Research in the Rockies: The Big, Bad Wolverine

Canmore’s Sarah Elmeligi is currently examining the relationship between grizzly bears and humans in the mountain parks of the Rockies for her PhD. And she’s keeping us in the loop with a blog called Research in the Rockies, where we’ll learn about everything from trout to remote cameras or — like the subject of this debut post — the big, bad wolverine.

By Sarah Elmeligi

From Northern B.C. to the Alberta-B.C.-Montana border, Canada’s Rocky Mountains span 180,000km2. Most of us look at that vast expanse of peaks and valleys and immediately conjure thoughts of skiing, hiking, biking, climbing, and playing in the woods. This recreational playground is vast, endless, challenging, and ever inspiring.

To many people, it’s also a place of inspirational work. Biologists look at these mountains and see something different – an endless series of questions. Why did that animal do that? Why did fire move that way up the mountain? What kind of fish live here? How do these plants adapt to such extreme changes in temperature? How is this ecosystem adapting to climate change?

The list goes on and on.

From a love of this landscape and an undying curiosity to understand how it works many biologists devote their careers to research in the Rockies. This blog is about these research efforts and the biologists behind them. From examining salamander crossings to grizzly bear habitat use; from fish connectivity to forest fire impacts – these efforts are helping us better understand a playground and influencing land use management at the same time.

Wonder what that camera was doing on that trail you skied past the other weekend? And hey, what’s this trail counter doing on your favourite hike? Well, you came to the right place.

A wolverine basks in its hardcoreness.

A wolverine basks in its own hardcore glory.

Our blogging journey starts with the wolverine (Gulo gulo in Latin, which means “glutton”). Elusive. Mysterious. The wolverine is the largest land-dwelling species of the weasel family (Mustelidae); it is a muscular carnivore with a reputation for ferocity and strength.

The more I learn about this critter, the more blown away I am by how hardcore it is. Think your last climb/hike/ski was hardcore?

Wolverines have been observed scaling an entire mountain in 20 minutes for (it would appear) no real reason at all other than just to get to the top. Think you’re hungry after a day of playing in the woods? A wolverine can take down a deer, an animal several times its size. It’s that same hardcoreness of the wolverine that has made it so difficult for biologists to study and understand. We believe that wolverine populations are unstable in the Rockies, but we don’t necessarily have the data to say how their populations are changing and how concerned we should be about it.

You don’t have to be as hardcore as a wolverine to study them, but you have to come close. Meet Nikki Heim who is currently working on her Master’s degree through the University of Victoria, but has been a Banff resident for years. Nikki began working with wolverines three years ago.

Courtesy Sarah Elmeligi

Courtesy Sarah Elmeligi

Nikki’s Master’s is part of a regional-scale collaborative effort, called the East Slopes Predator Project, which is looking at the aspects of the Rockies ecosystem that drives where carnivores occur and in which habitats. It’s important to remember that a habitat isn’t only made up of the ecological characteristics (plants, animals, waterways etc.), it’s also made up of topographic characteristics, and even human land-use development. All of these aspects are part of the East Slopes Predator Project.

Nikki’s work is looking specifically at wolverine occupancy and distribution in relation to land cover, industrial activity, recreational activity, topography, and snow cover. She’s also looking at how large scale habitat disturbances (e.g., industrial development) impacts carnivore community composition – basically what critters are living in an area together after a big a change in their habitat.

To collect the information required to answer these questions, Nikki has spent a lot of time on skis in the backcountry (sounds dreamy you think… then she tells you stories of having to take gloves off in -25 with -35 windchill to work with a piece of field equipment and it’s a blizzard and her hands don’t work anymore). Her work has involved using remote cameras to take pictures of wolverines in various places. This can also sometimes involve nailing a frozen beaver to a tree to use as bait. The use of remote cameras is a great way to ‘capture’ animals in their habitat without actually have to disrupt them.

So far, Nikki’s uncovered that wolverine occurrence decreases from west to east – Tony Clevenger, a research scientist in Banff National Park, discovered detection in Banff was found at 85 per cent of remote camera sites, but only at 26 per cent sites in Kananaskis Country. This was a surprise to her and her research team because Kananaskis Country is a rugged landscape with lots of prey available and they were expecting higher rates there. This is causing them to think that maybe wolverine occurrence is somehow (directly and/or indirectly) influenced by human use and landscape development. But exactly how or why remains unknown.

Courtesy Sarah Elmeligi

Courtesy Sarah Elmeligi

Given how little we know about the wolverine, this work is important for effective wildlife management. These results will build on other work happening in the U.S. and throughout the Rockies to further understand where wolverines are found and how that is affected by topography and human use. Without this basic understanding, wildlife managers have a hard time figuring out what to do to keep wolverines happy and able to persist across this landscape.

Wolverines continue to elude researchers, but with remote cameras, cooperation, and perseverance we’re learning more about these mysterious critters all the time.

If you’ve ever seen a wolverine or its tracks, you know how magical that moment is. There are ways for you to share it too! Check out the links below to get more involved in this research and learn more about it:

Wolverine watch program (Banff National Park)

Alberta Wolverine Working Group

Y2Y Sponsorship and Nikki’s personal bio

Sarah Elmeligi

(Visited 137 times, 1 visits today)