Wolverine Watch – A project supported by the ACC Environment fund
Editor’s Note - Wolverines have been around in the Rocky Mountains since the ice age, but unfortunately their population has been considerably reduced over the last 50 years due to our changing climate and landscapes.
Our furry friends are now considered to be a species of Special Concern under the Canadian Species at Risk Act, so initiatives like Wolverine Watch have launched efforts to help understand wolverines and preserve the lives of one of our oldest living creatures.
Read on to learn more about the project and how reporting tracks and sightings can help with their efforts.
“Wolverines are rare, occur at low density and move widely within very large home ranges. They inhabit alpine and subalpine zones throughout the Rocky Mountain cordillera. Their populations have experienced considerable range reduction over the last 50 years. Loss of habitat and barriers to movement along with continuing climate change are recognized as threats that further diminish and fragment the critical landscapes they utilize and need to disperse through. Little is known about their status in the Rocky Mountains.” (2010)
These are words from the first grant application for what is now a research project nearing its 10th year. We asked for and received a seed grant from the ACC’s Environment Fund to help establish a citizen-science program as part of planned wolverine research in Banff and Yoho National Parks.
Understanding wolverines in the Rocky Mountains
Wolverines have inhabited North America since the last ice age, and still roam much of the arctic, the boreal forest, and southern mountain ranges in Canada. Males and females patrol vast territories, leaving unmistakeable tracks straight across peaks and glaciers. Little is known about their status in the Rocky Mountains. We wanted to change that.
The first step was just to find the animals. How many wolverines were there? And, since the study was part of a road ecology research program centred on the Trans-Canada Highway: Did the wolverines cross the road? First paper report cards and then a website were used to gather photos and stories of wolverine sightings. With the help of countless mountain lovers from the Bow Valley and occasionally from across the country, we spent the next three winters on skinny skis to set and monitor sampling sites deep in the backcountry of Banff and Yoho parks. A feast for a wolverine is not for the faint-of-nose, but we learnt to like the smell of trapping lure and frozen beaver we used as wolverine bait, as we collected hair samples and photos. Over three years we detected 49 wolverines: 20 females and 29 males. Males crossed the road just fine, but the females did not readily disperse across the Trans-Canada. This fragmentation and the low numbers - there are four grizzly bears for every wolverine in the national parks - were a bit of a wake-up call.
A species at risk
Over the next three years we repeated the survey in the Canadian Crown of the Continent region, investigating if the wolverines in the mountain national parks were connected to the population in Glacier National Park to the south. We were astonished to find a mere 23 animals roaming the region - but it fit the theme of study results from across the country, which resulted in wolverines’ 2018 classification as a species of Special Concern under the Canadian Species at Risk Act.
Now, knowing how few animals were left, we began to wonder where they were reproducing still, and if there were areas that they’d given up on.
Female wolverines avoid areas of human ski and sled activity, and shy away from using areas with lots of forestry roads. Many sightings are in national parks, but we know they live in the surrounding multi-use landscape as well. Is the wolverines’ family life interrupted when humans show up deep in the wilderness? How can we help the wild places stay wild enough for all of us?
Reaching out to the community for help
No scientist can study this massive landscape alone, so we talked to ski guides and other outdoor enthusiasts who are outside all the time during the reproductive season (January-May). A non-traditional alliance formed. Heli-ski and cat-ski operators, ski guides and outdoor adventurers send us photos and accompany us into remote terrain in the Columbia and Rocky Mountains to set up study sites. Now we are halfway through the second of three years of field work in an area with what looks like a healthier population. We detected eight breeding females in 2018 and expect to find more in April this year when our photos can detect if females are lactating. It is exciting but we are not finished yet. How will these findings correlate with our own use of the landscape? The next couple years we will also be assembling large-scale spatial datasets on human presence and changes to the landscape.
Remember that website, the one the ACC grant helped us set up? It’s still working! Photos of tracks, stories of road crossings and potential den sites keep coming in. All these bits and pieces help us put together the puzzle. If we want to have wolverines around until the next ice age, we need to ensure they have the space they need to raise their young in peace. This nearly 10-year-old research study started as a community effort and is now back to being a community effort.
Learn more and contribute sightings
Wolverine Watch is conducting scientific research to better understand the effects of human activity on wolverine distribution, reproduction, connectivity and gene flow in Canada's Northern Columbia Region (2018 Annual Report), the Southern Columbia Region (Dens & Drones in the Kootenays) and the Canadian Crown of the Continent ecosystem (2016 Summary Report).
You can help make a difference to their project.