Wolverines are resilient animals, renowned for facing down wolves and bears, scaling 5000 foot cliff faces in 90 minutes, and traveling hundreds of miles to find a new home territory. They’re tough and inspiring, but they are also vulnerable. Wolverines require maximum summer temperatures of less than 22º C (70º F) and females need deep spring snow to den. At the southern edges of their range, the population will probably retract as snowpack diminishes and summer temperatures rise. Although wolverines in some places experience in situ threats such as trapping or disturbance, these issues can be easily managed. Threats from climate change, however, are more complicated and will require a more versatile research and conservation agenda than previous wildlife work. Wolverines present us with a new situation as researchers, conservationists, and advocates: how do we conserve a species when it faces threats that are broadly ecosystemic and originate outside of its habitat?
People who are inspired by wolverines usually ask what they can do to help. Here are a few suggestions:
Learn More. An informed, interested constituency is key to ensuring the survival of wolverines in the Rockies and in other regions where wolverine populations fragment into habitat islands. Read about the species, its habitat, and climate change, but also look into the social context and the policy issues around carnivore conservation in regions where wolverines live. Think about the problem at intersecting scales, because it’s complex. If you’re interested in hosting a wolverine speaker event, let us know. We like talking about this animal. A lot.
Support Scientific Research: Wolverines are data-deficient and that makes conservation planning and action difficult. Putting wolverines on the Endangered Species List would be a gratifying step, but it’s not enough. We need to understand the status and needs of the species, and to do this we need long-running research programs. Wolverines are incredibly difficult to study, and research programs are time-limited. Funding usually stops just as the data are getting good.
If you want to make a contribution to an organization that helps wolverines, consider giving directly to a research project. A listing of current wolverine research projects is available at the Wolverine Foundation website, and they have a donations page. All of the projects are worthwhile, but I am going to advocate (self-interestedly) for two particular projects. One is my own project, the world’s first study of wolverines in Mongolia, where the habitat is similar to that in the Rockies but where human factors create a very different dynamic. Wolverines appear to be behaving differently in Mongolia than elsewhere, and we have numerous reports – as yet unsubstantiated – of dens outside regions of deep spring snow. We want to learn more about this population to assess whether Mongolian wolverines possess a range of adaptive behaviors that we haven’t yet observed in the US, and to better understand whether there are management options that might help wolverines cope with climate change. This project works with Mongolian communities and scientists, and we hope to train a Mongolian wolverine biologist so that Mongolia will have the capacity to monitor and conserve its gulo population.
The second project is the on-going North American wolverine work at the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, which is my host institution. This work includes monitoring of instrumented wolverines in the Absaroka Range of Montana, citizen science efforts, public outreach, and a few other things that are currently in the works and that will be of lasting value to wolverine conservation efforts in the US. The NRCC folks think comprehensively about all aspects of conservation problems, and if you are interested in supporting wolverine work in the Rockies, a donation to them is high value for what you give.
You can make contributions to either project through The Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative. Designate which project you support by adding a message.
Volunteer: If you live in a region where there are wolverines, you may be able to volunteer. Volunteer opportunities are announced here when I’m aware of them, and local outdoor or conservation groups generally know about these things too. On-going citizen science efforts offer training in track ID, DNA collection, and reporting. Even if you can’t join a formal group, keep your eyes open when you’re in the backcountry. You can download a track ID card here (the link is to the .pdf is on the left of the page.) Be sure to let us or your wildlife department know if you see a wolverine.
Vote the Environment: I don’t like to get political on here, but there’s a very clear line between policies that are oriented towards long-term sustainability, and those that aren’t. The fate of wolverines is tied to climate conditions, and their conservation is tied to rigorous science. There are politicians who work in support of science and climate change mitigation, and those who don’t. Your vote is also a voice for wolverines and the ecosystems they inhabit. Support politicians – of either party – who support the environment.
Go Gulo: Wolverines walk or run everywhere. Imitate them. A bike is probably an acceptable addition to this repertoire for humans. Stay healthy, get fit, reduce your carbon footprint, and earn the official stamp of wolverine authenticity – being rad enough to run up a 5000 foot mountain in 90 minutes. (I’m kidding about the last part. Don’t try it. But do walk and bike more, drive less.)
…….adopt a pet wolverine because I think they are cool?
Absolutely not. Wolverines are never pets. They’re wild animals, and they’re destructive and difficult to maintain in captivity. Support research and conservation of wild wolverines instead, and you’ll get to learn about the true lives of wolverines in some of our most magnificent ecosystems.
….write an angry letter about snowmobiles in wolverine habitat?
No. There’s no scientific proof that snowmobiles actually harm wolverines, so you’d probably just make people angry. A study currently under way in Idaho is examining this question. Hold off until we know more, because snowmobiles might turn out to be of no concern.
…..write an angry letter about wolverine trapping in Montana, Alaska, and Canada?
Populations in most regions of Canada and Alaska are unlikely to be harmed by trapping. Montana has reduced its quota from an unlimited take five years ago, to a current quota of five animals, with a female subquota of two. Wolverines have done okay and continued to expand their range in spite of trapping in Montana. Wolverines in the Rockies would probably be better off, however, if the trapping season was eliminated, simply because every individual is important in a sparse and widely-scattered population, and the killing of a single female in a mountain range can knock the reproductive potential of that population node to zero for several years. I am not spearheading a campaign to stop the trapping season, but if you do decide to speak out about this, base your claims on the science and not on emotion. It’s more productive and you will be listened to with greater respect.
…..speak out in support of listing wolverines as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act?
In December of 2010, wolverines were deemed warranted but precluded for listing. This means that the US Fish and Wildlife Service found substantial threats, but concluded that the agency did not have the funds to take action immediately, and would have to reconsider later. A subsequent court decision dictated that a final decision be reached by 2013. The process is already underway. Opportunities for public comment, if they arise, will be listed on the blog.
But I really want to write a letter or do something that helps fight against the wolverine’s enemies! I’m feeling thwarted!
Good. That’s because right now, wolverines don’t have enemies, and we want to keep it that way. Wolf and bear conservation in the Western US have left a bitter legacy of identity-based battles over wildlife, endless court cases as ranchers, environmentalists, the states, and the federal government sue each other, an ocean of wasted money, and a tidal wave of bad feeling between environmentalists and local communities. Wolverines are unlikely to bother anyone, they are not imbued with the symbolic weight of wolves or bears, and right now almost everyone seems inspired by them. We have an opportunity to create a new model for carnivore conservation in the Western US, and there’s no reason to use the species to deepen old divides. If you don’t like snowmobiles, or trapping, or environmentalism, that’s fine, but this isn’t about identity and whether or not you like a certain group of people or a certain pastime. It isn’t about what has happened in past species conservation efforts. It’s about on-the-ground results for wolverines. Please keep that firmly in mind if you decide to advocate on behalf of the species. Check your facts, know your science, and be absolutely certain that the claims you make are based on accurate, factual, and/or scientifically verified data.
Thanks for reading, thanks for your concern for wolverines, and let me know if you have any questions.