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A Roadmap for Wolverines

With Y2Y's multi-year support, Tony Clevenger’s research team is mapping the way for wolverines within the Yellowstone to Yukon region.

A version of this story was originally published in the Winter 2015 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 7 feet (2 meters) up a tree—you might just be lucky enough to attract a wolverine.

With support from Y2Y, that’s what researchers have been trying to do for the past few years—part of a multi-year study to learn more about these elusive predators, and how they move throughout the mountainous terrain of southern Alberta and British Columbia (B.C.).

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.

Tony Clevenger, middle, skis wih research volunteers on their way to a trap in the Ottertail Valley, in B.C.'s Yoho National Park. Photo: Pam Jenks.

Wolverines are difficult to trap, says Clevenger, because they’re so sensitive to human activity, and they naturally have small population densities, so you need to set a lot of traps with often little reward. Even if you get a radio collar on one, there’s no guarantee it will stay on for long—wolverines are notorious for ripping radio collars off within months. For decades, many biologists gave up on studying them.

“You could conserve all the land from Yellowstone to Yukon, but if you can’t get wolverines across roads, you’re lost.”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 —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 B.C., 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.

The unfortunate effects of busy roadways on a wide-ranging predator like this wolverine. Photo: Alex Taylor, Parks Canada.

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.

“Y2Y is the right scale for me to be working, especially because it’s transboundary,” 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, motorized recreation. This is really a critical piece of landscape.”

A wolverine is captured on one of Clevenger's remote wildlife cameras. Photo: WolverineWatch.org

Results from last year’s field studies confirmed that many parts of southern Alberta—including the now-protected Castle Watershed—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 the same thing during this winter’s studies, which will focus on populations in southern B.C.’s Flathead and Elk valleys.

Clevenger says 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.

One of Clevenger's research volunteers collects hair samples from a wolverine trap. Photo: WolverineWatch.org.