Wolverines are difficult to spot in B.C. because of their low numbers and elusive nature. Photo: Gordon MacPherson

Wolverines are difficult to spot in B.C. because of their low numbers and elusive nature. Photo: Gordon MacPherson

Wolverine research study boosted by citizen science

The study looked at the true population of wolverines in the South Columbia mountains

Wildlife biologist and Selkirk College ecology instructor Doris Hausleitner has always had a penchant for species that are considered something of an underdog, those without champions to promote their cause. It’s no wonder then that the elusive wolverine captured her imagination years ago when she was approached by friend and colleague Andrea Kortello to start the South Columbia Mountains Wolverine Project.

“Wolverines intrigue me so much,” said Hausleitner. “You go to the hardest-to-reach places and you’ll see the tracks of a wolverine bagging peaks and it looks like it’s doing it for fun. It really is awe-inspiring the amount of ground that they can travel in a day and the amount of terrain that they go over. Every time I think I know everything about a wolverine they’re always surprising me with what they can do.”

Funded by the Columbia Basin Trust, Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program, Habitat Conservation Trust Fund and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative with in-kind provided by the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, the South Columbia Mountains Wolverine Project started out using non-invasive genetic sampling of wolverine to estimate abundance and connectivity, and unmanned aerial vehicles to determine denning of wolverine. In recent years, the project has relied on citizen science observations collected through the online Wolverine Watch platform, which has been a wildly successful partnership.

“We’ve combined habitat modelling and our former work with genetics with the citizen science contribution to decide where we’re going to fly our drone and look specifically for dens or reproductive areas,” said Hausleitner. “All of the reproductive areas that we’ve found, all of them have been informed by citizen science. It’s huge, it’s massive, it’s really a game changer.”

A species of concern in B.C., wolverine are found at very low density on the landscape (two per 1,000 square kilometres — lower than bears) and cover vast areas. As a result, data collection is challenging, and in the South Columbia mountains in particular there was a large knowledge gap.

“One thing that our research really helped to illuminate is that wolverine are not as abundant as we thought they would be in our region,” said Hausleitner.

Compounding this concern was the lack of harvest limits on wolverines combined with substantial barriers to wolverine movement such as the network of roads in the South Columbia mountains.

“If there’s an area that is heavily trapped, in a perfect world it would be OK because the population would be fed by other wolverines from other populations but if there are barriers to dispersal, you could just harvest until they’re gone and they won’t be replenished and that’s what we were worried we would see happening.”

Their team shifted to a “drones and dens” approach when they realized their focus had to be on making a direct conservation impact and that the reproductive piece was key to increasing their population. With low reproductive output to begin with, wolverine are vulnerable when they den in mid-February to mid-May at their reproductive sites, to which they have fidelity and return every year if they can.

“We thought if we could conserve just those areas we’ll probably have an impact on the conservation of the species,” Hausleitner said, “and so that’s where the citizen science piece comes in. If we could get other people to start seeing, being our eyes on the landscape, we’ll have a better idea of what’s happening and we’ll have a better idea of where wolverine are.”

To engage the public in their study area, the team joined forces with Wolverine Watch, started by Mirjam Barrueto and used by a collaboration of scientists in B.C. and Alberta to collect citizen science observations on wolverine. Hundreds of sightings are collected each year with reports coming from as far as upstate New York, Alaska and the Yukon, and every single sighting is mapped and used in research, and the data is shared with whoever can use it.

“Every time we find a wolverine den, we take steps. If it’s on Crown land we apply for conservation status, if there’s one in the park we’ve worked with provincial parks to create a wildlife management zone for it. We take each one and see if we can do something tangible. Putting aside one small denning area at a time, it feels like we’re doing something.”

Another tangible outcome was a research article the team helped co-author that was published in November 2019 suggesting wolverine trapping wasn’t sustainable in Southern Canada. In August 2020, the updated 2020-2022 Hunting and Trapping Regulations Synopsis for B.C. was released and included a ban on wolverine trapping within the Kootenay and Columbia regions.

“It’s nice to see that science-based management, it’s exciting,” Hausleitner said.

She admits she had no idea eight years ago that she would still be skiing to remote locations trying to find traces of wolverines, or that the project would attract the interest of so many people recreating in the backcountry. She chalks it up to the wolverine’s elusive appeal.

“I think people like to have a little mystery and be in awe of something, like an animal out there being bad ass because they can. I don’t know if we spend time doing that enough in our lives.”

Visit the Wolverine Watch website to learn more: https://www.wolverinewatch.org/

Just Posted

North Okanagan business Hytec Kohler set up a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Spallumcheen plant Friday, May 14. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
More than half of eligible adults in Interior Health vaccinated

Over 365,000 vaccine doses have been administered throughout the Interior Health region

New Border Bruins owner Dr. Mark Szynkaruk reps team colours with his young sons and wife Tracey. Photo courtesy of the Grand Forks Border Bruins
KIJHL’s Border Bruins sold to Grand Forks doctor

The league announced the sale Friday, May 14

The signs at the three entrances to Nelson were designed and carved by the late Art Waldie in 1968 and then replicated and replaced in 2001. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
Nelson’s welcome signs: have your say on the new design

Online ThoughtExchange process gathers opinions and sorts for common themes

Nelson’s Soundserious perform online May 15. Photo: Submitted
Nelson’s Soundserious want you to lighten up

The trio streams original music from the Capitol Theatre on May 15

Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce executive director Tom Thomson. Photo: Tyler Harper
NEWS AND VIEWS: Nelson’s Chamber helps businesses connect with new talent

Tom Thomson writes about an event scheduled for May 20

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day rolling average in white, to May 12, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. preparing ‘Restart 2.0’ from COVID-19 as June approaches

Daily infections fall below 500 Friday, down to 387 in hospital

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

On Friday, May 14 at Meadow Gardens Golf Club in Pitt Meadows, Michael Caan joined a very elite club of golfers who have shot under 60 (Instagram)
Crowds at English Bay were blasted with a large beam of light from an RCMP Air-1 helicopter on Friday, May 14. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marc Grandmaison
Police enlist RCMP helicopter to disperse thousands crowded on Vancouver beach

On Friday night, police were witness to ‘several thousand people staying well into the evening’

People shop in Chinatown in Vancouver on Friday, February 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver community leaders call for action following 717% rise in anti-Asian hate crimes

‘The alarming rise of anti-Asian hate in Canada and south of the border shows Asians have not been fully accepted in North America,’ says Carol Lee

Sinikka Gay Elliott was reported missing on Salt Spring Island on Wednesday, May 12. (Courtesty Salt Spring RCMP)
Body of UBC professor found on Salt Spring Island, no foul play suspected

Sinikka Elliott taught sociology at the university

The first Black judge named to the BC Supreme Court, Selwyn Romilly, was handcuffed at 9:15 a.m. May 14 while walking along the seawall. (YouTube/Screen grab)
Police apologize after wrongly arresting B.C.’s first Black Supreme Court Justice

At 81 years old, the retired judge was handcuffed in public while out for a walk Friday morning

Dr. Steve Beerman, of Nanaimo, shows off his Dr. David Bishop Gold Medal, awarded for distinguished medical service. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
Queen presents Vancouver Island doctor with award for global drowning prevention

Dr. Steve Beerman receives Royal Life Saving Society’s King Edward VII Cup at virtual ceremony

Tim Miller is selling his 76-foot steel bridge from his property in Burton, B.C. The bridge originates from the railway in Revelstoke. (Contributed)
For sale: a 100-ton 19th century bridge by Arrow Lakes

Bridge is in Burton, B.C. and advertised for $40,000

Most Read