Kind words for a much-maligned mammal

  • The wolverine’s frame serves as a life-support system for its miledevouring legs and feet. The victim on display is a mountain beaver.

    Doug Chadwick
  • These captive wolverines are several weeks old.

    Daniel J. Cox

The Wolverine Way
Douglas Chadwick
278 pages, hardcover: $25.95.
Patagonia Books, 2010.

Wolverines do not have a romantic history. Early trappers and pioneers loathed these carnivores for their elusive, gnarly behavior. Tall tales were told about vicious, crotchety beasts hunting humans in the woods, and by the early part of the 20th century, traps and poisons had ravaged the wolverine population.

Today, only around 300 wolverines roam Montana, Idaho and the Yellowstone-Grand Teton area; a few can be found in Washington's North Cascades. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is slated to decide whether to add wolverines to the endangered species list by the end of the year.

The Glacier Wolverine Project, which ran from 2002 to 2007 in Glacier National Park, investigated the animals' relationships with each other as well as their habitat preferences and mating behavior. Douglas Chadwick, a volunteer with the project, takes us with him as he goes wolverine chasing. In the Wolverine Way, he writes, "What seemed odd was that in the 21st century we understood so remarkably little about one of the most intriguing creatures to ever walk the wild."

Project staff witnessed wolverines engaged in rarely seen social behavior -- adults and yearlings patrolling territory together, even playing in the snow. The anecdotes bring the project's science to life. One researcher used an AM/FM radio as a "surrogate human voice" to slow down a rowdy wolverine trying to claw its way out of one of the study's log boxes. The radio noise, combined with packed snow on top of the box, kept the wolverine from breaking loose, allowing the researcher to catch a nap before coming back at dawn to continue his work. The dedicated staff made late-night ski treks in brutal winter cold to outfit wolverines with transmitters. This is truly on-the-ground, hands-on science.

But the wolverines are the real stars of the book. Their audacious character makes The Wolverine Way an astounding account of a truly unique animal.

"If wolverines have a strategy, it's this: Go hard, and high, and steep, and never back down, not even from the biggest grizzly, and least of all from a mountain," Chadwick declares. "Climb everything; trees, cliffs, avalanche chutes, summits. Eat everybody: alive, dead, long-dead, moose, mouse, fox, frog, its still-warm heart or its frozen bones."

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