Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Wolverine Ecology & Conservation - Yellowstone National Park


The Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative (NRCC) has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Yellowstone Park Foundation, and others to research wolverine ecology in Glacier & Yellowstone National Parks. These two projects lead to an increased understanding of wolverine distribution and residency, reproductive characteristics, habitat selection, food habits, connectivity of populations, and population parameters such as survival rates, birth rates, and dispersal. Additionally, public education components of these projects foster appreciation and support for wolverine conservation.

Here are excerpts from their Wolverine Conservation in Yellowstone National Park: Final Report

Wolverines in the contiguous United States are a strong concern for federal land managers and the public. The species was designated a candidate species (warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act, but precluded by work on species of higher priority) by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010. Wolverines are particularly vulnerable to extirpation due to their low numbers and large spatial requirements (Banci 1994; Copeland and Whitman 2003). Wolverine populations in the conterminous United States are small and isolated as compared to those in Canada due to naturally fragmented habitat (Aubry et al. 2007; Ruggerio et al. 2007) and infrequent exchange of individuals between mountain ranges (Cegelski et al. 2003; Kyle and Strobeck 2001, 2002). These attributes contribute to low genetic effective population sizes and low population viability (US Fish and Wildlife Service 2008). Due to its importance for the security and thermoregulation of neonates, spring snow cover may limit the wolverine’s distribution and abundance, yet this habitat component is declining across the species’ geographic range due to global climate change (Aubry et al. 2007; Copeland et al. 2010).

The wolverine is one of the least studied carnivores in North America, particularly in the contiguous United States where it occurs at the southern extent of its range (Ruggiero et al. 2007). Previous reports, surveys, and sightings records suggest that wolverines historically occurred throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (Skinner 1927; Smith 1955; Mobley 1962; Hoak et al. 1982; Groves 1988; Consolo-Murphy and Meagher 1995; Robinson and Gehman 1998; Murphy et al. 2004).

The Wildlife Conservation Society is conducting a long-term study in the western and southern portion of the ecosystem (Inman et al. 2007a, 2008). However, little information is available concerning this species’ distribution and ecology in Yellowstone National Park and the adjoining national forests along the park’s northeast, east, and southeast boundary.

Our study objectives were to document (1) the distribution of wolverines in Yellowstone and eastern portion of the ecosystem; (2) their population characteristics, including reproduction, survival, sources of mortality, and food habits; (3) their habitat requirements, particularly those related to natal and maternal denning; and (4) their movements, including any that provide connectivity with populations in other ecosystems. To improve support for its conservation, it was also our aim to increase public awareness of this unique and mysterious carnivore (Appendix 1).

We documented wolverine distribution and population characteristics from 2005 to 2009 in Yellowstone National Park and its neighboring wilderness areas along the park’s east, northeast, and south boundaries by capturing and monitoring radio-marked individuals, and conducting surveys for their tracks during winter. We captured four individuals and collaboratively monitored three others, including two immigrants, that were previously marked by Wildlife Conservation Society biologists in the western portion of the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Wolverines in our study area selected habitats above 2,450 meters (8,000 ft), that is, in the Hudsonian (boreal) life zone, but did not use alpine habitats extensively.

Live-trapping, telemetry data, and surveys for tracks indicated that wolverine numbers and distribution were more limited than expected, despite the fact that two contemporary models estimated an extensive coverage of wolverine habitat in the area. Wolverines occurred in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness along the north boundary of the park, and at the southeast corner (Thorofare region) and the adjoining Washakie and Teton Wilderness areas. When conducting helicopter-based surveys for tracks during winter, we did not detect any wolverines in the park interior, including the portion of the Gallatin Range inside the park; the Washburn and Snake River Ranges; the Central and Madison Plateaus; and the Bechler region. We also did not detect resident wolverines in the North Absaroka Wilderness and the adjoining areas along the east boundary, including the upper Lamar River. Surveys for ungulates in this area during the winter did not indicate that the availability of carrion significantly limited wolverine numbers and distribution, although our anecdotal observations suggested that winter food might be limited in the heavily forested portions of interior Yellowstone.

Wolverine home ranges did not overlap, and radio-marked individuals did not make extra-home range movements to forage in the major ungulate winter ranges in and near our study area, including the Pelican and Hayden Valleys, and the northern winter range. Our limited demographic data suggested that reproductive rates of wolverines were low, that home ranges were large, and that rates of survival were similar to estimates for other populations in the conterminous United States. The dynamics and distribution of our population appeared to be strongly linked to ingress from well-established populations in other parts of the ecosystem, rather than to recruitment of offspring born to our resident females.

We developed and tested a reliable method to rapidly assess wolverine distribution over large areas using helicopter-based searches for tracks during the winter. We were highly successful in finding tracks of resident, radio-marked wolverines during both preliminary tests (searches in 10 x 10 km survey [grid] cells) on a Wildlife Conservation Society study site, and when applying our refined technique to wolverines on our study area. This survey method can be broadly applied to the incised terrain typical of the Rocky Mountains as a first step in assessing wolverine populations, provided that surveys are adequately replicated. We recommend that biologists continue to investigate the factors that limit the growth of wolverine populations, particularly in areas such as ours where models suggest that suitable habitat is abundant.

Rare Wolverine Photographed in Montana

The Wildlife Conservation Society recently released this camera-trap photo of a wolverine retrieving bait placed in a tree in Montana.

The frame upon which the animal climbs is designed so that the unique markings on the underside of the wolverine are revealed to the motion-sensing camera.

Scientists use these markings to identify individual animals and document their distribution and range.

WCS’s eight-year study of wolverines in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has led to a better understanding of wolverine ecology and will help inform conservation strategies so that this rare species can survive despite the 21st century conservation challenges it faces. An estimated 250-300 wolverines remain in the “lower 48,” where they occupy about half of their former range in high alpine peaks of the western United States.