The Ultimate Winter Specialist

Inside the Secret, Solitary Lives of Wolverines

If I could choose a spirit animal, it would be the wolverine. This solitary animal moves through deep snow and the mountains with breathtaking ease. Though it avoids conflict, the wolverine can be fierce when backed into a corner.

I once sat with a handful of other climbers in a remote camp near Moby Dick Mountain south of Rogers Pass and watched through binoculars as a wolverine skillfully navigated a technical glacier, mired in crevasses and seracs. For more than 10 minutes, we observed the wolverine’s lonely ascent before it disappeared over a high pass and descended into the valley beyond. The wolverine – always restless, always moving, always searching.

Wolverines are mustelids, otherwise known as the weasel family. Next to sea otters, they are the largest of this group in North America, which also includes fishers and pine martens. With compact, powerful bodies, large heads and strong jaws, an adult male can measure one metre from nose to tail and weigh between 12 and 16 kilograms. Broad feet and strong limbs allow them to travel quickly in deep snow and track down a range of prey from moose, mountain caribou and mountain goat to beavers, porcupines and squirrels. Beyond a few weeks in the year when adults pair to mate, they are solitary creatures with vast ranges. People often mistake wolverines for bear cubs. That’s why in indigenous North American lore they are referred to as the fourth grizzly club.

By some estimates wolverine habitat has contracted by as much as 37 per cent in North America. The animal, listed both federally and provincially as a species of special concern, has been extirpated from much of its previous range, including Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. BC still relies on decades old radio telemetry data and remote camera evidence that pegs the provincial population at roughly 3,500 animals. It science’s attempt to extrapolate certainty from uncertainty. In other words, there’s still much to learn, including how climate change, diminishing snowpacks, and habitat fragmentation will impact wolverine populations.

The wolverine, glutton, carcajou, skunk bear, or quickhatch
The wolverine, glutton, carcajou, skunk bear, or quickhatch

Wolverine Watch is an informal group of scientists collaborating to better understand wolverine habitat and the impacts of human disturbance. For example, Nelson researchers Andrea Kortello and Doris Hausleitner – Team Wolverine – have been using a mix of drone surveys, citizen science, and habitat modeling to identify denning sites in the West Kootenay region. The hope is that by knowing where the slowly reproducing female wolverines have their kits, we can make better land use and access decisions.

They are slippery subjects of scientific inquiry, often evading the biologist’s most tenacious efforts to locate, track and understand them. Ask any wildlife biologist, and they’ll tell you that’s part of their appeal. It’s also likely why wolverines are enveloped in myth and cursed with an undeserved reputation for cruelty that’s as large as the wilderness in which they thrive. This popular demonization might start with the wolverine’s unsavory Latin scientific name, Gulo gulo, which translates as “glutton, glutton.”

“Nobody moves through the mountains like a wolverine,” says Montana-based writer and biologist Douglas Chadwick.

And few North American animals are as misunderstood, he adds.

While researching his 2010 book The Wolverine Way, Chadwick says he failed to uncover a single credible report of a wolverine attacking and injuring humans. Nonetheless, people demonized them. And that’s easy to do in “the absence of data,” Chadwick says.

Absence of data; those three words say much about the wolverine. And whenever the first snow flies in BC, I start thinking again about this ultimate winter specialist.

Be Bear Aware

Recreating Safely in Natural Bear Habitats

British Columbia’s backcountry offers several incredible attributes, from stunning landscapes and unspoiled alpine views to solitude and integration with nature. Another awe-inspiring offering provided by the backcountry is the extensive wildlife that you may encounter along the way; perhaps viewing wildlife – safely and responsibly – is even the reason you choose to visit the backcountry.

BC is home to both black (in coastal areas the Kermode bear, a rare, white-coated black bear) and grizzly bears with the province’s varied landscape providing the ideal habitat for both species. While black bears tend to prefer extensively wooded areas, lowlands and wetlands, grizzlies tend to occupy a greater range of habitats including tundra plains, prairie and grasslands, and of course, the thick temperate rainforests of coastal BC. The two species can however – and do – overlap habitats.

As humans recreating in natural bear habitats, it’s our responsibility to be mindful of bear habits and activity, taking every precaution in order to prevent and reduce human-bear conflict. Most bear encounters occur in the warmer months of the year (March through November) when the number of outdoor recreationalists is higher, leading to an increased chance of an encounter.

The late summer and autumn is a key time for bear activity in the backcountry: bears enter a state of hyperphagia – an extreme appetite which increases their feeding activity – driven by their biological need to fatten up prior to hibernation. Though the onset and duration of this hyperphagia state differs based on the regional norms of food availability which can vary. During hyperphagia, bears can feed upwards of 20 hours each day to prepare for a winter of hibernation. As a result of this, they can become temperamental and defensive if they perceive a threat to a potential meal source.

Before embarking on any adventure into the wilderness – and into bear habitat – prepare yourself by learning about bears, their behaviours, and how to avoid conflicts and stay safe while recreating in BC. (Consider taking WildSafeBC’s Bear Safety When Recreating course to learn more.)

While you’re out in the backcountry, be alert and watch for bears or bear activity including their tracks and scat, strange smells or disturbed vegetation nearby. Alert potential bears to your presence by making noise: singing, talking calmly and loudly, or clapping, especially near streams and areas of low visibility. Hike and bike in groups and don’t let children wander; larger groups of 4 or more are less likely to have a negative encounter with a bear. Always keep pets on-leash, as dogs can provoke defensive bear behaviour. And of course, always be prepared with bear spray and know how to use it effectively.

When camping outdoors, store bear attractants – such as food (both human and pet), garbage, recyclables, toiletries, and other smelly items – in a bear-safe manner, see what WildSafeBC advises about this. Utilize bear-proof food storage lockers when provided or bring your own bear-proof containers and hang food from a rope system or tree branch in an area inaccessible to bears (at least four metres off the ground and three metres from the nearest tree.)

It’s crucial for us to respect the fact that the backcountry is home to bears and as visitors in their areas, we must do our part to conserve bears and their natural environment. To learn more on

bear safety and what to do if you encounter a bear or if a bear approaches or charges you, please visit the following resources:

BC Parks

WildSafeBC

AdventureSmart

Commercial Bear Viewing Association

Bear Smart – BC Government