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Study inves­ti­gates effect of cli­mate change on wolver­ine habitat

pub­lished 25 April 2016 | mod­i­fied 25 April 2016

Wolverine (Gulo gulo)A research team led by Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety (WCS), work­ing in coop­er­a­tion with the Alaska Depart­ment of Fish and Game has suc­cess­fully placed satel­lite col­lars on two wolver­ines as part of a study to see how these elu­sive preda­tors are far­ing on Alaska’s North Slope.

Brav­ing minus 30 degree tem­per­a­tures, the researchers set high-​tech traps along river and stream that send emails to researchers when sprung. Then, once an ani­mal is col­lared, data is sent back daily, which allows track­ing ani­mals in near real time. This greatly facil­i­tates col­lect­ing scat for diet analy­sis and locat­ing dens. The trap­ping por­tion of the wolver­ine project con­tin­ues through the end of April.

So far researchers have learned that wolver­ines pre­fer to dig incon­spic­u­ous dens in deep snow drifts on the banks of small streams. Wolver­ines dig small incon­spic­u­ous holes for dens, mak­ing find­ing them extremely dif­fi­cult. WCS researchers use track­ing tech­niques on the ground (cov­er­ing over 72 kilo­me­tres of wolver­ine tracks) and from planes to locate dens. This led researchers to dis­cover many active holes, and con­firm one active den so far. They have also obtained what may be the third set of pho­tos ever taken of a mother wolver­ine with kits in the wild.

The wolver­ine
Wolver­ines live in the Arc­tic regions of Eura­sia and North Amer­ica where they pre­fer tun­dra, boreal for­est, and high ele­va­tion moun­tains. Adults typ­i­cally weigh 20 to 50 pounds and have a dark brown coat with a dis­tinct light tan band around their sides. Though rel­a­tively small, wolver­ines have been known to kill adult moose weigh­ing more than 20 times their size.

Habi­tat and threats
Wolver­ines are cur­rently being con­sid­ered for list­ing under the endan­gered species act in the con­tigu­ous United States due to cli­mate change. Pop­u­la­tions in Arc­tic Alaska are rel­a­tively sta­ble, how­ever their reliance on snow drifts for den­ning and caching food may be at risk due to a rapidly chang­ing climate.

Under­stand­ing their needs in this extremely chal­leng­ing — but rapidly chang­ing — land­scape will allow con­ser­va­tion­ists to under­stand how to pro­tect them and other wildlife of the high Arctic.
Mar­tin Robards, Direc­tor of WCS’s Beringia program »

Wolver­ines are an iconic sym­bol of wild north­ern places,” added Robards. Their habi­tat has recently been linked to per­sis­tent spring snow cover, but the exact nature of the rela­tion­ship is uncer­tain. WCS researchers hope to learn whether den­ning and den loca­tion plays a role in this, hypoth­e­siz­ing that the ani­mal may require deep drifts to safely raise young. Though wolver­ines are wide­spread in the Arc­tic, their habi­tat may be threat­ened in the lower 48, and find­ing out their exact habi­tat require­ments is cru­cial to their persistence.

Wolverine range mapGeo­graphic dis­tri­b­u­tion of the wolver­ine (Gulo gulo).
Image credit Oona Räisä­nen & IUCN (Inter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature)

The wolver­ine (Gulo gulo) is listed as Least Con­cerned in the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species due to its wide dis­tri­b­u­tion and remain­ing large pop­u­la­tions. There is an over­all con­tin­ued decline of the species due to human per­se­cu­tion and land-​use change, and the Euro­pean wolver­ine is cur­rently Vul­ner­a­ble. How­ever it is esti­mated that some large pop­u­la­tions remain in North Asia and North Amer­ica, which jus­ti­fies the sta­tus of Least Con­cerned on a global scale. A next assess­ment could lead the species to be listed as Vulnerable.

WCS Beringia pro­gram
The research is part of WCS’s Beringia pro­gram — a tri-​national effort to pro­tect one of the most pro­duc­tive marine areas and land­scapes on the planet shared by the U.S., Canada and Russia.

WCS aims to pro­tect Arc­tic wildlife such as polar bear, wal­rus, arc­tic fox, muskoxen, seals, and shore­birds — and wolver­ines — from pres­sures related to a rapidly chang­ing cli­mate and the onset of new indus­trial devel­op­ment. At the same time, WCS works to ensure the region’s indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties can con­tinue to depend on local resources for food, eco­nomic, and cul­tural vital­ity. Imple­ment­ing con­ser­va­tion in such a rapidly chang­ing envi­ron­ment can only be effec­tive through work­ing with sci­en­tists, local experts, and indige­nous communities.

(Source: WCS press release, 22.04.2016; IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species)

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