On the tracks of a real-life X-Man

The wolverine study

A wolverine is caught on a remote camera (Photo courtesy Seepanee Ecological Consulting)

A wolverine is caught on a remote camera (Photo courtesy Seepanee Ecological Consulting)

What do we really know about wolverines?

Marvel’s Wolverine is one of the most recognized superheroes in recent years, but his real-life namesake is considerably less conspicuous. In fact, until recently not much research had been done on this species, which one Alberta researcher even called "data-deficient" as recently as December of 2013.

But a new study has just confirmed that wolverines on Princess Royal Island on British Columbia's central coast do feast on the carcasses of post-spawning salmon, which was not previously considered part of their diet. The news was notable enough to make headlines across the province. 

Farther inland, the patterns and presence of wolverines are also being closely watched by some biologists across the province, including on the Nature Conservancy of Canada's (NCC's) Darkwoods Conservation Area in southeastern BC. Or at least, they are being as closely watched as possible — for a famously secretive species.  

A reclusive species

Few people ever see a wolverine first-hand. Not only do the animals have huge home ranges — a lone male may spread out over as much as 950 square kilometres — they tend to prefer the high snowy alpine backcountry where human traffic is rare.

If you were lucky enough to come across a wolverine in the wild, you might think it looks like a small bear. In fact, the wolverine is the largest member of the weasel family. This species has a reputation for being hunters, easily preying on small animals like rabbits and rodents, while also taking down much larger prey like caribou that may appear sick or injured.

An elusive search

Doris Hausleitner and Sarah Fassina at a bait tree (Photo courtesy Seepanee Ecological Consulting)

Doris Hausleitner and Sarah Fassina at a bait tree (Photo courtesy Seepanee Ecological Consulting)

Biologist Doris Hausleitner of Nelson, BC, has been researching wolverines in the Kootenays since 2011. She has yet to see one of her study subjects in the flesh. Instead, she relies on gathering hair snags, finding tracks and capturing grainy images left on remote sensor cameras.

“Wolverines are elusive animals known mainly for being tough, travelling incredible distances and over harsh alpine terrain,” says Doris. “They occur all over British Columbia, but populations are more fragmented in the southern portion of their range.”

Thankfully even the most evasive animals still leave a mark. In the study plots, bait is affixed to a mature tree that is wrapped in barbed wire. This lures the wolverine and tugs out a small sample of hair while the creature takes the tasty treat. The DNA in the sample is then analyzed to generate a unique genetic fingerprint for each individual.

“We can get so much info out of an individual and never have to see them,” says Doris.

Now Hausleitner, along with her research partner Andrea Kortello, is taking steps to fill a huge information void about this vulnerable species.

The Wolverine Project

The Wolverine Project aims to get a better understanding of the current size and range of BC's wolverines so that conservationists and landowners can make better management decisions around how they are using the lands that wolverines also frequent.

“This information can be used to guide winter recreation use management, fur harvest quotas, acquisition of conservation properties and highway mitigation efforts,” Doris explains. “It may also provide a baseline for predicting population response to climate change scenarios.”

South Selkirk Mountain Range, British Columbia (Photo by NCC)

South Selkirk Mountain Range, British Columbia (Photo by NCC)

A sizeable portion of the South Selkirks research took place on the Nature Conservancy of Canada's vast Darkwoods Conservation Area. The study confirmed four wolverines were in the area, including a breeding pair and one male who had previously been picked up in a study in Idaho. Being able to confirm that wolverines are moving north to south — and noting that they are finding a way across Highway 3 in BC — is, in Hausleitner's words, “imperative for species persistence in the U.S.” This finding could be used to support efforts in the United States to have the species declared an endangered species.

“Federally and provincially, wolverines have been assessed as a species at risk,” says Doris. “These listings are as a result of low population densities and reproductive rates, while identified threats include disturbance, habitat loss and fragmentation from human activities and development, caribou decline, mortality from trapping and climate change.”

The thick, beautiful fur of wolverines was once highly coveted by trappers. Some trapping of the species continues today, though in some areas trappers appear to be avoiding going after this vulnerable species. In the South Selkirk Mountains, for example, there have been no trapping records for wolverines since the early 1980s.

Animals on the move

In 2013, Hausleitner's team shifted their study area to the Purcell Mountains, the range to the east of the Selkirks. There they found a wolverine that had been also documented in the Flathead Valley, along with seven others. (The sample area was bigger than in the previous year of the study, which partially explains the higher number of documented animals.)

Notably, none of the wolverines were found in the southern portion of the mountain range — an area that Doris describes as having been “nuked” by industrial activity and lacking any protected areas.

“We find a lot of individuals in and around protected areas,” says Doris. “It shows the protected areas are doing their job.”

In addition to trying to get an accurate read on the numbers of wolverines in the West Kootenay region, Doris's study will also shed light on landscape-level barriers that these wide-ranging creatures face, such as highways, human settlements and industrialized habitat.

“We hope this research will guide management of species' harvest and future land acquisition to assist in keeping population connectivity,” says Doris. “Ultimately, conservation efforts for wolverines occur at a landscape scale and thus will benefit many species.”

An uncertain future

Doris's daughter Maya helps track wolverine in the snow (Photo courtesy Seepanee Ecological Consulting)

Doris's daughter Maya helps track wolverine in the snow (Photo courtesy Seepanee Ecological Consulting)

Doris is worried about wolverines. With their home range continually shrinking as their habitat is fragmented and winter recreation encroaches further and further into the backcountry, and with the impacts of climate change sure to affect the snowpack across their entire range, wolverines are in an increasingly vulnerable position.

But Doris is also hopeful.

“Wolverines are incredibly adaptive,” she mentions, citing the recent study documenting coastal wolverines feeding on salmon. “They are scavengers and opportunists.”

And if her team's work can be used to inform province-wide management policies and conservation efforts, she will feel that they will have helped to give the elusive, beautiful wolverine an edge in this species' fight to exist.

The Wolverine Project would like to recognize its funders: the Ministry of Forest Lands and Natural Resource Operations, Columbia Basin Trust, the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program and the Wolverine Foundation. Without such support, this project would not be possible.

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