Wolverine at live trap in Rainbow Lake, Alberta., Matt Scrafford/WCS Canada
Wolverine at live trap in Rainbow Lake, Alberta. © Matt Scrafford/WCS Canada

Unlikely allies work together to save wolverines


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Matthew Scrafford
Wolverine Conservation Scientist

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Wolverines Boreal

Published

2020-01-21

I was living in Rainbow Lake, Alberta and studying wolverine ecology for my PhD at the University of Alberta when I got a call from a local trapper.

By Matt Scrafford

I was living in Rainbow Lake, Alberta and studying wolverine ecology for my PhD at the University of Alberta when I got a call from a local trapper. He told me that he had something to show me and that I needed to get out to his cabin quickly. I finished breakfast, gathered my gear and drove the snowmobile out to his trapper cabin, which was situated in a large open area where two old logging roads crossed. He was outside when I arrived, readying his gear for checking his traps that day. He smiled and motioned for me to look inside the shed next to his cabin. I walked up to the shed and peered in but I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. He said I should look a bit closer. I walked in further and heard a rustle behind an old barbecue. I then heard the deep guttural grumble of a wolverine.

The local critters like the trapper’s cabin because there is always something stinky around – whether it be beaver carcasses, moose bones or lure. This wolverine followed his nose into the shed. We went into his cabin to discuss the situation over a cup of coffee – this is how we did some of our best thinking in the field. We could tag the wolverine for our research project, but we had no idea how long it had been in the shed and didn’t want to extend its confinement. So we instead finished our coffee and made a path for the wolverine to get out of the shed. We left the cabin to check his traps and by the time we got back the wolverine was gone.

It’s not every day that you find a wolverine hanging around your shed. Wolverines are a naturally rare species that exists at densities of 4-8 individuals/1000 km2. Wolverines populations appear to be healthy in the core of their range in places like Rainbow Lake, Alberta. But as you move away from that core to the southern boreal forests and mountains, wolverines are struggling to persist in the face of ever expanding human activity. Wolverines have been put forward for listing in the contiguous U.S. under the Endangered Species Act. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, meanwhile, considers wolverines to be a Species of Special Concern because their naturally low densities are threatened by climate change, industrial development, and trapping. Wolverines in Ontario are listed as Threatened under the Ontario Species at Risk Act because of their low numbers in the province.

Trappers and wildlife biologists are not the most likely partners in wolverine conservation efforts. Trappers kill wildlife for their fur whereas wildlife biologists study them. Trappers value bush skills and physical work whereas wildlife biologists place value on reading, writing and analytical skills. However, it is my experience that trappers and wildlife biologists have much in common. Both share a passion for wildlife and the outdoors, both value wildlife diversity, and both are concerned about changes they are seeing in wildlife populations as a result of human activities.

Trappers and wildlife biologists bring different skills to wolverine research. Trappers have fine-tuned local knowledge from years (often decades) of traveling around their trap line. They are considered by many to be the “eyes and ears of the bush”. Wildlife biologists often do not have this local knowledge, but they do have a broad understanding of wildlife ecology and ecosystem function across wider areas. Moreover, they know how to design studies to evaluate changes identified by trappers so that problems can be pinpointed and conservation solutions developed.

Trappers and wolverines have a complicated relationship. Wolverines are scavengers that will often raid a trapper’s set and steal bait or the animal that was caught in the trap. Many trappers tell me tales of wolverines destroying long lines of marten boxes they put in trees because the wolverine is trying to get the scraps of beaver meat in the box.

Despite this, trappers like having wolverines around and are invested in their conservation. Trappers value the attributes of wolverines - they are a self-reliant wilderness species that makes a living in a landscape that few others are able to survive in. Reminds you of trappers, eh? Trappers have helped my wolverine research efforts in four main ways: finding wolverines, moving around on the landscape, collecting data, and connecting with the local community. The rest of this blog will expand on these ideas.

Finding wolverines

I will often bring a set of maps to a meeting with the trapper. The maps provide a backdrop for the many stories that trappers have to tell – whether about getting a snowmobile stuck in the slush, shooting a bull moose, or seeing a caribou. I like when the trappers mark different trails and spots on the map. I then take notes so I can understand later what all the points mean. The trapper’s stories provide hours of entertainment, but the stories I like best are about wolverines.

Trappers will point to a map and tell you where they trapped a wolverine or where they consistently see fresh tracks. This information is generally confined to their trap line, but if you talk to enough trappers you acquire a good understanding of wolverine distribution across large areas. This is critical information to have when starting a research study. Wolverines are not always spread evenly across the landscape. Acquiring local knowledge on wolverine “hotspots” can make our research much more successful.

Trappers are also not biased by the published scientific literature that details where wolverines should be found, e.g. remote wilderness areas with very little human disturbance. When I started my Ph.D. work in Rainbow Lake, Alberta I wanted to understand how industrial activities influenced wolverine ecology. However, Rainbow Lake had such a high-density of roads, pipelines, well sites, seismic lines, and cutblocks that it made me wonder if I would ever detect a wolverine. Local trappers put my mind at ease though. They had seen wolverines, a wilderness species, running along roads and across well sites and cutblocks. They said I would be successful if I used the local road network to live trap, which would allow me to cover a large area quickly. I followed their advice and was able to track 44 wolverines (23 males and 21 females) with GPS collars during my Ph.D.

When I was researching wolverines in the Birch Mountains of Alberta, I stayed in a trapper cabin that was tiny and cluttered but cozy nonetheless. The trapper even boarded up all the windows to keep the heat in. The trapper and I spent countless hours during the evening pouring over maps to help me figure out how to establish the study area and where to find wolverines. I learned a substantial amount about wolverines and other boreal wildlife during these sessions, information I will carry with me for the rest of my career.

Moving around on the landscape

These same maps also can be a lifesaver for wildlife biologists. The boreal landscape is challenging to move through without local knowledge. There are no trail signs or mountain peaks that orient you. Lakes and streams are important travel corridors for researchers but they come with many hazards. Because trappers know these areas so well, I often rely on them to show me how to get around safely. Before me or my crew go to any new part of the study area, I first sit down with the local trapper and some maps. They will point to a lake and identify the outlets, inlets and narrows between islands that have current and thin ice. Often, they bring me out on the lakes to show me for themselves. A local trapper even put on an ice-safety course for the crew. These trappers do not ask for pay to do this -- they are excited to share their knowledge and care about the crew’s safety.

Collecting data

Trappers are not just providing wolverine researchers with knowledge – they also are active participants. WCS Canada is currently live trapping and tracking wolverines in Red Lake, Ontario. We are investigating wolverine ecology in a landscape with extensive forestry and that is at the southern and eastern extent of wolverine range in North America. The information we collect can be used to manage human activities in this already challenging habitat for wolverines. Although wolverines can’t be trapped here due to ESA protections, local trappers are still heavily invested in our research. There are four trappers that are maintaining their own wolverine live traps on their trap lines. This involves visiting live traps every few days to check that the trap is working and letting non-target species out of the traps, such as pesky martens. This saves us a considerable amount of time and money and allows our research to cover areas we might not be able to access alone.

Community involvement

Trappers often have a reputation as curmudgeons but I have not found that to be the case. Trappers are generally very easy to talk to and have a lot of information they want to relay. Moreover, I have found that trappers are very active in their communities and many sit on the boards of local organizations. Over time, some trappers I have worked with end up being ambassadors for the research projects within the local community. Disinformation is a powerful thing in small communities, and trappers can be vital in helping get the community on-board for research projects.

How do we pay them back?

For all that trappers do for wolverine research projects, what do we do for them? There are small things like inviting trappers to live traps when we capture a wolverine or providing trappers with maps of where the wolverines are moving on their trap lines. We have recently started sending interested trappers Google Earth files with wolverine GPS locations. We also send trappers project reports and make an effort to present project updates at local trapper dinners and other events.

But above all, trappers want us to provide data that can be used for informed management of wolverines and other wildlife on their trap lines. They understand that our results might not always support what they want or see, but they would rather decisions be based on evidence and data than on nothing at all. WCS Canada abides by the same belief.

Trappers and wolverine research go together like coffee and cabins. Trappers enjoy our company in the bush and we enjoy theirs. We both share a passion for the outdoors and wildlife and we need to use that common ground to help wolverines in the face of significant changes to their habitats.

Wolverines

Wolverines

Wolverines are well adapted to live in northern environments where wilderness areas still exist.

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