One of the first wolverine studies in the lower 48 states took place in Glacier National Park from 2002 to 2008 and now, research on the ferocious and rarely seen carnivore is again underway in the park.
“It’s exciting to see the park back in the wolverine business,” said Doug Mitchell, head of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, in a recent interview. “It’s such an iconic animal and indicator of so many things.”
In April, before grizzly bears start ambling about too frequently, a research team will start pulling equipment from the field on a couple of wolverine projects. One study follows up on research completed five years ago that’s part of an expanded multistate project, and it takes place alongside a separate effort that looks more closely at wolverines inside Glacier National Park.
“They are one of the rarest animals in North America,” said John Waller, supervisory wildlife biologist with Glacier National Park. “And so anytime you can see one is an amazing experience just because you know you may never see another one.”
Glacier National Park is a hot spot for wolverines, which are part of the weasel family. Still, Waller, a wildlife biologist for more than 30 years, said he can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen a wolverine in the wild outside of a trap.
“Being able to get your hands on one is pretty neat,” he said. “They’re an amazing animal. They’re tough. They have a growl that sounds like a grizzly bear.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently denied wolverines endangered species protections.
A “coarse” estimate has put the wolverine population in the lower 48 states at 300, but Waller said it’s hard to come up with an accurate number because of their low density, and the National Park Service notes sudden declines could go unnoticed. However, Waller also said he believes the current research will contribute to a lot more information about the wolverine, an animal the Conservancy notes has been tracked moving nearly 500 miles in just eight days.
“When we can do these landscape-scale projects of species across the range, I think we’re going to learn a lot more about how populations perform, how they use the environment, and hopefully get some insights about how they’ll fare under a changing climate and development pressure,” Waller said.
Waller, who in June will have been with Glacier park for 20 years, noted the first wolverine research there started in 2003 and ran through 2008. Researchers trapped wolverines, put tiny radios in their abdominal cavities (they don’t have much of a neck for collars), and tracked their movements, he said, and the work formed the basis for Montana author Douglas Chadwick’s “The Wolverine Way.”
From 2008 to 2012, for roughly four or five years, the researchers landed on a DNA-based method of collecting information, Waller said. They attached bait to a tree, and below it, placed wire brushes that grab the wolverine’s hair when it scrambled up for the bait, and they estimated at the time roughly 40 wolverines in the park.
“It’s challenging just because they’re such a rare animal,” Waller said. “It’s sort of a catch-22. The rarer an animal it is, the harder it is to estimate how many of them there are.”
In 2016, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and other parties put together a large project that looked at wolverine distribution across four states: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. The Conservancy described it as the first range-wide survey for wolverines in the western United States. Waller said it was a feat to pull together so many entities, such as national forests, Native American tribes, fish and game departments, and national parks, on one project, which included 185 remote camera stations and hair snares.
“I thought that was cooler than heck, and of course, Glacier was all in,” he said.
A report on the project noted more than 22,000 wolverine photos and 240 wolverine DNA samples were obtained, and Waller said the study showed wolverines were doing pretty well in those four states, with Glacier as a hot spot. There was an agreement the research would relaunch in five years, and this time, Colorado, California, Utah and Oregon also are participating in the Western Wolverine Occupancy Survey for eight states altogether, Waller said.
However, Waller said the large-scale project only has five sites within the park, so he overlaid a much finer grid for sampling inside the park. The Conservancy notes 34 wolverine stations are placed in a grid across Glacier from “Kintla, Marias Pass, the Belly River Drainage, and everything in between.”
The remote stations have a small canister with a little electric pump that automatically squirts wolverine scent lure every day, and the researchers use that setup along with a camera and hair snag in places that are difficult to check in the winter. Challenges include steep canyons, high avalanche risk, and no motorized use. In the past, Waller took arduous treks pulling a 70-pound sled through crusty snow.
“It’s just logistically challenging to get to these places,” he said.
Volunteers do most of the field work, he said, and they’re the kind of people who are good backcountry skiers, savvy in winter camping, and not easily going to get into avalanche trouble. He’s going to tally up all the miles they travel during the project, from Dec. 1 to April 1.
“It’ll be thousands of miles, I’m sure, skiing,” Waller said. “It’s quite an effort, but it is largely a volunteer effort funded by the National Park Foundation and Glacier Park Conservancy.”
They’ll start pulling the equipment out of the woods starting April 1, and it will likely take the better part of the month to do so, he said. Then, they’ll catalog all the genetics, photos and DNA samples, and the National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation in Missoula will conduct the testing. Scientists will plug the results into models, and they’ll have results ready for publication in a year or two.
In an interview with the Conservancy and posted on its website, Glacier wildlife technician Shawn Servis said the research is important because wolverines are a highly specialized species and have an increased risk of population decline if “detrimental changes” take place in their range.
“This makes them a species of precedence to focus on and learn as much as we can about them,” Servis said in the interview. “The more knowledge we gather today, the more capable we will be to (make) decisions in the future. Glacier is a honey hole for wolverine habitat in the contiguous United States and will serve as an excellent baseline to help serve the population as a whole. With some prudence and good will, we can help to ensure a future for these incredible animals.”
Mitchell, with the Glacier National Park Conservancy, said one of the reasons the fundraising arm of the park exists is to help support just the type of research Glacier is conducting. Parks have seen resources grow more scarce, he said, and at the same time, they’ve seen visitation rise significantly.
So parks have to invest their money into public health, wellness and safety, and in some cases, robust research, such as the earlier wolverine project, ended up partly a budget casualty. However, he said the Conservancy has grown from being able to provide some $300,000 a year in support to the park to more than $2 million in private philanthropy every year since 2018, including some $60,000 for the current wolverine study.
“It still takes a huge commitment from the park,” Mitchell said. “They are spending money. They are spending time.”
Philanthropic dollars don’t magically launch the projects, he said, but donors allow the Conservancy to think strategically about funding meaningful, long-term research that speaks to Glacier’s “wilderness, wildlife and wonder.” He said the funds actually mean more work for the park, which makes the research a priority, offers project leadership, and provides the “scaffolding,” or processes for the work to be done.
“So the park deserves a ton of credit in really staying very active and committed,” Mitchell said. “While the wolverine research may have a gap, their eye has never left the ball about what can we do to look at species in the park. And so this new research piece that we’re helping fund this year is really exciting because it kind of gets our oar, the park’s oar, back in the water on wolverines.”