March 6, 2011

A Day Out with a Wolverine Researcher

Last week, I (Joel) received an invite to participate in a new park wolverine research project, so given our recent interest in wolverines, I said “sure.”  Since November, 2010, over 50 research sites have been set up in Banff, Yoho & Kootenay Parks, each one complete with bait, motion sensitive cameras, and barbed wire (to catch wolverine fur for DNA analysis).

Ben removing old beaver carcass
Each site has to be checked once a month, and it was time for lead researcher Ben Dorsey (who is also our neighbour), to head into an area called “Skoki” to check on the site there.

It's a lot of work to carry all the equipment to these sites and to collect the data, so Ben took along me and Kootenay park warden Brian Chruszcz to help him out, and we learned that field research is not for the weak. It took two days in total, and almost 40 km on skis, to get to and from the site. Thankfully, we stayed in one of the park warden patrol cabins overnight, which was a real blessing, since it dropped down to -26 overnight.

At the research site, we retrieved a frozen beaver carcass from a cache that had been flown in at the beginning of the season, and took it to the bait site. It must have weighed 35 pounds! At the site, the previous beaver carcass, which was nailed to a tree, had been heavily scavenged, but before we could replace it, we needed to know if a wolverine had done the eating, and left any hair samples. So we downloaded the photos from the motion sensitive camera, and played through them. Unfortunately, wolverines were not in the slideshow, but there were beautiful photos of lynx and pine martens, and they'd managed to feast on as much of the beaver as they could get at.

Ben & Joel hauling new bait into place.
It was starting to get dark, so we worked fast: Ben attached the new carcass to the tree, we replaced the camera's batteries and memory card, re-strung the barbed wire around the tree trunk, and left behind some very stinky lure (called “Gusto”) to give the bait that certain “je ne sais quoi.” Wolverines make their livings by using their noses, so the hope is that this month, one of them will find the feast, and leave us some DNA in return.

Why do all this grunt work? Well, not much is known about this rare and elusive animal here in the Canadian Rockies, and we need good data if we are to look after all the wildlife found in our national parks. The study is planned to last for two winters, and it should give us our first accurate census of wolverines, tell us where they hang out, and determine, through DNA work, whether highways are a barrier to their movement.

It was disappointing not to see any evidence of wolverines, but the trip was highly instructive. You see, we were completely worn out after two days on the trail. But wolverines cover about the same distances we did, every day of the year. I tip my hat to them.