News / USA

Wolverines Stage a Comeback

But global warming threatens the long-term survival of the species

This remote camera photo of a wolverine was taken in the Okanogan National Forest  in Winthrop, Washington.
This remote camera photo of a wolverine was taken in the Okanogan National Forest in Winthrop, Washington.

Multimedia

Audio
Tom Banse

One of the rarest mammals in North America is staging a comeback in the mainland United States. Wildlife biologists have tracked wolverines on mountainsides where they haven’t been seen in many decades. But several new studies suggest the recovery could be short-lived if the animals’ mountain snowline habitat continues to retreat due to global warming.

If you’re willing to settle for a mascot, the legendary wolverine is easy to find in the USA. It’s the namesake of countless high schools, a bunch of colleges and several American university sports teams. But if you want to see an actual wolverine in the wild, good luck. Despite the fact that the brown, shaggy carnivores are among the largest members of the weasel family and reach weights up to 15 kilograms, these stocky scavengers are extremely elusive. The biologists who study them rely on radio tracking technology and aircraft or snowmobiles to improve the odds of finding their quarry.

John Rohrer, a district biologist for the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest, also uses dead deer heads to lure elusive wolverines. "They’re in this winter environment that we think is so harsh and so inhospitable, and they’re loving it."

A remote camera photo of a wolverine attracted by a lure set up by biologists in the Okanogan National Forest.
A remote camera photo of a wolverine attracted by a lure set up by biologists in the Okanogan National Forest.

Rohrer, Scott Fitkin and company have set up 11 live capture traps in the high country east of the Cascade Crest. Both men have worked with all sorts of interesting critters, but hold a special reverence for the wolverine.

"These are the most charismatic animals I’ve worked with over 20 years in my career," says Fitkin. "They have a lot of personality. They’re certainly individuals. Each one is a little different in the way they react to us. They’re a very beautiful animal. Everything about them is just interesting."

They’re also really rare. Trapping and deliberate poisoning more or less wiped out the wolverine from the contiguous United States. But now wolverines have moved down from Canada to reoccupy their historic ranges.

This is the sixth season Rohrer and Fitkin have pursued the elusive scavengers. Captures are rare. Fitkin videotaped the most recent one of a wolverine they named Rocky.

When the field crew catches a wolverine, they attach a GPS tracking collar and set the animal free again. Study leader Keith Aubry can monitor the signals from his desk at the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Olympia.

Aubry says the wolverine’s rebound appears fragile. "The populations are not dense and they’re not reproducing rapidly. So it’s a precarious situation."

Wildlife biologists John Rohrer and Scott Fitkin check a wolverine trap in Washington’s North Cascades.
Wildlife biologists John Rohrer and Scott Fitkin check a wolverine trap in Washington’s North Cascades.

Aubry, who is working on a science journal paper on the topic, believes global warming poses the biggest threat to wolverines because the animals need long-lasting snow cover to dig the snow caves in which they give birth.

"The denning period, weaning, occurs about in mid-May," he says. "They need snow cover that persists to mid-May to provide these dens for the kids. If snow starts melting early, the den could start collapsing."

The Forest Service is funding a parallel study in central Idaho. But in Idaho, the wolverines aren’t the only ones being tracked. The research team led by biologist Kim Heinemeyer is asking snowmobilers and backcountry skiers to voluntarily carry GPS tracking units, too. That lets Heinemeyer see whether human recreation affects the wolverines.

"It’s a very complicated question that we’re trying to answer," says Heinemeyer. "While we have resident animals in the landscape and some of them have successfully denned we believe, we don’t know the potentially more subtle interactions that may happen between winter recreation and wolverines."

In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified wolverines as a candidate for endangered species protection. This was in response to several conservation groups who petitioned the service to have the wolverine listed as threatened or endangered. The federal agency agreed with the petitioners that climate change poses a long-term threat to the animal’s survival in the contiguous U.S. But officials say full endangered species protection for the wolverine is "precluded" right now by the need to direct resources to higher-priority cases.

You May Like

Mood Tense Ahead of Scotland Independence Vote

As race to persuade undecided voters continues, 'No' voters say they believe life in Scotland will slowly improve, 'Yes' vote not worth the risk More

South Africa’s 'Open Mosque' Admits Everyone, Including Critics

Open Mosque founder plans to welcome gay worshipers and allow women to lead prayers More

Ukrainian Activist in Despair About Future of Her Country

IrIna Dovgan, accused of being a spy and tortured by pro-Russian separatists, is appealing to UN Human Rights Council to support her country More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Wateri
X
September 17, 2014 8:44 PM
Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid