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Far-reaching wolverine study tracks species

Researchers are trying to gather more information on wolverines to help with the survival of the elusive and notoriously ferocious animals into the future.
A pair of wolverines.
A pair of wolverines.

Researchers are trying to gather more information on wolverines to help with the survival of the elusive and notoriously ferocious animals into the future.

Hair traps to collect DNA samples from wolverines to get a better handle on their numbers and distribution have been set up in Banff and Yoho national parks for research since 2010, and now researchers are collecting information on provincial lands in B.C and Alberta.

Researchers say surveys are being done from Highway 3 south to the U.S border, including in Waterton Lakes, and more will be set up this year in the area north of Highway 3 on the Alberta side to Kananaskis Country and on the B.C. side to Kootenay National Park.

Tony Clevenger, a Bow Valley-based wildlife biologist with the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, said there is very little information on wolverines between the protected national park areas of Waterton Lakes and Banff-Yoho-Kootenay.

“One thing we can say right now is the national parks are a very important corridor for wolverine populations in the Central Rockies, but once they get out of the parks, they just seem to disappear,” he said.

“This area still has lots of forest cutting, oil and gas development, Highway 3 bisects the area in two, and there’s motorized recreational access – but we don’t know anything about wolverines in those areas.”

Wolverines naturally occur in low numbers and have low rates of reproduction. They are becoming recognized as genuine indicators of healthy, connected ecosystems due to their sensitivity to human disturbance and need for large areas and intact habitats.

Highway expansion projects are occurring at a rapid pace within wolverine range in the northern U.S. Rocky Mountains, while road and highway upgrades are planned for energy development activities within their range in Alberta and British Columbia.

In February 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list wolverines in the contiguous United States as threatened, but a decision has not yet been made on whether to list the animals.

Clevenger said maintaining wolverine populations in the largest remaining areas of contiguous habitat in the southern portion of their range and facilitating connectivity among habitat patches is a recommended conservation measure to help sustain a viable wolverine population in the U.S.

“The big question is whether the wolverine population in the U.S. is going to be listed as threatened,” he said. “There’s about 35 breeding females left in the U.S.”

Research in Canada’s mountain national parks since 2010 covers a 7,000 square kilometer area based primarily in Banff and Yoho, bounded by Bow Summit to the north, Cascade River to the east, Simpson River to the south and Golden, B.C. to the west.

One of the main objectives of the research, which was done under the larger umbrella of the Highway Wilding project, was to address how roads and other man-made and natural barriers influence wolverines and gene flow.

The study area was surveyed for wolverines over the course of two seasons in 2010-11 and 2012-13. Forty-eight hair traps were set the first year and 51 in the second season of research.

The sites consisted of whole skinned beaver carcasses nailed to a tree and secured with wire, luring wolverines to climb the tree and leave a hair sample. Remote infrared cameras at each site also snapped thousands of photos of wolverine activity and behaviour.

In the first season, more than 850 hair samples were collected, while the second season saw a collection of more than 1,165 hair samples collected. They were sent to the U.S. Forest Service Conservation Genetic lab in Missoula, Mont.

The genetic analysis from the first season of research identified 19 individual wolverines – 12 males and seven females – and they were detected at various sites throughout the study area.

“We don’t yet know how many more individuals were identified through the last round,” said Clevenger. “I suspect there will be new individuals, just from recruitment or individuals we missed in the first year.”

The Trans-Canada Highway through Banff and Yoho has long been recognized as a lethal barrier to wildlife and a potential fracture zone for population connectivity in the Yellowstone-to-Yukon (Y2Y) region.

There are 44 crossing structures in Banff National Park – six overpasses and 38 underpasses. There have been only 12 recorded crossings by wolverines in more than 15 years, mostly in the underpasses. The first time a wolverine used an overpass was November 2011.

Parks Canada records of wildlife mortalities indicate that since 1980, five wolverines have died on highways in Banff and Kootenay; two adult males on the unmitigated highway in 1988 and 1989, a subadult female on Highway 93 South near Marble Canyon in 2012 and one of unknown gender and age on Highway 93 South near Vermilion Pass in 1981.

In addition, there have been four known incidents where wolverines have been documented climbing the Trans-Canada Highway fence to cross or access the highway right-of-way – three in 2011, one in 2012. All of those occurred within 700 metres of the nearest crossing structure.

A final report on the research in the mountain national parks will be prepared for Parks Canada in March and a presentation will be made at the April meeting of the Bow Valley Naturalists.

“This inforwmation will help Parks manage wolverine habitat and any potential management decisions they need to make with regards to any sort of human intrusions or disturbances in some of these critical areas,” said Clevenger.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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