AboutZoos, Since 2008


How threat­en­ing is cli­mate change to wolver­ines in the Arctic?

pub­lished 28 May 2017 | mod­i­fied 28 May 2017

Wolverine on rockWill reduc­tions in Arc­tic snow cover make tundra-​dwelling wolver­ines more vul­ner­a­ble to cli­mate change than pre­vi­ously thought? That’s a ques­tion sci­en­tists hope an inno­v­a­tive method described in a new study co-​authored by WCS (Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety) will help answer.

Wolver­ines (Gulo gulo) are the largest land-​dwelling mem­bers of the weasel fam­ily, and use snow-​pack for den­ning, caching food, and other needs. It is widely recog­nised that spring snow cover is essen­tial for the wolver­ine to sur­vive, as is summer-​time tem­per­a­ture, which should not exceed an aver­age of 22 °C (see U.S. Wolver­ine Pop­u­la­tion Threat­ened by Cli­mate Change). So, since snow cover pro­vides a key com­po­nent to wolver­ine habi­tat, deter­min­ing where snow will be avail­able, and in what amounts, will be crit­i­cal to man­ag­ing the future for the elu­sive car­ni­vores. That deter­mi­na­tion is seen as key to decid­ing list­ing under the Endan­gered Species Act of the USA.

To bet­ter inform this dis­cus­sion, the United States Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice has stated the need for more infor­ma­tion on the rela­tion­ship of wolver­ine dis­tri­b­u­tion to per­sis­tent snow at the den-​scale. In their study pub­lished on 13 May in Wildlife Soci­ety Bul­letin, the authors looked at snow at the den-​site scale in late May using low-​altitude aer­ial pho­tog­ra­phy in wolver­ine den­ning habi­tat both in the Rocky Moun­tains of the west­ern United States and in north­west­ern Alaska. In the Rocky Moun­tains, they doc­u­mented snow in all but one study area. Snow in the Alaska study area was mostly gone, with only widely scat­tered patches remain­ing for cover. The study empha­sizes the need for addi­tional sur­veys to deter­mine whether reduc­tions in Arc­tic snow cover could make tundra-​dwelling wolver­ines more vul­ner­a­ble to cli­mate change than pre­vi­ously thought.

Mean­while, the WCS Arc­tic Beringia Pro­gram is focus­ing on how wolver­ines use that snow and how oblig­ate this usage is — infor­ma­tion vital to opti­mally man­ag­ing this species in a time of rapid cli­matic change. Staff have just returned from three months of work­ing on Alaska’s North Slope in frigid tem­per­a­tures in an effort to iden­tify areas used by wolver­ines and mon­i­tor them with remote cam­eras and GPS col­lars. This equip­ment will doc­u­ment how wolver­ines use the land­scape from a time of 100 per­cent snow cover to bare tun­dra, allow­ing sci­en­tists to assess how ani­mals use snow, their pro­duc­tiv­ity, diet, and other key questions.

The ques­tion on how wolver­ines will be affected by cli­mate change is clearly com­plex. Dur­ing our aer­ial and ground-​based sur­veys on the North Slope, we have observed the use of snow holes for den­ning, and also by both males and females for caching food, rest­ing, or per­haps shel­ter from preda­tors such as wolves.

Tom Glass, WCS wolver­ine pro­gramme coor­di­na­tor and lead researcher.

If snow is lost too early, then wolver­ine kits may be exposed to the ele­ments and preda­tors before they are ready.

Using both tra­di­tional sci­en­tific sur­veys as well as learn­ing from local Iñu­piat experts who have hunted and trapped wolver­ines (locally known as Qavvik) for gen­er­a­tions, new infor­ma­tion col­lected will help inform an assess­ment of the health of the pop­u­la­tion. Glass’s work over the next two years will focus on map­ping habi­tat use in the spring as snow melts ear­lier and more vari­ably in the Arctic.

Given the iconic recog­ni­tion of wolver­ines, it is sur­pris­ing how lit­tle we know about their ecol­ogy in the Arc­tic,” says Glass. To secure a future for wolver­ines, increas­ing that under­stand­ing is pri­or­ity one.

(Source: WCS news release, 22.05.2017)

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