comes with spring. Skiers at Whitefish outside of Glacier National Park, Montana, should keep their eyes open for a wolverine that was spotted there earlier this week. Keep a camera handy too and maybe someone will be lucky enough to get a photo of a wild wolverine. Meanwhile, in Glacier National Park, British Columbia, Canada (not to be confused with the previously mentioned Glacier National Park, Montana) a wolverine photographed and videoed itself playing with a rope or cable that was part of a camera-trapping effort. It’s a brief glimpse of the wolverine’s playful side, although one of the scientists involved with the Trans-Canada Highway study, of which this particular camera-trap was a part, apparently takes issue with the notion of anthropomorphizing wolverines to the point of admitting that they play. In an article on the project in the Revelstoke Times Review, scientist Kelsey Furk states that she thinks that the rope was just smelly and therefore drew the wolverine’s attention, although no one seems to object to the repeated reference to the wolverine “dancing” with the rope. Play behavior has been demonstrated in many mammal species and I’m pretty convinced that wolverines not only enjoy messing around with stuff for the sake of messing around with it, but that they also have a particular mustelid sense of humor. I’m spending enough time playing with a 20-month-old human boy these days to understand that flinging a smelly rope around in the snow is no less intellectually edifying (and, in fact, is perhaps more so) than repeatedly plugging in and unplugging various electronics. Bottom line: if the kid’s behavior counts as play, so does the wolverine’s.

On a more serious note, the article about the Trans-Canada Highway project highlights an important study that will help us better understand the effects of transportation corridors on wolverines. The journalist repeats a few things as fact, however, that are actually still speculative. The most important is the idea that wolverines are disturbed by recreation. There are limited anecdotal suggestions that this might be true, but there’s also an intimation from on-going research that it might not be true. We still don’t know.Until we do, we need to be careful about the claims that we make.

Parks Canada is asking people who see tracks in this area to report them to wolverine2012@pc.gc.ca You can find a copy of the NRCC track ID info and other details about the study here.  A downloadable version of a pocket-sized track ID card is available at the NRCC website (.pdf)

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3 thoughts on “Wolverine World Tour, and Wolverines Near Glacier Park(s)

  1. He also has a neat video on his Rocket Hub site. And swag for people who donate! And there’s only three days left!

  2. Wolverines are disturbed by recreation. I have been skiing and have had wolverines run away from me. Obviously the animals were disturbed. It is the degree that recreation, and other activities, disturbed wolverines that we do not yet understand. At what scale does our recreation begin to alter, in a negative way, their behavior. We don’t know yet…and it will take many many studies to begin to fully comprehend this.

    • Thanks, Nate. I agree that individual wolverines may well be disturbed, and we shouldn’t dismiss these anecdotal observations. But our concern as conservationists has to be at a population level, looking at how demographics are affected. An individual wolverine might avoid an individual skier or snowmobiler, but is this avoidance affecting fitness? Is it affecting reproduction? Or is this one wolverine just avoiding humans without any serious impact on its survival? Are enough wolverines avoiding humans to have an effect on reproductive success or dispersal?

      I’m very wary of claims out of the advocacy community to the effect of, “Wolverines are disturbed by snowmobiles, and therefore this supports our 20-year-long agenda to exclude snowmobiles from Yellowstone.” The linking of wolverines to rectitude-based narratives concerning other long-running issues isn’t necessarily representative of the state of the science, and it could do a profound disservice to wolverine conservation efforts if we’re not smart about how we frame these things. As attentive as we need to be to biophysical and ecological issues with wolverines, we also have to be minutely attentive to the social side of things, and one of our biggest priorities has to be building a cross-cutting constituency for wolverine conservation, because it’s going to take a large-scale effort to protect the species. Right now, we can’t afford to alienate anyone without some real evidence. There’s no reason that anyone out there shouldn’t support wolverine conservation. They’re practically the patron saint of extreme mountain sports, they’re tough and individualistic, hunters support their existence by leaving gut-piles for them to scavenge, they don’t bother livestock, and it’s a badge of honor for any true outdoorsperson to see one in the wild – in short, they’re a uniting force, and I’m hoping to keep it that way for as long as possible.

      For whatever it’s worth, I’ve also heard numerous stories about wolverines keeping pace with skiers, sliding down slopes alongside them, and even approaching snowmobiles. Before M56 went to Colorado, I tracked him for several weeks off Togwotee, in the heart of snowmobiler heaven, and he stuck there for a while. I was the one hiding in the trees every time a snowmobile came along, but if all wolverines were sensitive, he would have been out of there immediately. I have a photo of a female wolverine who lives in a town park in Norway and whose favorite food is, apparently, waffles donated by the townsfolk. (Not that I’m encouraging the notion of food-conditioned wolverines, but it puts something of a lie to the idea that wolverines are categorically shy of humans.) I’ve also had a wolverine approach my campsite and hang out for 15 minutes, just watching, apparently without fear; there were two humans and a dog involved in that situation. That’s the trouble with anecdotes. Each wolverine is an individual and each one might react differently to a given situation.

      Yes, we should certainly continue to study this issue and the second that there is evidence that recreation at certain levels is having an effect on wolverine reproduction and recruitment, start managing. And I think we should be precautionary, too – if wolverines start disappearing from areas that are heavily recreated, manage for that. But there has to be stronger suggestion of a correlation than we currently have. And it really bugs me when reporters latch onto this simplistic narrative and state it as fact.

      All of that said, I of course appreciate and share your impulse to do everything possible to protect the species and to better understand its needs. Thanks as ever for reading, and I hope that things are well in your (much wilder and more awesome) neck of the woods!

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