Let’s Get Wolverines on the Endangered Species List
The wolverine is one of the most astonishing and most misunderstood creatures on earth. Its scientific name of Gulo gulo, or “glutton glutton,” is hardly complimentary, and offers insight into what wolverine biologist Kerry Murphy described as “a serious PR problem” back in late June 2008.
Murphy was teaching a Yellowstone Association Institute field course, Yellowstone’s Pack of Predator Concerns. Though it’s been almost five years since I attended the four-day class, I still remember the key points Murphy hammered home: wolverines are rare, they’re in trouble, and they get remarkably little sympathy.
Wolverines are the largest terrestrial members of the weasel family, weighing in at 20-40 pounds as adults and measuring around three feet long. An individual’s home range can cover an astounding 500 square miles. All of Yellowstone National Park, at 2.2 million acres a bigger area than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware put together, is probably only home to a handful of these carnivores.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the few strongholds for the wolverine in the Lower 48. Because the shaggy animals require persistent snowpack (a range map of the wolverine closely correlates with a map showing areas that remain snow-covered until at least May 1 each year, said Murphy) and cool summer temperatures, they tend to be found only at high latitudes or high elevations.
Perhaps my favorite thing about wolverines is that they possess massive, bone-crushing jaws that pack one of the strongest bites in the mammal world. Counterintuitively, that almost unimaginable biting power is mainly wielded against the already dead.
In the winter, wolverines feed mainly on scavenged, frozen carcasses of animals like mountain goats or bighorn sheep. The strong jaws probably evolved so that wolverines could crunch through meat and bone that had frozen solid, taking advantage of a food source that remained inaccessible to other animals.
Wolverines are capable of taking down large prey—a 25-pound wolverine once brought down a 300-pound caribou—but they specialize in using their acute sense of smell to detect hoofed animals buried by avalanches. They dig through packed snow and ice with their muscular forelimbs and long claws in order to feed on buried, rock-hard meat and bone marrow.
Wow. It seems as if an animal like this could survive anything, right?
But wolverines are in trouble. Their enormous home ranges mean that they need a lot of space, and development continues to nibble away at their required habitats. They have a low reproductive rate, so even if they had the necessary room to roam, they’d be slow to fill it. Worst of all, wolverines’ superb adaptations to arctic, alpine, and near-alpine environments make them highly vulnerable to climate change. Take a look at the map below:
Now, the wolverine has a new chance to be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. (It’s been petitioned for listing twice before, in 1994 and 2000. The most recent US Fish & Wildlife Service ruling, filed in 2010, announced that listing was “warranted” but denied because of the need to protect higher-priority species.)
A 90-day public comment period opens on Monday, February 4. I urge you to read up on the proposal to list the wolverine and submit your input. I’ll be commenting in support of listing the wolverine as a threatened species. I hope you join me to encourage the long-term protection of these magnificent animals.
Want to learn more about wolverines? Here are some sources around the web:
- The Wolverine Blog – thoughtful discussion of news and research in wolverine conservation
- The Wolverine Foundation – an international nonprofit established in 1996
- The Wolverine Network – a source for links to wolverine researchers and conservation groups
- And, one more time, the US F&WS page on the proposed wolverine threatened species listing. Go forth and comment.