Our Research

WOLVERINE DISTRIBUTION IN THE CENTRAL ROCKY MOUNTAINS

The central Rocky Mountains mark the eastern limit of wolverines’ range south of the boreal forest, and a critical area for wolverine conservation. Our collaboration has allowed us to pool data acrossBigGuloMap201407 this vast wilderness, to mark the edge of that range, and the factors that contribute to wolverine persistence and decline on this precarious edge.

The effort is considerable: we have sampled over 150 sites, spanning a landscape over 15,000 km2 in size (see map to your right). We aim to discover how many wolverines live in this region, by sampling hair and examining the DNA, which allows us to identify individuals, their sex, and even their relatedness. We are examining how natural ruggedness and variability in landcover, climate change, and landscape development allow (or prevent) wolverines living in an area.

After 10 years, we have been able to paint a clear picture of wolverine distribution in the central Rockies. Wolverine densities in the National Parks are high – among the highest recorded in North America. However, outside of the parks – where there is considerable development from forest harvesting, petroleum extraction, recreational infrastructure, roads, and towns – there is a different story to tell. We recorded only 5 wolverines outside the Willmore Wilderness, and only 7 wolverines in Kananaskis Country, outside of Banff. The probability that a wolverine lives in an area decreases rapidly with increasing density of linear features, such as seismic lines and roads. Wolverines are also impacted by climate change, as areas with persistent spring snow – believed to be important for denning – are selected by wolverines, and these areas are being reduced as the globe warms. We are investigating these big-picture problems by digging down into the role of highways in fragmenting wolverine populations, modelling the effects of human activity on wolverine behaviour, and digging deeper into the future of wolverines under climate change scenarios.

WOLVERINE ABUNDANCE, LANDSCAPE GENETICS, AND CONNECTIVITY IN BANFF AND YOHO NATIONAL PARKS

Banff wolverinesThe National Parks are critical areas anchoring wolverine populations in Alberta, and in BC. However these areas, while largely protected, are bisected by a major highway that may serve to split this important reserve in 2. Our research aims to determine the distribution and abundance of wolverines in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks, while evaluating the effects of the TransCanada highway and other major developments on wolverine population genetics and movements within the transportation corridor.  Using “non-invasive” methods— including hair traps and remote cameras —basic questions about fine-scale genetic structure and occupancy in this portion of the Canadian Rockies are starting to be answered for the first time.  These answers will help inform future management and guide transportation planning and highway mitigation design in protected areas as well as remnant range of wolverines in the western US.  The study has concluded it’s first winter field season and included a “citizen science” component that solicits wolverine observations and recruits volunteers to assist research staff with the set-up and checking backcountry hair trap sites. Check out the citizen scientist website: Wolverinewatch.org/blog. Contact Tony Clevenger for more details.

WOLVERINE OCCURRENCE AND HABITAT SELECTION IN THE WILLMORE WILDERNESS PARK

2006-2010
Contact: Jason T. FisherNoble wolverine
Habitat loss has been identified as a primary factor influencing wolverine occurrence and survivorship in other areas of North America. Areas protected from development may therefore provide key habitat for populations of large, long-ranging carnivores such as wolverines. This research sought to assess wolverine occurrence in one of Alberta’s keystone protected areas, the Willmore Wilderness Park. The WWP is nearly 460 000 ha large and is a component of the Yellowstone to Yukon “connectivity corridor”. We used our remote detection method to estimate wolverine occurrence rates and population size throughout the WWP. We analysed occurrence in relation to landscape features within the Park, and compared this to habitat selection outside the Park.

We detected 26 wolverines in the Willmore Wilderness, from Alpha to Zulu. We plotted their spatial detection ranges and found long-distance movements and a degree of overlap among males and females. Using mark-recapture models, we estimated there were 32 wolverines in the Willmore, a density of 6.8 individuals per 1000 km² – higher than in our Foothills study area, and about equal with high-quality habitat in British Columbia. Across the Foothills and Willmore, we demonstrated that wolverines select areas of undeveloped habitat with low seismic line density.