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for people who care about the West

The perils of secrecy

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

 

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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