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Down to Earth Keeping the Wolverine Wild

In This Episode

As a volunteer for the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project, journalist and wildlife biologist Douglas H. Chadwick has seen his fair share of fierce creatures. He says the fiercest, though, is the wolverine, a member of the weasel family that takes on grizzly bears and crunches through bones like they’re peanuts. Despite the wolverines’ ferocity, climate change threatens their existence.

Doug is the author of The Wolverine Way. He spoke with Jessica Knoblauch, senior editor at Earthjustice, in February of 2013.

Interview Highlights

Jessica Knoblauch: Tell me about your first encounter with a wolverine.

Doug Chadwick: I was about 16, living in Alaska. I was underground in a precious metal mine and a fellow I met there looked like he had run into a Cuisinart. It turns out that he had trapped a wolverine, clubbed it in the head and then began carrying it back to camp with its paws bound together and looped over his head. As you can probably guess, it turned out the wolverine wasn’t dead. I remember thinking, “A wolverine did that? Oh my god! They’re everything people have said they are and even worse!”

My next encounters were while I was studying mountain goats up in the high country of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. I would see wolverines occasionally. They were lovely; they were free; and they covered the ground like nothing I’d ever seen. But, they also tore up a couple of my tents and pulled every single goose feather out of a couple of sleeping bags just to see if there was any meat to go with the feathers. So, I didn’t know what to make of them!

With that background, I had heard there was a research project starting in Glacier National Park. Being a wildlife reporter and a conservationist, I thought, “I just have to meet these guys and spend some time with them. Maybe I’ll finally learn a bit about wolverine biology.”

Wolverine on the prowl in Glacier National Park. About 30 pounds heavy and three feet long, wolverines have been known to travel more than 20 miles in a day.
Wolverine on the prowl in Glacier National Park. About 30 pounds heavy and three feet long, wolverines have been known to travel more than 20 miles in a day.
National Park Service Photo

I started following wolverine tracks and listening to beats on a radio receiver because some of the wolverines were radio tagged. Still, I didn’t see a wolverine, and yet the stories people were telling me of how much ground these animals covered in a 24-hour period and how they would take on much bigger carnivores to defend a carcass got me really hooked.

Later in the year I traveled with another researcher down a trail just below the Continental Divide, and I looked up and saw the researcher frantically waving at me. I trotted down and about 25 feet away was a mother wolverine with two of her young. They were standing in the middle of a wildflower bouquet lapping water out of a high mountain stream. Then they started playing together. I thought, “Wow, this is a pretty magnificent animal.” I was just sitting there on top of the world with these three rare creatures. My interest just grew from there.

Jessica: Most people are not familiar with wolverines. Why do we know so little about them?

Doug: Until we had GPS technology, I don’t know anybody alive that could keep up with a wolverine for 24 hours. They’re not incredibly fast, but they just go constantly, day and night, and with brief intervals of rest in between. These are 30 pound animals that are only three feet long, and yet they have home ranges the size of a grizzly bear. We’re talking 400 to 500 square miles for males, and about half of that range for females. And, they’re going up peaks and through passes and along cliff faces. I would brag about it for months if I went one-tenth of the distance they traveled in a day.

The other reason we don’t know much about them is because they’re strictly territorial, so you can’t fit very many of these wide-ranging animals into one spot. Even a place as big as Glacier Park, which is 1,500 square miles, only has between 30 and 45 wolverines. That same park has an estimated 340 grizzly bears living in it. You can put an amazing number of bears into this space, but in that same great mountain expanse you can’t have a genetically varied, viable, long-term population of wolverines.

That tells you something very important about wolverines, which is you need connections between existing wild lands for the population as a whole to endure over time. That’s a pretty startling concept because it tells us we need to go about conservation a bit differently. We can’t just go out and say, “Oh, we’ve set aside this mountaintop here and this little range of mountains over here, and so we protected nature.” The wolverine is reminding us of something that really applies to almost all of the big, wide-ranging animals, which is that we must link these preserved areas together so genes can flow across the landscape and so that animals that are reduced in one area can be replenished by a population somewhere else. In other words, if it’s big and connected, it will work. If it’s a series of isolated little reserves, it won’t work.

Jessica: I’ve heard they can eat just about anything …

Doug: There’s plenty of wildlife in the Rockies, but they’re more down on south-facing slopes. So what are the wolverines living on? Well, the answer seems to be food they have cached during the warm months when the big critters are up in the high country. It could be something they killed or something that a cougar or grizzly bear killed months ago. The wolverine carries off pieces of it and stores it in snow banks during the summer or puts pieces under boulders that have cold water running under them. It has food stored in all these natural refrigerators, and it can come back six months later in January or February and grab this stashed food.

They can also crunch bones. They have very strong jaws, and we would find autopsied wolverines whose stomachs felt like they were full of gravel because they were full of bones.

Most importantly, they’ve got this attitude where they will walk up to a grizzly that has a carcass they want and say, “That’s mine.” They start issuing this wolverine growl that sounds like a Harley Davidson mating with a chainsaw, and its real velociraptor quality stuff.

Jessica: So they can be quite ferocious?

Log box-trap in Glacier National Park. The traps were used to temporarily capture wolverines to obtain survey data.
Log box-trap in Glacier National Park. The traps were used to temporarily capture wolverines to obtain survey data.
Wolverine Population Assessment in Glacier NP

Doug: There are lots of stories of how they attack people but no one has ever been able to trace down a true story of that happening. But if you do corner one in a trap, they turn into the wolverine of myth. They’re like caged plutonium. They just keep coming at you, and they’re growling and they’ve got saliva coming out of their mouths, so you can kind of see where the assumption comes from about wolverines being vicious. Imagine you’ve come up on a wolverine that’s been in a trap for a couple of days with tremendous pain. It reacts viciously, like any animal.

We make animals into what we want them to be. We like dangerous critters and carnivores are supposed to be naturally surly. But what we were finding were males associating with their young after they became independent and some of the supposedly independent ones going back and associating with the moms. It wasn’t a lot of socializing, but they were tolerated. They’re also allowed to stay in the parents’ territories after they become independent, so that means they can follow dad or mom around, see where they’re going, where they’re hunting, where the food is.

One time I was doing a story for National Geographic on endangered species, and I went to a place where they were breeding red wolves in captivity. Somebody asked me, “Do you want to come and see something interesting?” Of course I said yes, and the guy leads me to about a half-acre pen where there are a ton of wolverines inside. He asks, “Do you want to go in?” And I’m thinking, “No. [Laughs] A herd of wolverines is not something I want to walk into.” But we did go in, and these guys are rolling around together like puppies and playing with each other in big furry balls and then they come scampering over to see us. They were tremendously inquisitive and social, and they explored us with their little nips and sniffs in our ears.

Right then, I came to the conclusion that there was a lot more to these critters than I’ve heard from all the old frontier tales. One reason I was eager to find out more about them was that, like so many animals, the more we know about wolverines, the more the old image changes. They turn out to have dimensions we never guessed, and they turn out to be way more fascinating.

"The more we know about them, the more the old image changes, and they turn out to have dimensions we never guessed, and they turn out to be way more fascinating."

Jessica: How are wolverines being affected by climate change?

Doug: Females require deep, persistent snowpack to raise their young from February through May, and they don’t tend to tolerate warm temperatures very well. That’s why you won’t find wolverines where the average summer temperature is really hot, even in high mountains.

As scientists model various climate regimes, they have predicted that wolverines are going to lose perhaps a third of their existing range in the U.S. by 2050. And by the end of the century, they’ll have lost almost two-thirds of their existing range to hotter temperatures. That means if we’re going to keep these animals, they need every break we can give them.

When people hear about wildlife and climate change, I think the standard thinking is, “Oh boy, the polar bear and maybe the caribou up in the Arctic are going to have a real problem.” We think of the shrinking ice cap. Now we have an equivalent of the southern polar bear. We have an animal very closely tied to climate, in the Rockies, in the coastal ranges, that’s telling us the same thing.

It’s also good to have an animal that tells us we need to move past the 100-year old model of conservation, which is setting aside isolated parks here and there. They need these large landscapes. And we don’t need to declare a lot more wilderness necessarily. We just have to keep the landscape permeable to wildlife. You have to remember that animals like grizzlies or wolverines didn’t arrive in little isolated museum-like reserves. They arose in big sweeping landscapes with an interchange of genes and interacting predator populations. And so by protecting the wolverine, you reinforce this next phase of conservation, which is thinking bigger and more connected.

A wolverine.
"They're not afraid of anything. They climb peaks that human climbers turn back from. So they're just fearless, and they're tireless, and they got no end of attitude."
Photo courtesy of Dale Pedersen

Jessica: In some ways, it’s hard to get people to care about wolverines because they never see them.

Doug: That’s why I helped talk PBS into doing a special on them. It’s called Chasing the Phantom, and then I wrote a book, The Wolverine Way, to get the word out on these guys. I think it’s a shame to see a species dwindle away just because no one’s paying attention. They’re an inspiring critter. They’re one of the greatest beasts we have to share these ecosystems. They make the mountains taller. They make the whole place more alive, and we can’t lose animals like that just because we’re not paying attention.

Jessica: One wolverine you’ve mentioned in your writings is M3. Can you tell me about him?

Doug: Ah, my hero! M3 is the badass’ badass. He is a big male, chocolate-colored with bronze stripes on his side. As we were tracking him, he kicked out an older male in the territory north of him and expanded his territory until it included a good part of Canada as well as Glacier Park. He was like the Genghis Khan of gulos. [Gulo gulos is the scientific name for wolverines.]

In the course of doing all this, he climbed the highest peak in Glacier, which is 10,460 feet. And he completed the last vertical mile in 90 minutes, up a rock face that looks like it’s the world’s steepest, longest ski jump. People subsequently tried to do what they called the M3 route. They went about a third of the way up and bailed.

Other wolverines have done similar exploits. Why are they doing this? What’s the advantage? I really don’t know why, but I know they do it regularly, and I know it’s a big part of their lifestyle to cross over avalanche slopes and rock walls and steep chutes. That’s one of the reasons I call them inspiring. If you can master the mountains like that, you’re my heroes.

Jessica: In your most recent book, The Wolverine Way, you talk about the wolverine’s approach to life. Can you describe what that is?

A wolverine.
Experts believe there are no more than 300 wolverines left in the contiguous United States.
AY Images / iStockphoto

Doug: It’s basically climb everything, whether it’s trees, cliffs, avalanche chutes; eat everything, whether it’s small, large, alive, dead; and never back down, even from a mountain and least of all from a grizzly bear.

I think they live life as fiercely and relentlessly as anyone has ever lived. Personally, I can’t imagine living in a world where we give up animals like this, these great creations. And discovering things about their family life, and their inquisitiveness, and their capabilities, it just makes it that much more rewarding. What are we saving nature for if we can’t keep critters like this?  

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Down to Earth is an audio podcast series about the news, events and personalities that make up Earthjustice. Hear from attorneys, clients, scientists, and more on Earthjustice litigation.

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"They're one of the greatest beasts we have to share these ecosystems. They're absolutely inspiring. They make the mountains taller. They make the whole place more alive, and we can't lose animals like that just because we're not paying attention."

Doug Chadwick
Journalist & Wildlife Biologist