The perils of secrecy

Is the wolverine, the country’s most enigmatic predator, in danger of extinction, or just misunderstood?

  • Wolverine


Before the world began, according to the native Innu people of eastern Québec and Labrador, humans lived in a hostile place called Tshishtashkamuku. Then Kuekuatsheu built a big boat, into which he put all the species of animals, and there was a great flood. Kuekuatsheu made an island out of rocks and mud and brought the animals to it, and it became the world.

The creator Kuekuatsheu is better known to non-Innu as the wolverine, called Gulo gulo (Latin for “glutton”) by scientists. The wolverine’s mysteriousness, cunning and physical strength earned it a reputation among Canadian tribes as a trickster and link to the spirit world. But the wolverine has already disappeared from Innu lands, and in the United States, its secretive nature has fueled debate over whether the species is endangered or just naturally rare. After 12 years of wrangling with environmentalists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun a status review to finally answer that question and determine if the wolverine should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

To Jeff Copeland of the U.S. Forest Service, who studies wolverines in Glacier National Park, the animal embodies the image of wilderness. “We see the grizzly as defining wilderness, but they can’t stay away from our garbage cans,” he says. “Wolverines don’t get in our garbage or go after our livestock. They stay far away,” avoiding humans. Copeland fears that small, isolated populations of wolverines could “blink out” before scientists even know they’re there.

The mostly nocturnal wolverines are close cousins of ferrets, mink and badgers, but look more like small bears. Sometimes called “skunk bears” because of their striped bodies and the distinctive aroma they use to mark their territory, these stout predators can weigh up to 45 pounds. Their big paws let them travel on snow crusts too thin to support big ungulates, allowing them to overpower moose and caribou that get bogged down. After the snow melts, the omnivorous creatures, which can climb trees and swim, eat anything from berries to eggs to small mammals. They scavenge for carrion throughout the year, and have been reputed to drive cougars, bears and wolves away from their kills.

Wolverines range over territories as large as 600 square miles, preferring arctic tundra, boreal forests and high mountain regions. “They’re an amazing mountaineer. There seems to be no barrier to movement at all,” says Copeland, who once watched a male wolverine climb 5,000 vertical feet on Mount Cleveland in about 90 minutes. But the domain of wolverines has shrunk as that of humans has grown.

Wolverines once roamed most of the Western and Great Lakes states, but now are found only in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. Though as many as 20,000 remain in western Canada, scientists estimate that fewer than 750 live in the lower 48. They blame wolverine declines during the early and mid-20th century on decreasing numbers of large ungulates, wolf control programs using poisoned baits, and fur trapping. Today, winter recreation threatens their reproductive success, and trappers continue to pursue them (a pelt can be bought on eBay for $300).

The elusive wolverine is notoriously challenging to study — and that makes it hard to safeguard under the law. Conservationists have been trying for more than a decade to have the animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, but listing petitions in 1995 and 2003 were rejected because of a lack of data. “Wolverines naturally appear in low densities,” said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when it rejected the 2003 petition. “Lack of sightings does not necessarily mean that wolverine numbers are declining.”

The nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife disagreed, and sued the service in 2005. Last fall, the U.S. District Court of Montana found that the agency was wrong to reject the petition, and ordered it to do an in-depth review of the wolverine’s status by early 2008. Public comments can be submitted until Aug. 6; the agency will also be relying on wolverine data submitted by states, the Forest Service, and researchers, said Diane Katzenberger, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Copeland thinks the best way to protect wolverines is to elevate public awareness. He hopes that if the public learns more – and cares more – about wolverines, land management agencies will put greater resources into studying and conserving the species. “I’m not sure if it’s in need of listing, as much as in need of attention,” he says.

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Jul 17, 2007 03:54 PM

There's an error in this article. It does not list Colorado as a state where wolverine live.

I live 1/2 mile north of Marble, Colorado. Last summer, my husband spotted a wolverine right near our home. No doubt or question about whether it was a wolverine or not, it clearly was.

For more info:

Jul 17, 2007 04:34 PM

Thanks for sharing your experience. There are occasional, unconfirmed sightings in various
states where wolverines are believed to have been extirpated. Jeff Copeland says that it is very common for people to see hoary marmots, and even bear cubs, in Colorado and mistake them for wolverines.

From the link that you give, there is a link to a Colorado wolverine fact sheet that says "...wolverines disappeared in Colorado around the early 1900s... While all agree that the numbershave declined, there is evidence--though it's strictly circumstantial--that suggests wolverines could exist in Colorado."

My story lists only those states where scientists agree there are current, confirmed populations.

Eve Rickert

Nov 02, 2007 12:17 PM

Today many people jump to the conclusion, that animals that you don't see often just must not exsist.  I am a hunter and true conservationist.  I've lived in the colorado rockies for 10 years now ,and still have not seen one live mountain lion.  Yet mountain lion populations are about 5,000 animals which reaks havoc on the deer and elk especially, deer populations. Which could be the reason for the recent decline in deer herd numbers.  Recently some treehuggin ignorant california based organization sued the colorado d.o.w. because they don't have accurate ways of measuring lion numbers.  The c.d.o.w. now sells less licenses because of this.  Now why would you sell less licenses when you have too many lions.  The same can be said about colorado bear hunting where baiting is now illegal and we have to many bears.  Maybe over educated ignorant liberal taught university graduates should just educate themselves about the facts of responsible wildlife management.  All of these bad liberal eccentric ideas are going to lead to the demise of prey animals such as elk and deer.  When deer and elk numbers plumit so will the predators that every liberal wants to protect.  The only way we can keep a healthy eco-system is by hunting all animals including predators to keep their numbers in check.  I don't advocate killing animals that don't have sustainable populations but once we know they do we should hunt them if we love them.  This little tid bit of info comes from GOD through yours truly 



Nov 12, 2007 11:35 AM

This article is not correct. The California Wolverine has been spotted by air in the Southern Cascades in Southern Oregon. It was in the winter and it was spotted by air by wildlife biologists near its high elevation den in a National Forest. In 1990, there was a sighting of a wolverine in California by a wildlife biologist at a high elevation trail on the East side of the Sierras outside of Bishop. In 1992 and 1993, also in CA, Wolverines were spotted at Spotted Lakes in far southeast Yosemite National Park 2 years in a row by a high school biology teacher. Although not a wildlife biologist, he accompanies the local Forest Service biologist on wildlife surveys. There are also regular sightings in the Sierras, but no real verified ones in around 20 years or so. Tracks are also seen sometimes.

Nov 26, 2007 11:15 AM

I know for a fact (from the 7/17/07 comment) that wolverines exist in Colorado! In May 2006 I heard our dog barking in the backyard, I went to investigate and there, about 12-15 feet away from me was what I first thought was a bear or badger, then realized it was neither. It's head was shaped like my Blue Heeler dog's, although it appeared to be larger then the dog(who's about 60-70lb). It just stood there looking at me for about 5 minutes. It had a beautiful, shiny brown coat with rust colored underbody and facial markings, large paws and about 2 1/2 inch claws. Then it turned around, loped slowly down the pasture and back into the woods. I saw this animal about 2:30 in the afternoon. I live in an open area with trees to the South, High Country(9000+ ft elevation) of the Pikes Peak Region of Colorado(west of Woodland Park). I Googled animal pictures to support my thought it was a wolverine and NOT a bear or badger. It was DEFINATELY a wolverine! (This is NOT circumstantial evidence, it is an actual eye witness report from a sober law abiding citizen, I did take a look at photos of hoary marmots, bear cubs & wolverines before wrote this comment & stand by my conclusion that it WAS a wolverine in my backyard)

Dec 27, 2007 10:01 AM

i live in west virgnia near caanvalley in the middle of the monogahelia national forest. i seen a wolverine near our house by a small definately was not a fisher or bear as i see them regulary.supposedly they are not supposed to live here.has anyone ever heard of any sighted here.?

Jul 07, 2008 02:32 PM

We were camping on some private land on the Conejos River over the weekend.  Just a few hundred yards from the Rocky Mountain Lodge I spotted a wolverine in the middle of the meadow.  Horses were pinned not too far from the little creature.  I was not at all sure what I had seen as I was not expecting to see a wolverine.  The next day I talked with friends who had left the campsite about a few hours earlier.  They saw the wolverine run right across the road in front of them.  So that is 2 sightings in the same area.  This was on Sunday, July 6, 2008.