The geography of the Flathead Wild campaign covers some very significant home ground. Particularly, the home ground of the wolverine, Gulo gulo, perhaps the toughest creature in the Rockies.
Reputed for its ability to scale the tallest mountains in a fraction of human time, travel cross country with little regard for weather or terrain, subsist on carrion or ground squirrels, as well as for its fabled ferociousness, one could ask, “Can anything stop this critter?”
The answer, regretfully, is, “Yes!” So what stops them? Highways and humans.
Dr. Tony Clevenger (pictured at right) has been studying the wolverine in its vast, southern and central Canadian Rockies domain since 2010, in an effort to understand the impacts of highways and human disturbance on the animal’s distribution and genetics.
Science has documented the difficulty for the populations of many wildlife species to stay genetically connected across highways. The wolverine may be particularly susceptible because of its avoidance of highways, and its vulnerability to being killed while attempting to cross them. And though the wolverine breeds relatively rapidly, it is easily trapped outside of protected areas like parks and wildlife reserves.
Dr. Clevenger, along with Alberta-based researcher Jason Fisher, have surveyed some 60,000 square kilometres south of Banff National Park to Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, and from the Front Range to the Rocky Mountain Trench. Their study is part of an even larger wolverine study coordinated with the British Columbia Ministry of Environment that covers 72,000 square kilometres in the southern Selkirk and Purcell Mountain Ranges. Dr. Clevenger and his team broke their study area into four zones, taking a year or longer to assess each.
Figure 1. Proposed study area for non-invasive sampling of wolverine population in context of areas previously sampled in the transboundary Rocky and Columbia Mountains.
Studying wolverines goes something like this: Hike, snowshoe, ski, snowmobile or fly a helicopter into the beautiful the Rocky Mountains; set up barbed wire “hair traps” baited with a frozen beaver carcass and musk scent; hike out; wait for the wolverine to sample the bait; go back into the beautiful mountains and retrieve hair from the barbed wire traps; repeat three times at monthly intervals during winter, send the hair to the genetics lab for analysis; analyze the results; inform land management agencies of the results; influence land use planning; write and publish a research paper. Straightforward; simple, even.
The challenge, however, lies in the sheer size of the study area, the formidable winter weather, and the determination and fortitude needed to work long hours for uncertain results a year or more down the road.
Add to the physical challenge that of securing funding to keep the study alive. Dr. Clevenger has cobbled together funding from Parks Canada, B.C. and Alberta wildlife agencies and a handful of intrepid foundations. The public is welcome to contribute via http://www.wolverinewatch.org
Dr. Clevenger and his colleagues will release their results in peer-reviewed journals in the coming years. Current observations are speculative, but based on direct observation. What appears to be going on in the southern Canadian Rockies and in this vital link or lifeline to the threatened wolverine population in the northern US Rockies?
Wolverine numbers in the protected areas seem to be doing well. Over a 3-year period, 64 individuals were identified in the surveys conducted in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks. Here, 90% of hair traps get ‘hit’ by wolverines, whereas outside protected areas only 25% of the traps were visited in Kananaskis Country. Last winter, surveys conducted in the Waterton Lakes-Crowsnest Pass area only yielded 8% visited. Once the surveys are completed in 2016, the team will be able to determine the amount of gene flow across Highway 3 near Crowsnest Pass. Dr. Clevenger’s Banff National Park research found extremely low gene flow across the Trans-Canada Highway to the north.
Female wolverines appear to be avoiding major highway corridors altogether, and overall wolverine numbers appear to fall significantly outside of protected areas and southward towards the US-Canadian border, for reasons that are not yet completely clear.
Dr. Clevenger will continue his study over the current winter and will continue to set out his traps again next winter for a final season in the Elk and Flathead River valleys. This will culminate six years of surveys that have covered more than 60,000 square kilometres, a vast area – wolverine-scaled – consisting of varied landscapes, both disturbed and undisturbed.
In the meantime, the Flathead Wild Team continues to campaign for the expansion of Waterton Lakes National Park into the Flathead River valley and the legislation of a Wildlife Management Area form Banff to the Montana border in order to ensure safe havens and passage, and room for the wolverine and other wildlife to roam.