Read the article published in Canadian Geographic.
By Ossie Michelin
With photography by Peter Mather
In Innu culture, the wolverine is a trickster, the central character in many dramatic capers. Sometimes the wolverine is a hero, saving Innu families from vicious cannibals; other times he’s a scoundrel tricking both the Innu and his fellow animals. Either way, it’s guaranteed that he’s getting into mischief.
Filmmaker Christine Poker, who comes from the Innu community of Natuashish in northern Labrador, grew up hearing stories around the tent stove about the conniving Kuekuatsheu, the name for the wolverine in her language of Innu-aimun.
For the Innu, Kuekuatsheu is more than just a character in a story; he is almost a part of the community. Elders still talk of him as if they know him personally, as if they witnessed his antics themselves. Poker says she remembers her grandparents telling her stories of how Kuekuatsheu would steal food from their camp.
“My grandparents said that when the Innu people started dying and leaving the country [to settle in larger communities], Kuekuatsheu left with them,” Poker explains. She notes that when she is in her community with her grandkids, they’re less interested in hearing the stories of the wolverine. But that all changes when they are on the Land. In their tent at night, the young people are eager to hear the stories of Kuekuatsheu.
It is not difficult to determine where the idea of the wolverine being a trickster comes from. Though reclusive, these animals are also renowned for being curious and sneaky. They have been known to steal bait from traps, ransack cabins and elude hunters. If you see a wolverine in the wild, consider yourself lucky — they tend to avoid areas inhabited by people, have an extremely low population density and are most active from dusk to dawn when most people are asleep.
Although they resemble small bow-legged bears with bushy tails, wolverines are actually the largest members of the Mustelidae family, which includes weasels, badgers and otters. Adult males can weigh up to 14 kilograms, and adult females can weigh up to nine kilograms. They have small ears, a stubby nose and sharp teeth, as well as sharp semi- retractable claws. They are also known to be ferocious, with a bark as bad as their bite. Their growl can best be described as a cross between a lion’s roar and the engine of a small plane — it’s a startling sound to hear when you’re walking alone in the woods and no doubt adds to the creature’s mystique.
Wolverines play a generalist’s role in their ecosystem and will eat just about anything, from berries and vegetation to meat and carrion. They hunt smaller animals — their favourite meal is the beaver — but are often scavengers, eating the remains of larger animals such as moose and caribou that have been taken down by wolves. There are, however, also verified accounts of wolverines killing large ungulates such as deer and caribou by stalking them over long periods, exhausting their prey before going in for the kill.
One of the wolverine’s greatest survival adaptations is its bite; the muscle and bone structures in their heads give them a powerful jaw for such a small creature. A special upper molar at the back of their mouths is rotated 90 degrees toward the inside of their mouth, allowing them to chomp through bone to get at the marrow inside. They have no problem tearing through frozen flesh. As a result, the scat of wolverines is easy to identify because it’s full of bone fragments.
Wolverines are active year-round, although like most forest life they are quieter in the winter. They breed in early summer and give birth to one or two kits in the late winter or early spring. Their thick coats protect them from the frost and cold, and their wide snowshoe-like feet are perfectly adapted for moving through deep snow. They need that deep snow cover to insulate their dens from harsh winter conditions. While these adaptations are important for the wolverine’s survival, they also make them susceptible to the impacts of global warming.
That thick, warm fur that wicks away frost once made wolverine pelts a prized part of the North American fur trade. Their fur, which was often used to line the hoods of parkas, once led to the animal being trapped in great numbers. Their populations in southern Canada have never fully recovered.
Indeed, though their range once stretched across much of southern Canada, they are now largely found in the boreal forests, mountain ranges and tundras that stretch across much of the North. With an average of just three to 10 animals typically found in a thousand square kilometres, a single wolverine can maintain a territory of hundreds of square kilometres, walking great distances every day to patrol for food and to drive away any would-be competition. A dominant male wolverine will overlap its territory only with one or two females with which it breeds.
Like all the animals in the Mustelidae family, wolverines have very well-developed scent glands, which they use to mark their territories to warn other wolverines to stay away. That’s why young wolverines, which remain with their family for up to a year, will often travel hundreds of kilometres to establish a territory far away from other wolverines.
It was once believed that wolverines lived solitary lives, getting together only to breed during the summer. Although this is mainly true, researchers using GPS collars to track the animals have discovered that wolverines are more social than originally thought.
Matthew Scrafford, an ecologist with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, has been studying wolverines in northern Ontario for more than three years. In that time, his GPS data has shown both wolverine parents hunting and scavenging with their offspring for days at a time. “They’re a family unit,” Scrafford explains. “They’re learning from each other and teaching their off- spring. Before a lot of this good GPS data and cameras started coming in, we thought of them as loners — and they are — but they do spend a lot of time roaming around the landscape with each other.”
A healthy wolverine population is a strong indicator of a healthy eco-system, Scrafford says, since the species requires a variety of foods gathered from large intact areas of interconnected wilderness — in other words, they need lots of types of food and lots of space to roam.
“We have found that in as far as they can withstand some human development, they’re not purely a wilderness species,” says Scrafford. “You do find wolverines in developed landscapes and forestry working landscapes. They don’t need pure wilderness to exist, although they have low density and low reproductive rates, so you have to watch what happens to their territory, or else they’re going to blink out of existence.”
Today, the biggest threat to wolverines is habitat loss and human development. Researchers are working with Indigenous communities across the North to track and monitor wolverine populations to better understand how their habitats are being affected by human encroachment. The trickster hero — ferocious, clever and strong — will need all of its ingenuity to continue to flourish.
Photo credits: Banner | William Halliday © WCS Canada