The wolverine is real, and it's not a baby wolf
Half-way through their journey, the Ramblers Bone guys made a stop in Jackson, Wyoming, late last week to meet up with our friends at the Wolverine Foundation. Back in Rockford we had the chance to talk with Jeff Copeland, founding director of The Wolverine Foundation, as he traveled to his next research location. With more than 20 years of research under his belt, Copeland knows a thing or two about the wolverine and was generous enough to share some insight on this mysterious animal with us.
You have dedicated your life to researching the wolverine – what motivates you?
Introducing folks to the animal. There is an amazing amount of misunderstanding of what the wolverine is – that it’s just a mythical creature or a “baby wolf.” We start from the basic position that the wolverine is a real and rare animal. We try to develop an understanding of what the wolverine is – the more we know about the wolverine the more we can come to appreciate it.
Why is the wolverine so misunderstood?
The reason we know so little about the wolverine is because it’s an animal that doesn’t have any need to associate with humans. Most species that we know a lot about we have regular interactions with; wolves eating livestock, hunting as sport, bird watching, et cetera. We develop our associations with animals based on our interactions with them.
The wolverine is an alpine weasel that lives at high altitudes in extremely cold conditions and deep snow. Historically, these are places where humans couldn’t and wouldn’t want to go, especially in winter. And the wolverine doesn’t live there because we forced them to; it’s adapted to live there. The wolverine also has a very low density population even in high population areas.
Most of what we thought we knew about the wolverine came from North Country trappers, which focused on their tenacity, ferocity, cunning and durability, which also fit with the descriptions of the wolverine in myths and legends.
Has anything changed concerning the wolverine in recent years?
In recent years, with the gain in popularity of extreme winter sports like heli-sking, backcountry skiing and snowmobiling, people have begun to play in wolverine habitat even in the winter. These formerly remote areas are no longer truly remote, which is cause for concern about the potential effects of human presence on wolverines.
How is this interaction part of the Wolverine Foundation’s current project, the Central Idaho Wolverine and Winter Recreation Research Study?
This project is the first attempt to address the issue and come up with an understanding of the interaction between wolverines and humans.
Female wolverines move to reproductive dens in late February, which are located at high elevation under deep snow that insulates the offspring from the cold and hides them from predators. In these dens, the female wolverine will have two or three kits that will remain in the den for 9-10 weeks. During this time, wolverines may be sensitive to human presence or direct disturbance, which may result in den abandonment or displacement from important habit but how a wolverine responds to human presence is not well understood.
We’ve asked recreationists to carry small GPS units to record their winter movements, and a team of researchers is live-trapping wolverines to fit them with GPS collars. From this, we hope to gather a large enough sample of tracks to help us evaluate the relationship between wolverine and human activity.
What is most exciting about this project? What implications will it have?
What we’re most excited about is that we’ve been able to team up with recreationists right from the beginning and they’ve been very supportive of the project. There is no pretentious atmosphere; we both care about the land and want to have good sound science to understand the relationship between humans and wolverines.
As far as implications, we need a large sample size before we generalize across the population. We need to sample enough of the population to make a broad statement, and because wolverines live in such remote areas and there are so few of them, it’s difficult to get a good sample. This is the fourth year of field research for the project, and we’d really like to another four or five years so we can determine consistent trends in the way humans and wolverines interact.
To learn more about the Wolverine Foundation visit wolverinefoundation.org or the Wolverine Foundation’s Facebook page.
Photo courtesy of Clint Long.