Wolverine in the wild. Photo: Gordon MacPherson KO

Wolverine in the wild. Photo: Gordon MacPherson KO

Wolverine research in the Kootenays boosted by citizen science

The project relies on citizen science observations collected online at Wolverine Watch platform

Submitted by Nicole Trigg from the Kootenay Conservation Program

Wildlife biologist and Selkirk College ecology instructor Doris Hausleitner has always had a penchant for species that are considered something of an underdog, those without champions to promote their cause.

It’s no wonder then, that the elusive wolverine captured her imagination years ago when she was approached by friend and colleague Andrea Kortello to start the South Columbia Mountains Wolverine Project.

“I met Andrea in grad school, we were two Canadians in an American university. Her focus has very much been large carnivores and she brought me out of the bird world to work on this project,” said Doris. “I love working on wolverine. They’ve been so interesting to study, a whole new way of seeing for me because it’s such a landscape level.”

Doris Hausleitner. Photo: Kootenay Conservation Program

Born in Whitehorse, Doris first thought from a young age that she was going to become a caribou biologist but went a different route after discovering how popular this field of study already was. A Nordic ski scholarship led her to study biology as an undergrad student at the University of Alaska.

Following this she pursued a Masters of Science at the University of Idaho while on a research scholarship investigating Greater Sage-Grouse.

Her focus then switched to Northern Spotted Owls for a long-term demography study at Oregon State University where she became a research assistant.

By 2006, Doris had moved back to Canada, relocated to Nelson, began her consulting career as Seepanee Ecological Consulting (Seepanee is a Kutenai word for “full of life”) and started a family. For several years she worked on conservation projects across the Kootenays and B.C. on a range of species including Northern Spotted Owls, Common Nighthawks, Western Toads and Western Screech-owls, and stepped into the part-time role of Instructor of Applied Ecology and Biology for Selkirk College in 2011.

When Andrea invited her to co-lead the South Columbia Mountains Wolverine Project in 2012, Doris didn’t hesitate.

“Wolverines intrigue me so much,” she said. “You go to the hardest-to-reach places and you’ll see the tracks of a wolverine bagging peaks and it looks like it’s doing it for fun. It really is awe-inspiring the amount of ground that they can travel in a day and the amount of terrain that they go over. Every time I think I know everything about a wolverine they’re always surprising me with what they can do.”

Funded by the Columbia Basin Trust, Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program, Habitat Conservation Trust Fund and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative with in-kind provided by the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, the South Columbia Mountains Wolverine Project started out using non-invasive genetic sampling of wolverine to estimate abundance and connectivity, and unmanned aerial vehicles to determine denning of wolverine.

In recent years, the project has relied on citizen science observations collected through the online Wolverine Watch platform, which has been a wildly successful partnership.

“And so we’ve combined habitat modelling and our former work with genetics with the citizen science contribution to decide where we’re going to fly our drone and look specifically for dens or reproductive areas,” said Doris. “All of the reproductive areas that we’ve found, all of them have been informed by citizen science. It’s huge, it’s massive, it’s really a game changer.”

A species of concern in BC, wolverine are found at very low density on the landscape (two per 1000 sq km — lower than bears) and cover vast areas.

As a result, data collection is challenging and in the South Columbia mountains in particular, there was a large knowledge gap.

“There was wolverine work being done to the north, to the south by Americans, in the Alberta parks, but there was nothing right in the middle where we were and we saw a real need to fill that gap,” said Doris. “One thing that our research really helped to illuminate is that wolverine are not as abundant as we thought they would be in our region.”

Compounding this concern was the lack of harvest limits on wolverines combined with substantial barriers to wolverine movement such as the network of roads in the South Columbia mountains.

“If there’s an area that is heavily trapped, in a perfect world it would be OK because the population would be fed by other wolverines from other populations but if there are barriers to dispersal, you could just harvest until they’re gone and they won’t be replenished and that’s what we were worried we would see happening.”

Wolverine caught on a remote camera. Photo: Kootenay Conservation Program

Wolverine caught on a remote camera. Photo: Kootenay Conservation Program

Their team shifted to a “drones and dens” approach when they realized their focus had to be on making a direct conservation impact and that the reproductive piece was key to increasing their population.

With low reproductive output to begin with, wolverine are vulnerable when they den in mid-February to mid-May at their reproductive sites, to which they have fidelity and return every year if they can.

“We thought if we could conserve just those areas we’ll probably have an impact on the conservation of the species,” Doris said, “and so that’s where the citizen science piece comes in. If we could get other people to start seeing, being our eyes on the landscape, we’ll have a better idea of what’s happening and we’ll have a better idea of where wolverine are.”

To engage the public in their study area, the team joined forces with Wolverine Watch, started by Mirjam Barrueto and used by a collaboration of scientists in B.C. and Alberta to collect citizen science observations on wolverine.

Hundreds of sightings are collected each year with reports coming from as far as upstate New York, Alaska and the Yukon, and every single sighting is mapped and used in research, and the data is shared with whoever can use it.

“Every time we find a wolverine den, we take steps. If it’s on Crown land we apply for conservation status, if there’s one in the park we’ve worked with provincial parks to create a wildlife management zone for it. We take each one and see if we can do something tangible. Putting aside one small denning area at a time, it feels like we’re doing something.”

Another tangible outcome was a research article the team helped co-author that was published in November 2019 suggesting wolverine trapping wasn’t sustainable in Southern Canada.

In August 2020, the updated 2020-2022 Hunting & Trapping Regulations Synopsis for B.C. was released and included a ban on wolverine trapping within the Kootenay and Columbia regions.

“It’s nice to see that science-based management, it’s exciting,” Doris said.

Wolverine at a den site. Photo: Kootenay Conservation Program

Wolverine at a den site. Photo: Kootenay Conservation Program

She admits she had no idea eight years ago that she would still be skiing to remote locations trying to find traces of wolverines, or that the project would attract the interest of so many people recreating in the backcountry.

She chalks it up to the wolverine’s elusive appeal.

“I think people like to have a little mystery and be in awe of something, like an animal out there being bad ass because they can. I don’t know if we spend time doing that enough in our lives.”

Story by Nicole Trigg from the Kootenay Conservation Program.

kootenayWildlife

Just Posted

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

Trees blown over by a windstorm in forest owned by Anderson Creek Timber. Photo: Anderson Creek Timber
Timber company logging near Nelson raises local concerns

Anderson Creek Timber owns 600 hectares of forest adjacent to the city

Keith Smyth, Kootenay Savings director at-large joins children from the Kids’ Care Centre at St. Michael’s Catholic School. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay Savings continues credit union’s tradition of giving

Funding totalling $48,250, is going to a wide array of Kootenay initiatives

From left: Karl Luedtke (West Arm Outdoors Club), Dale Williams (BCWF), Molly Teather (FLNORD), Gord Grunerud (West Arm Outdoors Club), Eugene Volokhov (Grand Prize Winner), Casey McKinnon and Lex Jones (Jones Boys Boats). Photo: Tammy White, Whitelight Photography
Balfour man lands big prize from angler incentive program

Eugene Volokhov of Balfour is now the proud owner of a sleek 18-foot Kingfisher boat

“I want to see the difference in the world, embrace it, celebrate it … ” Photo: David Cantelli/Unsplash
A new way to say ‘Hello’

“Inclusion, you see, is NOT about making us all the same.”

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Chilliwack secondary school’s principal is apologizing after a quote equating graduation with the end of slavery in the U.S. was included in the 2020-2021 yearbook. (Screenshot from submitted SnapChat)
B.C. student’s yearbook quote equates grad to end of slavery; principal cites editing error

Black former student ‘disgusted’ as CSS principal apologizes for what is called an editing error

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross. (Photo by Peter Versteege)
BC Liberal leadership candidate condemns ‘senseless violence’ of Okanagan church fires

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross says reconciliation isn’t about revenge for past tragedies

A coroner’s inquest will be taking place at the Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni for the next week. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Teen B.C. mom who died following police custody recalled as ‘friend to many’

Police sent Jocelyn George to hospital after intoxication had gone ‘beyond the realm’ of normal detox

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2020, file photo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Nassib on Monday, June 21, 2021, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib announced the news on Instagram, saying he was not doing it for the attention but because “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

More than a dozen NFL players have come out as gay after their careers were over

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel speaks to the Sacred Hearts Catholic Church burning down early Monday morning, June 21, 2021. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Penticton band chief condemns suspicious burning of 2 Catholic churches

Both Catholic church fires are deemed suspicious, says RCMP

COVID-19 daily cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day moving average to June 17, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections drop to 90 on Sunday, 45 Monday

Pandemic spread dwindles as 77% of adults receive vaccine

By protesting uninvited in First Nations’ territories, conservationists are acting in a neocolonial or paternalistic manner, says Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis. Photo by Heather Thomson
A closer look: do Vancouver Island First Nations support the war in the woods?

First Nations/environmentalist old growth alliance uneasy, if it exists at all

A blood drive in support of 1-year-old Rielynn Gormley of Agassiz is scheduled for Monday, June 28 at Tzeachten First Nation Community Hall in Chilliwack. Rielynn lives with type 3 von Willebrand disease, which makes it difficult for her to stop bleeding. (Screenshot/Canadian Blood Services)
Upcoming blood drive in honour of Fraser Valley toddler with rare blood condition

The Gormley family has organized a blood drive in Chilliwack on June 28

Most Read