• A wolverine climbs through a non-lethal hair trap, which helps scientists collect wolverine DNA

    A wolverine climbs through a non-lethal hair trap, which helps scientists collect wolverine DNA. (Photo: Jason Fisher)

(Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

Legacy effects

Wolverine mortality was a byproduct of wolf poisoning campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s, and trapping throughout their range had similar impacts on populations. “Wolverines are not geared for a quick rebound,” says Jason Fisher, a senior wildlife ecologist in Alberta. The species has a low fertility rate, and young have slim chances of survival because of the wolverine’s marginal existence.

Road blocks

Scientists, such as Fisher and Canmore-based researcher Tony Clevenger, have only recently started studying Alberta’s wolverine population. Clevenger’s work focuses on the effects of the Trans- Canada Highway, which bisects prime habitat in Banff and Yoho national parks. It appears as though roadways delineate individual wolverine territories, says Clevenger, fragmenting and effectively shrinking available habitat. “It’s more of a road avoidance problem than a roadkill problem. They tend to have boundaries on the edge of highways and they don’t cross them.”

Seismic shift

Northern Alberta’s boreal forest is increasingly home to a patchwork of seismic lines for oil and gas exploration. That’s bad news for wolverines, as the animal has been shown to avoid such areas completely. Fisher wonders if such areas provide better habitat for coyotes, a wolverine competitor. Meanwhile, Alberta’s wolverine population tends to stick to rugged, undeveloped alpine zones. Similarly, wolverines occupy the boreal forest of far northwestern Ontario, a vast, roadless area beyond the current limit of forestry operations.

Missed connections

In Alberta’s Willmore Wilderness Area, north of Jasper, Fisher detected 26 wolverines occupying 90 per cent of the area — drastically greater numbers than in the surrounding unprotected lands. This finding supports the importance of establishing corridors between patches of prime habitat to help create a viable wolverine population throughout the Rockies. “You need to look at the big picture,” says Canmore-based researcher Clevenger. “Knowing how wolverines disperse to isolated areas is really important to managing and conserving the species over the long term.”

The odd couple

Trapping records provide the best insights into wolverines’ historical and current distributions — a key first step in their management. The Alberta Trappers Association has partnered with the Alberta Conservation Association to build the province’s wolverine dataset. Trappers are helping biologist Doug Manzer collect wolverine DNA from non-lethal hair traps to assess the population. “Wolverines are not a target species for most trappers,” notes Manzer. They’re “an icon of the Canadian wilderness, and trappers want to see them on the landscape. For all of us, it’s just nice to know they’re there.”