Sandra Mitchell doesn’t care whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists wolverine as a threatened species even though it could force snowmobilers and skiers out of some of the powdery back country they love.
Mitchell, the executive director of the Idaho Snowmobile Association, has been working with noted wolverine researcher Jeff Copeland on a study that is revealing where these elusive predators live and how recreation impacts of their numbers. She and her members know the study could force them to move to places that don’t disturb the shy females as they den in the winter.
“We want to make sure they survive in healthy numbers,” Mitchell said.
Snowmobilers and Mitchell are hoping that knowing where they ride and where wolverines live, and how the machines impact the animals, will keep land managers from closing off huge swaths of forests unnecessarily. In the meantime snowmobile groups have helped fund the research and become among the wolverine’s friends.
“Sandra called me,” Copeland said. “We wanted to create an environment where the recreationalists take some ownership of this and say ‘Hey that’s our wolverine. This year she’s denning in this basin so we’ll stay out of there.”’
The Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday it is proposing listing wolverine, which has a population of fewer than 300 animals in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon and California. The major threat to these members of the weasel family that live in high mountain areas is climate change, Fish and Wildlife biologists say.
“The wolverine has a reputation for killing prey many times its size, but it’s no match for global climate change, which is shrinking spring snowpack across the West,” said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that pushed for listing.
Photo courtesy of Wolverine FoundationThe remote, rugged and snow covered mountains where they live for most of the year was a winter wilderness without humans until the 1980s, when more powerful snowmobiles made traveling through the powder snow easier. Skiers also increased their access into these alpine areas raised concerns among biologists and land managers.
Females are known to be sensitive to disturbance around their dens. If disturbed, mothers may abandon the den and move their young, or kits, exposing them to cold, predators or other hazards.
Copeland and biologist Kim Heinemeyer conducted a study in the McCall in 2010 where GPS monitors were placed in collars on wolverines and carried by snowmobilers and skiers on trips into the back country. He said they had great cooperation, getting 90 percent of the users willing to carry the devices because of Mitchell and the snowmobile association.
“Imagine what w would have got if If we had someone from the Forest Service go out to a trail head and ask ‘can we give you this GPS monitor so we can see where you are going?’” Copeland said.
The study has expanded into the Idaho Wolverine Winter Recreation Research Project run out of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Copeland, a retired Forest Service biologist and now the head of the Wolverine Foundation, lives in Boise and Driggs.
With only four years of data Copeland said it is too early to draw any conclusions from the research. But other groups like the Winter Wildlands Alliance, which represents backcountry skiers and snowshoers are also climbing on board.
“For our members to see wolverine tracks or in the rare case, a wolverine, goes to the essence of the experience back country skiers are looking for,” said Mark Menlove, Executive director of the Boise-based group.