Wolverines from the north have featured in the press over the past week, with several articles from Alaska and one from Canada. Dispelling the myths around the wolverine’s reputation is a theme among the pieces. One Alaskan writer shares his childhood obsession with the animal and his several encounters with wolverines over the years, emphasizing their “nutty side,” and the way that inexplicable (to humans, anyway) playful behavior exists alongside the ferocity and tenacity for which the species is renowned. There are a few good anecdotes about wolverine feeding behavior and predator interactions in this piece, so enjoy the stories.
Alaskan Fish and Game Department researchers have also found that wolverines in their Southcentral study area defy myths about anti-social behavior and undue aggression. In a study over the past seven years, they’ve collared 18 wolverines and calculated a density of around five wolverines/1000 square kilometers within their study area, which the article describes as “typical” of Southcentral Alaska. The study also used hair snaring and camera trapping to identify individual wolverines. But the fun parts of this particular article are the details about how the wolverines behaved. Like researchers in the Lower 48, this study found that wolverines are playful and social with relatives, and that they are not dangerous to people. A second article followed this one, with brief interviews with researcher Audrey Magoun, wildlife rehabilitator Steve Kroschel, and the president of the Alaska Trappers’ Association about their experiences with wolverine behavior. All confirm that the stories that are popularly circulated are likely exaggerated, including stories about wolverines fighting off larger predators (pay attention, friends of mine who have a tendency to drunk-text me at midnight to settle bar arguments about which animal might win in a fight against a wolverine.) Audrey Magoun states that she’s never heard an eyewitness account of wolverines fending off or attacking larger predators. I have heard stories in Mongolia about wolverines taking on packs of hunting dogs; in one account, the hunter said he had to intervene and whack the wolverine with a log because it was fighting with several of his dogs and had torn the side of his favorite dog’s face off and seriously injured her leg. When I asked about the dog, he said that she was still alive, scars and all, and at his cousin’s camp, which was unfortunately too far to visit – but this seemed like a pretty credible story, as he went into a fair amount of detail about the incident and about how he had treated the dog and helped her recover. On the other hand, I also heard stories in which dogs killed wolverines, or in which dogs treed wolverines, so obviously these encounters don’t always end in the wolverine’s favor. And dogs are not wolves.
Aside from the anecdotes and entertaining speculation about wolverine behavior, the original article about the Alaska work gives a pretty good overview of the study, with information on home range sizes and dispersal. It also highlights some of the challenges faced by researchers, including the difficulty of chasing down a wolverine even with a helicopter; the tendency of wolverines to slip their collars; and the way that wary wolverines may learn to avoid live traps once they’ve been caught once. The latter is not always the case, as a number of the Glacier study wolverines were captured repeatedly, as were one of the females and one of the males in the Absaroka-Beartooth study. But the Absaroka-Beartooth animals were also sometimes captured on the trap cameras visiting the trap, but not going inside. So there are a lot of factors that could influence capture rates, including individual personality and food stress – considerations that become of more immediate consequence as I contemplate setting up a collaring operation in Mongolia, since that’s a place where you do not want to put in the effort (inevitably enormous) unless you’re pretty sure you’re going to get your animals. The situation with live-trapping and collaring animals underlines the fact that a combination of techniques, including non-invasive DNA-based work, is probably the best way to get a bigger picture of what’s going on with these populations.
Finally, a small piece about the work of Nikki Heim, a student with Tony Clevenger on the Canadian Rockies wolverine work, highlights the finding that wolverines are found in relatively high numbers (for wolverines) inside of Canada’s national parks, but in low numbers outside the park’s boundaries. The article states, “Research conducted over the past two decades show wolverines avoid human-impacted areas and prefer mountainous landscapes protected from human influence. Locally, wolverines prefer remote and mountains areas located in the heart of Banff National Park.” This is an interesting encapsulation of something I see as a major issue in understanding how human activities affect wolverines, particularly in the southern extent of their range; the potential conflation of a preference for high-elevation habitat with avoidance of ‘human-impacted’ areas. Early on in my journey into conservation work, I remember someone pointing out that the conservation impact of North American protected areas was hampered by the fact that the majority of these landscapes were basically “rock and ice,” set aside for their scenic value (and also because they were basically too rugged to be useful to human exploitation for natural resource extraction, thus politically palatable to all.) The best habitat for most of the big, charismatic wildlife species is actually at lower elevations, frequently outside the boundaries of protected areas – an understanding that has been critical to the rise of the movement for corridors and connectivity. For wolverines, however, high-elevation habitats that are hard for humans are ideal, if not essential. Those regions that were pretty and, coincidentally, not coveted by mining and timber interests, and set aside under protected status, form the core of gulo country. So the question is: are wolverines relatively abundant inside these parks and scarce outside because they are avoiding humans and selecting for protected areas, or because they are tundra animals in a landscape where tundra is only found at the high elevations inside the parks?
I’ve seen and heard a number of environmental advocates mixing these two concepts freely, and I think it’s worth taking a considered perspective on this. Of course human development does affect wolverines, but it’s tricky, at this point, to make the case that absent human development, there would be wolverines all over the lowlands. Hopefully ongoing research in all of these southern parts of the wolverine’s range will eventually help us answer this question.