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.