This article ran under the title “Gluttons for Punishment” in the Winter 2015/16 “Give ‘er” issue of Highline Magazine.
If you manage to haul a frozen, skinned beaver carcass up a remote mountain pass in the middle of winter, then nail it about two metres up a tree, you might just be lucky enough to attract a wolverine.
That’s what researchers have been trying to do for the past few years as part of a multi-year study to learn more about these elusive predators, and how they move and survive throughout the mountainous terrain of southern Alberta and British Columbia.
Led by Tony Clevenger, a biologist at Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute, the research team tracks wolverines using non-invasive methods, such as cameras and hair traps (and, yes, skinned beavers on trees) with hopes of learning how these high-elevation predators are affected by highways and other barriers as they travel long distances in search of food and mates.
“Some days we’d ski 15, 20 or 40 kilometres up trails nobody had skied on to set up a trap,” recalls Clevenger, who says his research team has likely covered more than 2,000 kilometres of trails through the cold winters. “We talked to the avalanche forecasters every day; and of course you’re also nailing things to trees, so anything could go wrong,” he says. “But it’s a species that really motivates you and gets everybody excited to learn more about them.”
The lengths Clevenger and others have gone to in order to study wolverines is a testament both to the allure and to the elusiveness of this fierce carnivore. The wolverine is one of the least-studied mammals in North America but certainly not because it’s uninteresting. Wolverines are difficult to trap, says Clevenger, because they’re so sensitive to human activity, and because they naturally have small population densities; so you need to set a lot of traps with often little reward. Even if you do get a radio collar on one, there’s no guarantee it will stay on for long because wolverines are notorious for ripping off radio collars within months. For decades, many biologists gave up on studying them.
Clevenger and his team have kept at it because they want to learn more about wolverines for some very strategic reasons. The studies began way back in 2010 as part of a larger project called Highway Wilding, which seeks to understand the effects of major transportation corridors on wildlife habitat and connectivity, especially for wide-ranging species like wolverines.
Large transportation routes like the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 3, which each bisect the Rockies through Southern Alberta and British Columbia, form major barriers to wolverine movements, and limit mating and therefore gene flow between populations — an extremely important factor in ensuring healthy, viable populations into the future.
For Clevenger and other biologists, the only way to protect wolverines is to find ways to keep them connected across vast landscapes, especially since healthy populations in the U.S. are largely dependent on interactions with larger populations in Canada. An estimated 250-300 wolverines remain in the continental U.S., and in Canada, they are a species of “Special Concern” under the federal Species at Risk Act.
Clevenger’s research team has been working closely with Canmore-based Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), which seeks to improve wildlife connections throughout the largely intact Rocky Mountain chain that forms the spine of North America.
“Y2Y is the right scale for me to be working, especially because it’s trans-boundary,” says Clevenger. Through his research, he hopes to provide a roadmap of habitats and corridors that wolverines need in order to survive. And that roadmap necessarily involves crossing major highways. “You could conserve all the land from Yellowstone to Yukon, but if you can’t get wolverines across roads, you’re lost,” he says. “In the land between Banff-Yoho-Kootenay and Waterton-Glacier, you’ve got Highway 3, fracking, oil and gas, forest cutting and motorized recreation. This is really a critical piece of landscape.”
Results from last year’s field studies confirmed that many parts of Southern Alberta — including the Castle Watershed, which the Alberta government announced would become new parkland in September 2015 — are “crucial” to the survival of American wolverine populations because these areas provide a key linkage to larger populations in protected areas to the north. Clevenger is convinced that he will find similar results during this winter’s studies, which will focus on populations in Southern B.C.’s Flathead and Elk valleys.
Clevenger is also quick to point out the study’s implications go far beyond wolverines. As with grizzly bears, the wolverine is considered an indicator species. “Wolverines are one of the best indicators of a well-connected ecosystem,” he says. “If you start to lose wolverines, it’s pretty clear that something’s wrong.” On the other hand, protecting wolverine habitat will automatically protect habitat for a whole range of species that depend on the same ecosystems for survival.