Wither the wolverine 

Montana remains the only state in the Lower 48 to allow wolverine trapping. As climate change and diminishing habitat push it to the brink, that could finally change.

Trotting across the frozen lake, he crossed a barely noticeable trail, rounded the corner and climbed into a wild glacier basin in the north-central part of Glacier National Park, a drainage that sees only a handful of people any given year. His broad feet easily kept his stout body—about the size of a small dog—above the snow, and he made good time pushing up the draw towards one of the most dramatic vertical reliefs in the region.

Soon he was above treeline, and the massif towering a vertical mile above him blocked the weak mid-winter sun. To his left, front and right, he saw nothing but blinding white snowfields that grew steeper in all directions except down-valley, all of them ending in rotten limestone cliffs far above his grapefruit-sized head.

Confronted with a terrain challenge, or perhaps a tempting odor, he paced back and forth for a few minutes, but eventually found his route through the cliffs and ice. Facing the mountain head-on, he climbed the line directly.

He reached the summit just after noon, the temperature hovering right below freezing. Although he wasn’t cold he didn’t waste any time at the peak. Standing atop Mount Cleveland, Glacier’s highest peak at 10,466 feet—there’s not a higher point within 100 miles—he didn’t take in the view, he didn’t pull out a Clif Bar and he certainly didn’t sign the summit register.

Instead, the wolverine known as “M3”—scientist-speak for the GPS-collared “Male No. 3”—quickly dropped down the other side, crossed a 20-foot-wide swath of 5,000-mile-long clearcut on the U.S.-Canada border, and continued northward into the night, steadily, fully unaware that his recent summit, the first of its kind ever recorded, would soon elevate his status to that of best-known wolverine in the world.

Although, that’s not saying much considering how little is known about these rare, elusive and mostly ignored animals. According to wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland, the bulk of what people “know” about the wily creature is based in legend—they’re strong beyond belief; they’re ferociously aggressive; they’re more odorous than skunks. Historically they’ve been referred to as a devil, demon and miscreant. Even its Latin name, gulo gulo, has its roots in “glutton.”

“These myths are the result of the overactive imagination of north-country trappers, but they persist a half-millenium later,” he says. Outside of the myths and perhaps a comic book character, the public knows very little about the animal, in large part because of their extremely low density and tendency to avoid people.

It’s also a result of their numbers. According to a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) report, about 500 wolverines live in the Lower 48, most of them in Montana. And many researchers—including Copeland—believe that number is wildly optimistic. The FWS based its report not on actual counts but on the animal’s “potential available habitat.” In fact, very little research has been done to count wolverines accurately.

But even if the FWS number is correct, it’s a total far below what many believe is necessary to provide for a healthy wolverine future. Despite being faced with dwindling habitat as a result of climate change and new development, Montana remains the only state in the Lower 48 to allow trapping of the animal—the single biggest cause of wolverine deaths, according to Copeland.

In hopes of changing this, conservation groups have twice attempted to secure protection for the animals under the Endangered Species Act. Both times they’ve been rebuffed, first in 1995 and again in March of this year. The latest denial surprised many, given the FWS’s own numbers asserting so few of the animals live in the Lower 48.

“Five hundred is a fairly impressive number, but it’s not empirically based,” Copeland says in his Missoula office. “It’s probably a lot closer to 250.”

Crunching new data
If anyone is qualified to question agency numbers it’s Copeland. Based out of the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, he has studied wolverines since 1992, both for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and for Idaho Fish and Game. He’s a co-founder of The Wolverine Foundation, a science-based organization looking to “elevate the wolverine’s management status” through research and professional and public outreach. He’s one of only a half-dozen wolverine researchers in the entire world.

For the past five years, Copeland, 57, has served as the principal investigator on the Wolverine Population Assessment in Glacier National Park, an in-park, multi-agency survey that tracked a significant percentage of the park’s wolverines and identified their dens. The project’s field research ended in January, but biologists continue to crunch the existing data.

During the survey, Copeland and his team lured 28 wolverines (13 males, 15 females) into burly log traps baited with dead (often frozen) beavers. After sedating the animals, they implanted radio transmitters and slipped GPS collars around their thick necks.

“What we captured in Glacier is not statistically different than 100 percent [of the study area’s population],” says Copeland. Wolverines are not particularly “trap-shy,” and as much as they try to outsmart the snares, they have a hard time saying no to a dead beaver. This means the same animals are often caught again and again.

This gives the researchers tremendous access to the animals’ GPS collars, like the one that recorded M3’s location every five minutes, and the resultant information has enlightened understanding of wolverines exponentially in just a few short years.

“There’s no other place in the world that provides an opportunity to see wolverines like Glacier National Park,” Copeland says. “There’s just nothing like it.”

The park hosts the densest population of wolverines—40–45 total animals, spread out across the park’s million acres—in North America. Even so, most of the million acres is difficult to access, which leaves wolverines quite a bit of terrain to inhabit away from human disturbance. The park is even less visited in the winter months, and that’s when researchers set out on skis, snowshoes or by aircraft to conduct their study.

Wolverines prefer the cold and snow, living almost exclusively in either tundra or subalpine environs. Their habitat is “circumpolar,” or “around the north pole,” with distributions throughout the northern tiers of Asia, Europe and North America. Scientists quibble over whether one or two subspecies exist, but if so, differences between them are slight.

In the northern part of its region, the entire landscape is suitable habitat. In Alaska, trappers harvest 500 annually and Canada’s populations are believed to be healthy. In Montana (and to a lesser degree Wyoming and Idaho), wolverine habitat extends essentially in finger-like peninsulas southward from Canada. They reside primarily at elevations between 6,500 and 8,500 feet, according to the FWS, an elevation band that limits their potential range and is composed of “relatively unproductive niches.”

What makes conservationists and researchers so frustrated about legal trapping is that natural elements already put wolverines in the Lower 48 in jeopardy.

Suitable habitat
Two problems exist beyond trapping for Montana’s current wolverine population: increased development that infringes upon the animals’ suitable habitat, and climate change.

For instance, arguably sustainable wolverine populations reside in a handful of select “core habitat” areas like the Bitterroot, Bob Marshall and Absaroka/Beartooth Wilderness areas, while smaller populations also persist in a number of isolated mountain ranges, like Montana’s Centennial, Anaconda and Sapphire mountains. For these wolverines to connect to other populations, they have to cross connective corridors currently obstructed by interstates, housing developments and other manmade impediments. This creates a patchwork of cut-off “island populations” of wolverines, decreasing the likelihood of gene-sharing and increasing the risk of further inbreeding.

“If you look at the landscape in the pre-’80s, everything in the winter was de facto wilderness,” says Copeland, noting the change.

A need for deep snow further limits a wolverine’s range, as females exclusively build their reproductive dens where deep snow persists into May. This allows them to raise their young, or “kits,” in dens protected against thermal loss and larger predators like bears, wolves and mountain lions. Such areas are becoming increasingly rare.

Warmer temperatures not only mean fewer options for mothers to den, but also causes more competition in deep snow areas. As backcountry recreation has become more popular and affordable, skiers and snowmobilers push farther and farther into the backcountry, and today regularly enter critical wolverine denning areas that just recently were completely devoid of people in the winter.

Due to the once remote characteristics of den sites, only two had ever been located and studied in the Lower 48 prior to Copeland’s Glacier study. By that study’s completion, however, the number had grown to 23, an unprecedented success rate that makes it difficult for Copeland to leave a research project situated in such beautiful, productive habitat.

“Really, it breaks my heart,” he says. “If I were king of the world I would take over the Logan Pass Visitor Center and turn it into the North American Center for Wolverine Research.”

Trapped in the past
Despite researchers’ existing concerns about wolverine habitat and dwindling populations in the Lower 48, Montana is the only state that continues to permit wolverine trapping. Residents can purchase a $20 license for the right to catch the animal from December 1 to February 15.

In June, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), the state agency regulating Montana’s furbearing animals, reduced their “tentative proposed quota recommendations” by one wolverine this year, dropping it from 10 to nine. That comment period ended in July, but just this week FWP reduced their proposal even further, FWP’s Mike Thompson told the Independent.

“We’re allowing for a grand total of five,” says Thompson, a regional wildlife manager and 28-year veteran of the agency.

FWP will lay out its final wolverine management plan at its August 5 meeting.

FWP has four “wolverine management units,” or areas where trapping can occur. Those areas are roughly defined as the Bob Marshall Wilderness (WMU1), the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness (WMU2), the Absaroka/Beartooth Wilderness (WMU3) and an area that includes the connective linkages between these three (WMU4). Current proposed quotas for the WMUs are three, one, one and zero wolverines, respectively.

All these regions will also have an additional “sub-quota” of one female, says Thompson. To ensure no more are legally taken, FWP’s “Furbearer Trapping Regulations” require trappers to “personally report their wolverine harvest within 24 hours”—although since trappers aren’t required to check their traps until season’s end, some argue that this is statistically ineffective. Regardless, FWP closes the season 48 hours after the target quota is reported. This means the harvest quota might be reduced to as few as one animal per region in WMU1, WMU2 and WMU3.

“As soon as a female is caught, we shut it down, even if it’s the first one,” says Thompson, adding that FWP incorporated the latest research to recommend this quota.

“Every day, there’s more information to help us connect the dots,” he says. “We now actually have numbers in front of us that allow us to calculate harvest rates that are sustainable and even allow them to grow.”

Critical to this philosophy is WMU4, the connective area where suitable habitat exists but core populations don’t. No wolverines will be harvested in these areas this year, at least not legally.

“We want to facilitate the dispersing of individuals through these connective corridors,” Thompson says. “Wolverines are a population who functions at low abundance, because they’re so habitat-limited. To allow genetic diversity to continue, and to allow any vacant potential home ranges to be populated, we’ve set the quota at zero.”

Trappers are not happy with the proposal. Don Bothwell, director of the Montana Furbearer Conservation Alliance, leads a “more than 50” member group in representing trappers as Montana continues to craft it’s wildlife management regulations. In 12 years of personally trapping, he’s snared a mink, beaver, muskrats, coyotes, bobcats and a wolf. Although he doesn’t personally trap wolverines, Bothwell believes that the reduced FWP quota is an indicator of things to come.

“We have a sense of foreboding that this is the camel’s nose under the tent. Species by species, these guys want to pick them off,” he says. “But it’s not in any trapper’s best interest, or even in our desire, to extirpate any species. It’s just not what we want.”

By historically harvesting what Bothwell says is “under four percent” of the state’s wolverine population, trappers have even encouraged the state’s wolverine population to grow, and he thinks the proposed quota reduction to five animals is unwarranted.

“Our organization supports the quota of nine, but not the five,” he says. “That’s overkill, and we don’t need that.”

A`nja Hèister also believes the five wolverine quota is overkill, but for a different reason. As director of Footloose Montana, a group dedicated to trap-free public lands, she’s frustrated with what she calls a “good-old-boy network” of consumptive wildlife users on the FWP commission.

“If quotas were based on science, FWP would have reduced the wolverine quotas to zero,” she says. But “trappers are in bed with wildlife officials.”

Instead of having a wildlife commission based entirely of hunters, Heister would like to see some “wildlife watchers” represent the interests of the animals.

“The responsibility of our species, since we don’t have an ecological niche like the wolverine, is to do everything we can to preserve other animals and their habitat,” she says. “Ending this thing called trapping is something we can do about that.”

Most conservationists believe, regardless of one’s opinion of trapping as a sport, that the wolverine numbers are simply too low to justify anything but a zero quota.

“The evidence shows that there are simply too few wolverines left to continue trapping, yet the federal agency responsible for protecting rare wildlife has elected to do nothing,” says David Gaillard, a Bozeman-based representative with Defenders of Wildlife.

After FWS ruled against granting the wolverine Endangered Species protection just two months ago, Defenders joined Earth Justice and eight other conservation groups in giving the Department of the Interior notice that it will sue within 60 days if the agency fails to “remedy violations of the Endangered Species Act” committed when they refused to list the wolverine as endangered.

In it’s denial, FWS determined that wolverines in the Lower 48 didn’t warrant protection, primarily because a healthy population of 1,500 or more is still thought to exist just north of the border in western Canada. “[T]he contiguous United States population of the North American wolverine is not a significant portion of the range of the North American subspecies and does not warrant further consideration under the Act,” says the decision.

This doesn’t sit well with Gaillard.

“With the wolverine decision, the Bush administration is essentially outsourcing responsibility for our wildlife to other countries,” he says. Comparing wolverines to bald eagles, gray wolves and grizzlies, Gaillard continues, “All of [these animals] may have vanished from the Lower 48 if the same reckless policy were applied to them.”

Caught in the middle
Regardless of the wolverine’s true numbers, even the FWS admits in its refusal to provide Endangered Species Act protection that wolverine populations will be “at risk of extinction” if nothing is done to protect them and their habitat. In fact, much of the agency’s wording indicates the need for such a heightened level of protection.

Copeland agrees.

“It’s hard to read the finding and reconcile their decision to not list,” he says.

When explaining their methodology for determining wolverine populations in the Lower 48, the FWS called its assertion “Almost certainly an overestimate,” admitting that assessing populations is “inherently difficult.” But that doesn’t get them off the hook with Copeland.

“I believe [the decision] was based on policy,” he says. “You can make of that what you want, but it’s probably not a place I want to go [as a research scientist.]”

Copeland would rather leave policy decisions to the policy makers, but he does feel this attempt to provide the wolverines with protection has a better chance of success than the prior attempts.

“This suit has quite a bit more substance because there’s been a lot of new data and new papers published since the last ruling,” he says. “It’s a much more compelling argument this time around.”

That’s not to say Copeland is averse to trapping as a sport. He grew up catching fox, mink, beaver and muskrat, and credits it with helping his understanding of the natural world. But now he sees it as personally “unnecessary,” and specifically counterproductive to wildlife researchers studying a rare animal.

Multiple projects have lost heavily studied wolverines to sport trappers. During the recent Glacier study, for instance, researchers watched the young adult known as M8 for years. He became the first-ever observed “disperser,” a transient wolverine compelled to move out of a core area to set up his own home territory. He traveled out of the park, across 100 miles of mountains, farmland and highways, before wandering into the Kootenai National Forest, where he was legally taken by a trapper.

Another research subject from the same project was legally shot by a different trapper just outside the park’s east side. Other studies have also lost collared or implanted animals to trappers, including a remarkable wolverine near Yellowstone named M304.

Researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society captured M304 in January 2001. They fitted him with a radio transmitter and a GPS collar, and over the next three years they observed him as he traveled throughout multiple mountain ranges in Idaho and Wyoming. During one 42-day period he covered at least 588 miles, visiting Pocatello, Idaho, West Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. But in January 2004, M304 moved north, into the Centennial Range of southcentral Montana, where a trapper legally caught him.

Blink and they’re gone
Part of what endears wolverines to scientists, conservationists and trappers alike is the animal’s legendary toughness and unrelenting nature.

“The hallmark of the wolverine is its insatiable need to keep moving,” says Copeland, and they do so, day and night. Following historic routes, recent research shows that wolverines commonly cover 100 miles in a week, averaging two to three miles-per-hour, often regardless of topography.

A 1996 study conducted by Copeland in central Idaho indicated that wolverines roam home ranges more than 540 miles square, with males moving about the territories of less mobile females.

Their ferocity is even more revered. For instance, in his essay documenting the travels of M3, Whitefish author and wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick wrote of the animal’s unprecedented aggression once trapped in the Glacier study.

“Most wolverines are explosive inside a trap,” Chadwick wrote. “[But] M3 went completely nuclear…They once found him ripping and chewing his way into a trap, not to reach the bait but to get at a rival, old M6, who had been caught earlier.”

But the wolverines’ innate tenacity may not be enough to save the species in the Lower 48. It needs help. Outlawing wolverine trapping in Montana is a step. Getting listed under the Endangered Species Act may be another. But even then, what’s the likelihood that this snow-dependent critter will find suitable habitat when faced with rural development and a changing climate?

Copeland, who admits he stands to receive increased funding and interest should the wolverine get listed, would rather see change at the state level before the situation is handed to the feds. A self-described “former state agency man,” he believes that listing, and the resultant movement of management from the state to federal level, represents a state’s failure to manage a species successfully.

“I’d rather focus the resources on the animal,” he says. “But if the animal is not listed, it will blink off the radar, just like right now. And then nobody will have to care.”

Route of the wolverine
Following in the footsteps of M3

Like perhaps most people who have heard about M3, I first learned about his mountaineering feats in a Patagonia clothing company catalog published earlier this year, in a supplemental piece written by Whitefish author and wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick. In his environmental essay, “The Wolverine Way,” Chadwick outlines his experience volunteering for a radio-tracking study in Glacier National Park, which gave him firsthand experience with the elusive animals and M3’s incredible climb.

Despite taking dozens of trips into the park’s high country over the past decade, my personal contact with wolverines has been rare. I’ve witnessed them twice, both in classic situations—scampering away in remote snowfields at elevations between 7,000 and 8,000 feet. Apparently, the same types of terrain—remote, snowy high country—appeal to both wolverines and mountaineers.

As I read Chadwick’s essay I couldn’t help consider the route’s potential for a climbing party. My two primary sources of climbing information, www.summitpost.com and J. Gordon Edwards’ seminal Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park, indicated a human had never climbed the route. It got me to thinking: If a wolverine could do it, could I?

If nothing else, attempting the summit would help me appreciate the animal’s distinct characteristics. As the largest terrestrial member of the weasel family, wolverines are considered to be a “large carnivore”—but they are by no means large. A big male typically weighs about 30 pounds. Females average about 10 pounds less. They’re typically about three feet long, including tail, and they rise only 14–16 inches at the shoulder. By Missoula dog standards, they wouldn’t even be considered “medium.”

In other words, humans are significantly larger than even the biggest wolverine. We have a longer reach, opposable thumbs, the ability to reason and pick our way through the park’s infamously rotten cliffs. So, I figured, if a wolverine can climb this route, it simply must “go.” With the right team, enough time and proper preparation, I figured a “new” route, the “Route of the Wolverine,” could be sent on Glacier’s highpoint.

It’s worth noting that Mount Cleveland is notorious among human mountaineers. The fame doesn’t come from its location (although it’s at least 13 miles from any American trailhead, a boat can get you closer if you approach through Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park), or from any particular technical challenge (there’s a “standard” walk-up route). Rather, the mountain’s reputation among mountaineers comes primarily for a deadly accident that happened in the winter of 1969, when five of Montana’s most promising young climbers were swept to their death in a massive avalanche during an unprecedented attempt on it’s precipitous north face. This accident, one of the deadliest in Montana climbing history, was well documented in McKay Jenkins’ 2001 book, The White Death: Tragedy and Heroism in an Avalanche Zone.

Despite the caution inherent in The White Death, I set about planning the adventure, calling potential teammates and spending late nights simul-flying about the terrain in Google Earth. Floating the idea among alpinist friends, I heard many things.

“I once spooked a wolverine and saw him sprint up a cliff I definitely wouldn’t have climbed without a rope,” said one accomplished mountaineer known to push his limits and not known to use a rope.

“You’ll have to do it in the same time as the wolverine,” taunted Pauly Donaldson, another highly qualified climber and professional rigger. I had to shrug his idea off, knowing that matching the animal’s pace—M3 climbed the vertical mile in 90 minutes—would simply be impossible.

So after late-season snows thwarted two early-season bids in May and June, I finally gathered a team of four. We were all longtime friends, all solid alpinists, all in mountain shape. Arriving in the park July 16, GPS coordinates in hand, we attempted to complete the “Route of the Wolverine” as part of a four-day trip. One day for the approach and one for the climb, plus a weather day just in case, and a day to walk out. A high-pressure system hung over the region as the day approached, and all appeared to be on track for success.

Entering at the Chief Mountain Trailhead in the absolute northeastern corner of the park, and just yards from the Canadian border, we breezed down the first 10 miles of trail in three hours and started to bushwhack toward a high climber’s campsite. In order to get a good look at the route, we wanted to arrive at the base of M3’s route while it was still light and cook our dinner in its shadow. That would allow us to have our first real view of the route a day before the ascent.

But leaving the trail in the footsteps of M3’s GPS coordinates, we immediately encountered a brutal tangle of willow, downed trees, raging creek crossings, alder thickets and other nearly impenetrable obstacles. An hour later, we’d progressed only about a quarter mile, forced at times to crawl along small-animal trails, with four-day packs, and for not insignificant distances. Four brutal hours of bushwhacking later, the sky was growing dark and the face was still out of sight. When we finally came across a break in the vegetation large enough to pitch a tent, we crashed in a lousy, mosquito-infested hole, completely unable to see the next day’s objective.

We rose the next day at 5:30 a.m., slammed some coffee and set out into the brush towards our objective, the Whitecrow Glacier headwall. After a few minutes of bushwhacking, we began to see glimpses of our objective. Strolling into a meadow an hour later, we soon found ourselves kicking steps into receptive, late-June snow.

The early morning sun lit the mountain’s eastern face in a warm glow and continued softening the snow beautifully. We were now finally able see the route top to bottom. Although we were fully prepared with ice axes and crampons, our stomachs dropped at what we saw. It didn’t look good. Yawning cracks had opened up in multiple locations in the snowfield where sun-heated rock had melted moats in the snow. Other than the massive detached cornice hanging off the true summit still 3,000 feet above us, the mid-summer snow appeared to be stable and doable. But suspect snowbridges, combined with fears of sketchy transitions between ice and rock, indicated the route was no longer “in”—by all appearances, it needed more snow coverage if it was to “go.”

It seemed to be time for a logistics pow-wow, so we stopped to eat breakfast and dissect the route, section by section. After much discussion, we all agreed that only one safe option remained, and that involved turning around. Rejected, we boot-skied back down the snow, traversing above some of the nasty jungle via high goat trails before dropping back down into camp. After quietly loading our packs, we made like wolverines and began to crawl back through the alder tangle, across the creeks and through the maze of dead-end trails, back to the safe, easy travel found on park service trails.

I remembered my first interaction with wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland. He was giving a lecture on wolverines at the University of Montana, and I told him about my idea of approaching Cleveland via the “Route of the Wolverine.” It was something he’d already considered.

“We’ve often talked about going after the egos of these mountaineers,” he said half-jokingly, hinting at a way to entice thrill-seekers to follow GPS-tracked wolverines in races that would help raise awareness of the animal, as well as much-needed funding. “We do everything but have bake sales to raise money to study these animals.”

Although my climbing party fully enjoyed the trip, none of us will be returning, and as of press time the “Route of the Wolverine” remains unclimbed.

—Chad Harder
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