Educational Series: Shy, Elusive Wolverines Are Clinging to Survival

Solitary, powerful, and mysterious, wolverines have captured the imaginations of animal lovers around the world like few other creatures. Because of their extremely low population densities and tendency to avoid humans, few people will ever have the chance to see a wild wolverine in its natural habitat. However, whether we realize it or not, our everyday actions affect these magnificent predators and their ability to survive for years to come. Despite their ferocious reputation, wolverines are extremely sensitive to changes in their environment and vulnerable to threats like human-caused climate change. It isn’t too late to ensure they have a future–but to do so, we must act quickly.

With larger males weighing in at up to 40 pounds and reaching as much as four feet long (including their tail), wolverines are the largest land-dwelling members of the Mustelidae, or weasel family. Females are more lightly built than males and about 30% smaller in size. Like other mustelids, wolverines have musk glands that produce a powerful scent, which they use to mark their territories and during courtship. They will hunt for prey including rabbits, rodents, and occasionally larger animals like deer, but also eat birds’ eggs and even berries. If they are unable to find live prey, wolverines are more than willing to scavenge dead animal carcasses, and they have been known to face down larger predators in conflicts over food. With their powerful jaws and sharp teeth, they are adept at cutting through meat and crushing bones. However, they are not actively aggressive unless they feel threatened.

In fact, because they are known to be effective predators and very strong for their size, wolverines have acquired an undeservedly frightening reputation. They are nocturnal, rarely venturing out of hiding during the daytime, and like most wild animals they are naturally shy of humans. Wolverines raised in captivity can be safely handled by their caretakers–although, like any animal, they must be treated with a healthy respect. If they feel threatened or are protecting a carcass, wolverines in the wild have been known to chase off animals as large as bears. However, you do not have to worry about being attacked by a wolverine when hiking or camping in the woods; they pose no threat at all to people, and the reality is that wolverines have far more reason to be afraid of us than we do of them.

Wolverines are creatures of cold climates, found mainly in northern boreal forests and on the Arctic tundra. They are adapted to hunting and finding food in the snow, and unlike many other mammals they stay active all year, not hibernating even in the coldest depths of winter. Although today they live almost exclusively in the far north, wolverines can also thrive high in the mountains in more southerly latitudes and once ranged as far south as the Sierra Nevadas and Colorado in North America and Poland in Europe. However, centuries of hunting, persecution, and habitat loss have reduced their range so that today they are found mainly in Russia, northern Scandinavia, Canada, and Alaska.

In the contiguous United States, smaller wolverine populations have clung to survival or repopulated certain areas, mainly in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Washington’s North Cascades. There also appears to be a small population in Oregon, and isolated sightings in California have lent hope that the animals might be re-establishing themselves in that state after being extirpated by hunters and trappers decades ago. Because they are accustomed to traveling vast distances on foot, wolverines have potential to migrate out of areas that have healthy populations and re-establish themselves in areas where they were long ago driven to local extinction. However, at present there are believed to be no more than 300 wolverines in the entire contiguous U.S., and those few animals face an existential threat to their continued survival.

Hunting has historically been a major pressure on wolverine populations in large parts of their range; because they sometimes “steal” prey from hunters’ traps, they have been seen as a pest animal and persecuted mercilessly. However, today the biggest threat wolverines face is not hunting, but climate change. Wolverines only do well in cold temperatures, and females require deep snow in which to dig the burrows where they raise their young. As weather patterns around the world shift because of climate change caused by the buildup of carbon emissions in the atmosphere, vast parts of wolverines’ current range may become uninhabitable for them. Wolverines in the lower 48 United States are particularly at risk, and climate change could reverse the tentative gains these persistent creatures have made toward reestablishing themselves south of the Canadian border.

Also making wolverines vulnerable is the fact they require extremely large territories and live at very low population densities. The fact that these animals’ range still includes much of North America and Eurasia’s more northerly latitudes can be misleading, because even very large geographic areas can only support a relatively small number of wolverines. They are highly territorial, with researchers in Alaska documenting male wolverine home ranges between 200 and 260 square miles in size, with female territories reaching up to a slightly smaller 115 square miles. They travel widely within these huge territories, with individual wolverines frequently covering as much as 15 miles in a single day.

Their extensive territory needs mean wolverines have never been common animals, even in the absence of human disturbance, and in an age of climate change some populations are in danger of being squeezed out of existence. Because of this, environmental groups have been petitioning for years to have wolverines listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a move that would guarantee a more coordinated, focused approach to preserving their habitat. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly denied them this protection, most recently in a 2020 decision.

Whether or not wolverines are eventually listed as threatened, the best thing we can do to help them survive the threats of the 21st century is to act on climate change by reducing our use of fossil fuels and slowing the buildup of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Each animal lover can help wolverines–and the countless other species threatened by climate change–by reducing their personal carbon footprint. However, even more important is that we push for policies that incentivize renewable energy and curb the use of fossil fuels at the local, state, or federal level. Urging your elected representatives to support climate action is perhaps the most effective step you can take to prevent wolverines from losing even more habitat.

In the public’s imagination, wolverines are often painted as ruthlessly ferocious, eager to pick a fight with creatures many times their size. In reality, while they certainly are formidable predators, wolverines are no more likely than most other animals to behave aggressively unless they are provoked. Yet, while they pose no danger to people, our addiction to fossil fuels has put this magnificent species at imminent risk of extinction over much of their range. If wolverines are to survive into the future they will need not our fear, but help.

Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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