Image credit: Rick Yates

Winter 2011

The Wolverine Way

Despite a ferocious reputation, the wolverine is far more complex than the legends that surround it. And even in a place as vast and wild as Glacier National Park, its future is uncertain.

Fine snow streaked the air, riding sideways on a gale, in early March 2006. Biologist Rick Yates led the way, breaking trail on skis through the powder. Great cliffs striped with avalanche tracks rose on all sides. Somewhere higher up among the clouds stretched the ice fields that gave this valley—Many Glacier—its name. We crossed two frozen lakes and finally passed into an old-growth spruce forest that took the edge off the storm. Beneath the branches, half-buried in snow, stood a large box made of logs six to eight inches thick. It looked a little like a scaled-down cabin. But it was a trap, and there was a wolverine inside.

The animal had entered during the night. We knew from its radio frequency that this was M1: M for male, Number 1 because he had been the first wolverine caught and radio-tagged during a groundbreaking study of the species under way here in Glacier National Park, Montana. Sometimes the researchers called him Piegan instead, after a 9,220-foot mountain at the head of the valley. To me, he was Big Daddy, constantly patrolling a huge territory that straddled the Continental Divide near the heart of the park. His domain overlapped those of several females, and he had bred with at least three of them over the years while successfully keeping rivals at bay.

We paused a short distance from the trap to listen. M1 was silent. Predictably, he began to give off warning growls as we drew nearer. They rumbled deep and long with a force that made you think a much larger predator lay waiting inside, something more on the order of a Siberian tiger—or possibly a Velociraptor. I lifted the box’s heavy lid an inch or two to peer in. The inside of the front wall underneath was freshly gouged and splintered, its logs growing thin under Big Daddy’s assault. Raising the lid another notch, I could finally make him out as a dense shadow toward the rear of the trap. Wolverines have dark brownish eyes, but in the light from my flashlight those orbs reflected an eerie blue-green color that glowed like plutonium, surrounded by the rising steam from his breath. The next things I saw were white claws and teeth and stringers of spit all flying at me with a roar before I dropped the lid shut and sprang back.

Inside the trap, the roaring and growling continued—wolverine for “Hope you won’t be needing your face for anything, Tame Boy, because I’m going to take it off next time!”—followed by the sound of more wood being ripped apart. Given a few more hours, M1 would have an escape hole torn through the mini-log cabin. From time to time, the tips of his claws poked out just above the uppermost log of the front wall while he rammed his head against the lid. He was trying to shove the thing upward, though the ice-encrusted logs that formed the top of the box must have weighed 100 pounds.

Although wolverines aren’t nearly as large as their reputation for malice and mayhem, they can reach 45 pounds in northern climes like that of Alaska. Their paws, which serve as their snowshoes, are as broad as a 120-pound wolf’s. Each paw has five toes with a stout, slightly curved claw up to two inches long.

I looked round at the trees and the snow swirls beyond and shook my head. I’d taken a vow to steer clear of wolverines when I was 17 years old, after meeting a man whose face had been disfigured during a supposed run-in with one of the creatures. Having joined the Glacier Wolverine Project in 2004, I was going into my third straight year of breaking that vow in just about every way it could possibly be broken. No regrets. These animals’ off-the-charts strength and survival skills had become a source of inspiration for me by now. Even so, I was never going to get used to dealing with the intensity of a wolverine when it’s up close and cornered. Nobody did.

Wolverines don’t unnecessarily complicate their lives. They won’t equivocate or trade in partial truths; I call this the wolverine pledge. If only that policy were more widely followed. More than that, wolverines are the ultimate role models for not taking crap from anybody or anything. But they aren’t always easy to emulate in Glacier. When hikers here see you coming down the trail with an H-shaped radio antenna, an awful lot of them stop you to ask what it’s for. The nervous ones quickly get around to asking whether you’ve, um, happened to find any grizzlies close by. Glacier’s biggest carnivores are much on visitors’ minds. The trailheads have signposts warning everybody to “Be Alert—You Are Entering Grizzly Country.” At times, an additional notice, printed on a red background with a drawing of an ornery-looking bear in midstride, instructs hikers to use extra caution because “This Area Is Currently Being Actively Used By Grizzlies.” When you explain that you’re tracking wolverines, you get a variety of expressions: surprise, relief, enthusiasm, curiosity. Comprehension would be somewhere toward the bottom of the list.

“Wolverines! Cool. What are they?”

“About this high? I think we saw some eating those purple flowers in the meadows.”

“They’re sort of like little wolves, right?”

“Omigod. I heard they’re really ferocious. What should we do if one comes close? If you run, does that just make them more likely to attack?”

“Wolfy reens?”

To be fair, the name wolverine not only sounds wolfish but springs from the same Old German word: wolver. And the high-elevation habitats that wolverines favor are home to colonies of flower-munching megarodents: hoary marmots. These alpine versions of woodchucks, or groundhogs, can weigh as much as 20 pounds, and they have bands of contrasting colors in their fur and a fairly long, thick tail somewhat like wolverines do. The fact that one is a roundish vegetarian with chisel-like buck teeth for clipping plants and the other is an elongated, shaggy hunter with sharp incisors, stout canine fangs, and those special molar teeth called carnassials designed for shearing the flesh off victims such as marmots isn’t always obvious at a distance. I’m trying to be generous here. As for the woman who saw a wolverine with a dead ground squirrel in its mouth on the moraine below Grinnell Glacier moments before I did and described a muskrat taking some kind of chipmunky thing for a ride? All I can say is that it must be fascinating to live in her world.

Still fairly widespread in the far North, Gulo gulo was common across northern states from Washington to Montana during the 19th century and occasionally reported from the Great Lakes to New England. Its range continued south along the Pacific Coast range and Sierras far into California and all the way down the Rockies into Colorado and New Mexico. Today, the wolverines of the Lower 48 are confined to a few remote parts of Montana, Idaho, and northern Wyoming, with perhaps a dozen more in Washington’s North Cascades. They total no more than 500 and, more likely, number just 300 or fewer. To make a point about their present status, you could cram all of them into one person’s mountainside trophy home. It would be a snarlfest, but they’d fit.

Part of the predicament for this hunter-scavenger is that it has proved so hard to find and follow that much of its existence remains a blank. The public scarcely knows what a wolverine actually is apart from cartoon versions and trappers’ yarns about the beast. Unfortunately, natural resource managers don’t have much more to go on when deciding how best to promote the species’ survival.

For example, female wolverines den deep in the snowpack from February into May. But what sort of places do mothers pick for a den? High slopes or low ones? Steep or gentle? Open habitats or sheltered spots? What would managers need to do to protect dens from disturbance? As with most questions about wolverine life, the answers were either vague or nonexistent.

When wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland first looked into studying wolverines at the start of the 1990s, several dens in Alaska were the only ones ever reported in North America. Only a few dozen more have been located since then. Just 20 or so are known from the Lower 48 states, and more than half of those were found during the Glacier Wolverine Project. We were hunter-scavengers of new information. Somebody had to get busy scouring big swaths of corrugated terrain the wolverine way, scrabbling across cliff faces, squirming under overhanging ledges, and probing fresh sign to see where it might lead.

The future of this long-mysterious, often-reviled species in the contiguous states depends upon people quickly uncovering enough about its behavior and ecology to assemble the first true-to-life portrait of what this animal does and what it requires to survive.

Adding to the urgency is the current rate of climate change. What little was known about the range of wolverines made it plain that they are tied to environments with fairly heavy snowfall and cool year-round temperatures. In southern Canada and the Lower 48, that translates into a number of small, widely separated subpopulations in the alpine and subalpine zones of high mountain ranges, rather than a single continuous population. As long as they maintain some degree of contact with one another in order to avoid the negative effects of isolation such as inbreeding and occasional dips to dangerously low numbers, the scattered groups can function as what ecologists term a metapopulation.

To endure over time, though, the animals are going to need wildland corridors that guarantee individuals the freedom to roam from one chain of peaks to the next. As wolverines struggle to adapt to changing weather and shifting habitats in the warmer years to come, linkage zones running in a north-south direction may prove especially vital. Yet before ecologists can identify the best routes—the wildways that hold the most promise for keeping groups connected—many more gaps in our knowledge of the species’ natural history have to be filled in.

Americans have come up with loads of tremendous ideas. Many would agree with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Wallace Stegner that establishing a national park system was the best one this country ever had. Our national wildlife refuge system was another splendid idea, our national wilderness system yet another. The arrays of protected areas grew out of a more fundamental, profoundly democratic notion: public lands. Counting national forests and national rangelands, one-third of the acreage constituting these United States of America is deemed the property not of select individuals and giant corporations but of every citizen, rich or poor, in equal measure.

During a hiking trip in Glacier National Park, I would be considered a visitor. But I am also the owner. I can’t build a house or do business in the park. I can’t haul any materials out of it. I can, however, pass as many days as I want here, hike to my heart’s content, and make Glacier my spiritual home for as long as I breathe. Though I’m nobody special, all its square miles and hundreds of thousands more from the Everglades to the Arctic National Wildlife Range and all the summits, canyons, wild rivers, desert sunsets, and seashore fogs within them are part of my holdings. I take the privileges and responsibilities that come with such an inheritance seriously. If I want to keep the likes of tree frogs, trout, bison, grizz, old-growth cypress woodlands, swans, prairie dogs, orchids, manatees, warblers, and wolverines alive, I’m obliged to make sure they have what they need to flourish. What do they require most today?

A fresh idea.

On both sides of the international border, many of the best-known reserves are clustered along mountain chains whose craggy heights escaped development, namely the various ranges of the Pacific region and the spine of the continent—the Rockies. Here are the bulwarks, the strongholds, for the most powerful North American mammals left outside the Arctic and Subarctic, especially the carnivores. Each of these reserves is a star in its own right as well as part of the constellation that ornaments the modern landscape. And yet not one of them—not Glacier National Park, Montana, or the Glacier National Park 220 miles north in British Columbia; not even 3,470-square-mile Yellowstone National Park or the nearest national park of that size in North America, 4,200-square-mile Jasper, 500 miles north in Alberta—is truly large enough to sustain its great beasts over time by itself.

That’s why a fresh way of thinking about conservation is so important.

Are visitors to one of our grand mountain parks going to stand there amid ranks of cloud-scraper peaks looming above valleys wider than an entire county back home and imagine that the resident wildlife need more protection? Nope. They’re more likely to be thinking, “This is the biggest, strongest-looking setting I’ve ever been in with the biggest, strongest-looking critters I’ve ever seen. Maybe they’re in fragile shape somewhere outside the entrance gate, but surely not here, not where the view toward every horizon promises room for large numbers to thrive 
indefinitely. What a hopeful scene.”

And I’m the spoilsport who walks over and says, “You know, you could put the DNA that built all the magnificent creatures here into a bowl no larger than a contact lens. Imagine it resting gently on your forefinger. There’s the park’s gene pool. Hold it up against the mountain background for perspective. If some of the mixtures in this tiny container don’t flow out well beyond those towering rock walls and new mixtures flow back in, the pool is in danger of turning stagnant and starting to evaporate. Now can you begin to see why even a place that feels so overwhelmingly vast and immune to the passage of time might require a little extra help to stay strong?”

If wolverines have a strategy, it’s this: Go hard, and high, and steep, and never back down, not even from the biggest grizzly, and least of all from a mountain. Climb everything: trees, cliffs, avalanche chutes, summits. Eat everybody: alive, dead, long-dead, moose, mouse, fox, frog, its still-warm heart or frozen bones. 

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They’re wolverines. They’re indomitably wild. They want nothing to do with either our romantic tableaux of charming wild beasts that want to be our friends or our screwy fantasies where gulos play the role of diabolical enemies. They have no truck with illusions. It’s part of what I think of as the wolverine pledge never to equivocate or deal in half-truths, which of course is really not their pledge but mine. I’m from the species that struggles daily to distinguish the truth from its own half-truths and lies. When you load nature up with human opinions, dreams, and nightmares, the results might make for more dramatic stories, but nature is always diminished in the end. Taken straight, the wolverine way, nature offers more real excitement, adventure, meaning, freedom, and hope than any version we’ve ever cooked up. That is what I learned from being on these animals’ trail.

Gulos don’t need a few secure areas to survive. They need lots of secure areas—big ones—and healthy corridors of protected land in between to link populations and the genes they carry. They need to be part of a robust community of predators, and they need an overflow of varied prey. As the wolverine becomes better known at last, it adds a fierce emphasis to the message that every bear, wolf, lynx, and other major carnivore keeps giving: If the living systems we choose to protect aren’t large and strong and interconnected, then we aren’t really conserving them. Not for the long term. Not with some real teeth in the scenery. We’re just talking about saving nature while we settle for something less wild.

Watch a promotional video produced by the book’s publisher, Patagonia, to see stunning Glacier landscapes, rare footage of wolverines, and more excerpts from the book, as read by the author:

And watch an entire episode of PBS’s Nature devoted to the Glacier wolverine project and other work..

This article appeared in the Winter 2011 issue

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