The challengeWolverines were once found across much of southern Canada, but a combination of over harvest and habitat loss has left them inhabiting only largely inaccessible northern and alpine areas. Wolverines are slow to reproduce and have large territories, which makes them especially vulnerable to habitat loss and disturbance from resource-extraction activities. Keeping wild areas intact is therefore of vital importance to wolverines.
Wolverines are both predators and scavengers with sharp teeth and powerful jaws enabling them to gnaw and tear through frozen meat and bones. With their thick, frost-resistant coat and large, snowshoe-like feet, wolverines are ideally adapted to live in northern environments. But these traits also make them vulnerable to climate change, especially a lack of deep snow cover for insulating dens.
Wolverines, like caribou, are an excellent indicator of the general health of wild ecosystems. Because they need large areas of intact habitat, wolverine presence tells us that a wild area remains large and connected, vital attributes for helping wildlife adapt to climate change.
What we are doing and whyWe are working to improve our understanding of where wolverines are in Ontario, whether their range is expanding or contracting, and factors that affect their survival, such as roads and resource development, including forest management. This information will help us to provide input into land-use and protected areas planning as well as for forest management plans and give us insights into the status of wolverine recovery in Ontario, with the goal of keeping this elusive species a healthy part of our wild landscapes.
The Ontario Northern Boreal is home to the easternmost population of wolverines in North America. WCS Canada led a seven-winter survey effort to better understand where wolverine are – and aren’t -- in the region. WCS Canada also led a wolverine radiotelemetry study in Red Lake, Ontario from 2003-2005 and was a major partner in a similar wolverine radiotelemetry study in northern Alberta from 2013-2016.
These studies highlighted the need to limit industrial activity and infrastructure in core wolverine habitat. Wolverines have a reputation as clever scavengers who will take advantage of cached supplies or other human-made opportunities, but roads, in particular, make them highly vulnerable to predators such as wolves.
Continuing with this work will help us build a better picture of the conditions wolverines need to survive -- and thrive -- as well as improving our knowledge of where these conditions still exist and what can be done to maintain them.
Our strategiesTo build on the knowledge we developed about wolverines in northern Ontario, we are repeating the radiotelemetry work that was conducted in Red Lake, Ontario. This new research is helping us understand whether wolverines are recovering in the region as well as the impact of roads and forestry operations on wolverine habitat choices, movements and survival. We are particularly interested in female wolverine habitat needs and their reproductive success, which is vital to the survival of the species. And we are looking to see if wolverines will eventually expand their presence eastward into Quebec. In the first winter of work, we tracked a young male and a lactating female (live trapped and then fitted with GPS collars) for a number of months. The male journeyed into Manitoba and then back into Ontario during his wide-ranging travels. Meanwhile, we tracked the female to a den – only the second such den ever located in Ontario. Wolverines are an often misunderstood animal, with a largely undeserved reputation for being fearsome predators. We are working to help people learn more about these fascinating and clever creatures through public education efforts.
We are working directly with fur harvesters to help track wolverine activity in the remote Ontario Northern Boreal. Indigenous traditional knowledge about the animal has been valuable for understanding how current conditions may differ from the past and how wolverines are faring today and we are honoured to work with these communities to advance our understanding of these elusive creatures.
- The Red Lake Wolverine Project Field Report 2019/2020 is out! Find it here.
- WCS Canada scientist, Dr. Matt Scrafford talks about wolverine family dynamics in this piece for Canadian Geographic.
- We describe the incredible behaviours of wolverines, and the lengths we're going to to save them in a new visual story map.
- Tracking wolverines is no easy feat. Dr. Matt Scrafford talks about his unlikely allies in researching wolverines in the Ontario Northern Boreal in this new Muddy Boots blog.
- Searching for wolverines in a vast northern wilderness. Our Chief Scientist, Dr. Justina Ray, explains how a team of researchers spent seven winters flying for thousands of hours across the Ontario Northern Boreal in search of signs of elusive wolverines – and why.
- Why won’t wolverines cross the road? This blog based on work by WCS Canada wolverine expert Matt Scrafford in Alberta explains what scientists have learned about how wolverines react to roads in their territories.