The Wolverine Way - Go Like Hell and Never Back Down
by Douglas H. Chadwick
Ten years ago, a bad-ass wolverine mountaineer we called M3 got busy expanding his territory from the east side of Montana’s Glacier National Park into Canada. When this two-year-old bumped up against the turf of a long-established male known as M6, M3 took it over, claimed the older guy’s main squeeze – the female F15, and kept right on enlarging his crown-of-the-continent empire. Grown thin and scruffy, M6 wandered away southward, never to be seen again.
Shortly afterward, M8, the yearling son of M6 and F15, turned up in one of our Glacier Wolverine Project’s log box traps. Judging from the bloody gash on his face, he, too, had run into Mr. Badass. The team patched up M8 a bit before turning him loose. Across the Divide, Alex “Buck” Hasson was wintering alone in a cabin, skiing out to keep tabs on several radioed wolverines on the park’s west side. To locate a signal, he usually had to go for miles. But early one morning, he stepped from the outhouse to find a gulo 40 feet away: M8.
[Above: A wolverine in the wild. Glacier National Park, Montana. Photo: Steven Gnam]
Buck tracked the wandering male 30 miles southwest to a mountain ridge overlooking the town of Columbia Falls, then west into the Whitefish Range. M8 was headed up the backside of the ski area now known as Whitefish Mountain Resort. After talking the ski patrol into letting him ride the chairlift to the summit with them, Buck used his radio antenna to fix M8’s location atop the next peak over. The wolverine was feasting on a deer carcass, Buck later learned from an avid out-of-bounds skier. That the man also tended bar at the resort had nothing – nothing! – to do with how this info actually got passed along. Here in Montana, we’re all science all the time.
M8 padded 90 miles farther west to the Idaho-Montana border. Before winter was out, the hunter-scavenger’s story came to an end in the jaws of a bobcat trap. But in March of 2012, scores of Whitefish Mountain skiers and boarders watched a wolverine lope beneath Chair 1 en route to the nearby remains of a deer (most likely killed by a cougar.) This time, the media spread the story statewide.
[Photo: Steven Gnam]
When wolverines make the news, that’s news in itself. These are unbelievably strong, insanely bold, untamed ultramarathoners given to scaling almost sheer mountain walls and confronting full-grown grizzlies over carcasses. But the public never used to hear about them. And even as their numbers slipped to 300 or fewer south of Canada, the government kept denying them protection, arguing that not enough was yet known about Gulo gulo to take steps toward ensuring this species’ survival. To me, that was like pointing to somebody drowning and having the lifeguard shrug and say, “I dunno, dude. It’s really hard to tell what’s happening, ‘cause that person keeps sinking out of view… .”
Wolverines criss-crossed mountainsides as far south as the Sierras and New Mexico before steel traps, guns, and predator poisons spread through the West. Until recently, enclaves remained only in remote parts of Montana, Idaho, and northern Wyoming. Then came news reports about a few animals in Washington’s North Cascades. A couple showed up in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. One made headlines after it ventured 600 miles from the central Idaho wilderness to Lake Tahoe, California. Another trekked 500 miles from Wyoming’s Tetons to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. This doesn’t necessarily mean that wolverines are making a comeback. Reports by casual observers, often dismissed as unreliable, suggest that gulos made southward forays in earlier years as well. The main difference today may simply be that a lot of folks are paying closer attention.
[Photo: Steven Gnam]
While it’s hardly gulomania, there has been an unprecedented surge of interest in wolverines from wildlife experts and the public alike lately. Researchers with limited funds to hire assistants have outdoor recreationists happily volunteering to beat themselves up in tough terrain following long-mysterious, bad-ass beasts for free. New technology has also helped scoop up more data with improved GPS collars for the animals and better automatic cameras to set up at bait stations. Given the jump in knowledge about what used to be North America’s least-understood big mammal, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service may finally offer wolverines federal protection, possibly by the end of this year. At the same time, officials are discussing re-introducing some to Colorado and California.
Long portrayed as solitary, vile-smelling, and dangerously pissed-off 24/7, gulos turn out to have intriguing social bonds and a playful side. They also emerge as an icon of two great issues affecting everyone’s future. The first is global warming; wolverines are so closely tied to deep, lingering snowpacks and year-round cool temperatures that they stand to lose two-thirds of their Lower 48 habitat before the century’s end. Second, since Lower 48 wolverines keep to high mountain ranges where individuals strongly defend territories as large as 500 to 1,000 square miles, they never become very abundant in any one area; to maintain healthy numbers over time, populations are going to need corridors of intact wildlands that let them travel safely across large enough regions to keep in contact with other groups, exchange genes, and adapt to shifting conditions. Those requirements, which all native species share, can be summed up in a phrase embraced by Patagonia: Freedom to Roam. It’s all about saving the connections – between wildlife communities, between ecosystems, and between us and nature.
I want to pass along one more piece of wolverine news. This winter, we learned from an automatic camera at a bait station in Glacier Park that M3 is still around. He’s 12 now, elderly for a wolverine, but looked fine and fit. I’m also writing to thank Patagonia both for having made this wolverine semi-famous by publicizing his 2007 winter ascent of Glacier’s highest peak by the awe-inspiring M3 route (he did the last 4,900 feet almost straight up in 90 minutes) – and for making wolverines as a whole leading spokesanimals for the landscape-level Freedom to Roam conservation strategy. It’s doing my favorite bad-asses all kinds of good.
[Recent shot of M3 at the Glacier National Park bait station near Elizabeth Lake. Photo: National Park Service]
[M3 tugging on the bait, bad ass as ever. Photo: National Park Service]
[Volunteers Sally Kintner (NPS) and Pam Murray (PCA) check the camera site. Photo: National Park Service]
The Wolverine Way by Douglas H. Chadwick is now available in paperback from Patagonia Books. It reveals the fascinating natural history of the wolverine, the habitat threats that face them, their social structure and reproduction habits. Wolverines, according to Chadwick, are the land equivalent of polar bears in regards to the impacts of global warming. The plight of wolverines adds to the call for wildlife corridors that connect existing habitat that is proposed by the Freedom to Roam coalition.
[With thanks to Steven Gnam and Dr. Waller for sharing their photos with us.]