words :: Nikki Heim.
The elusive, enigmatic wolverine—few have seen one, many fear them. An unscientific Google search for “wolverines are…” returns “dangerous” and “fearless”—a sampling of the general population’s thoughts on the large weasel. A study encompassing the area of Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks found a population density of three wolverines per 1,000 square kilometres, that means in an area the size of Banff National Park there are likely only about 18 wolverines. Bow Valley ecologist, Nikki Heim, has studied the furry mesocarnivore for more than ten years, but, she has never seen one in the flesh. As with all the creatures that inhabit our wilderness, Heim says the magic is in knowing they’re out there. –ML
It’s March in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The air is crisp, just cold enough to sting the tips of my ears with the slightest breeze. I’m joined by two friends, Alex Taylor and Dan Rafla, and we’re searching for wolverines.
Alex is a professional drone pilot with a long history working as a human-wildlife conflict officer in Lake Louise, and Dan is a senior wildlife coexistence specialist in Banff National Park and avid backcountry skier. In fall 2019, I approached Alex with a proposition to combine my knowledge of wolverine ecology with his drone expertise to conduct a trial search for a wolverine den in the Rockies.
This ambitious idea was inspired by two fellow wolverine biologists. With great success, Andrea Kortello and Doris Hausleitner are using drones to locate wolverine dens in the Columbia Mountains of southwest British Columbia.
Wolverines are listed as a species of special concern in Canada: some eastern populations have been extirpated, while more westerly populations have experienced significant declines. Predicting suitable denning habitat is a significant gap in wolverine ecology, limiting the ability to identify critical habitat needed for effective species conservation.
Our first step was to figure out where to search. Over dog walks and coffee shop chats, Alex and I brainstormed. Our discussions soon led us to contact Talus Lodge to see if they might support a wolverine den drone search within their operating areas. These areas are situated along the continental divide, close to nationally and provincially protected parks with many attributes considered to be suitable for a mama wolverine, such as: north-facing talus slopes; deep, persistent spring snowpacks; presence of prey such as marmot, and low road density. Our brainstorming sessions proved fruitful when the lodge’s owners, and former Olympians, Sara Renner and Thomas Grandi enthusiastically agreed. We promptly set up a meeting in our collective home base of Canmore.
When we sat down together, Sara asked, “How many wolverines have you seen?”
With a hint of embarrassment, I replied, as usual: “Not a one.”
A Needle in a Haystack
As a five-foot, small-in-stature aspiring ecologist with a love affair for the mountains and an obliging tolerance for hauling heavy packs scented with rotten bait, I’ve gained a reputation. Small but mighty. My first introduction to wolverines was when a colleague recommended I apply to a study in the Willmore Wilderness. The study had since wrapped up, but the wolverine found me a few years later. In 2010, I assisted in a large-scale survey of wolverine in Banff National Park which led me to research the factors that influence where we find, or rather do not find, wolverine persisting in the central region of the Canadian Rockies. It was through this research I earned a master of science degree. Since then, I’ve held various roles in conservation and management.
Yet, for more than a decade playing and working in prime wolverine habitat, my only witness to their presence has been tracks in the snow, hair samples and remotely detected images. Indeed, after years of attentive scanning, I have yet to witness the unbounding ease only a wolverine displays when navigating a glaciated plateau or speedily scrambling to the top of a peak. One might assume that my lack of wolverine sightings underscores the true elusive nature of this furry mountain dweller. Or perhaps, the fortune in a wolverine sighting is no different from that of a game of cards, and I’m still waiting to draw a lucky hand.
The Anatomy of an Enigma
Wolverines naturally spark imagination and intrigue, especially for mountain people. Often thought to resemble a small bear, wolverines are actually the largest member of the weasel family. While this apex weasel has a reputation that rivals the grizzly bear, wolverines are considered a medium-sized carnivore weighing no more than about 18 kilograms. To quote Douglas Chadwick from his novel, The Wolverine Way, the wolverine survival strategy can be summarized in a few broad strokes: “Go hard, and high, and steep and never back down, not even from the biggest grizzly, and least of all a mountain; Climb everything; Eat everybody.”
Their fearsome reputation can be reflected in their names. In Latin, wolverine is called Gulo gulo, meaning “glutton glutton.” The French adopted the name, carcajou from eastern First Nations, describing them as “evil spirit” or “mountain devil.”
However, names can be misinterpreted; for some Indigenous peoples, the wolverine is neither glutton nor devil. My limited understanding of indigenous traditional knowledge suggests that ‘all’ animals are neither good nor evil but rather have characteristics we can learn from. Having recently taken a position with the Ktunaxa Nation Council, I’ve come to learn of wolverines as ʔaȼ̓pu, said to be “notoriously solitary and fierce”, referenced in their 2021 calendar. Given the Latin and French descriptors for wolverine, fierceness is easily attributed to aggression. But for the Ktunaxa, this ferocity may be less associated with teeth and claws and more closely related to a heart forward intensity and power of mind that is to be respected.
Adapted to the climatic hardships of the Northern Hemisphere, this weasel has earned the admiration of any mountaineer that knows them. Wolverines have large feet with long claws—built-in snowshoes with an added crampon feature. They have a long coat and run on a supercharged metabolic battery. Like grizzly bears, wolverines’ reproductive rate is low, and they require vast intact landscapes. Combine their need for large spaces with having as few as one or two offspring every couple of years, and it’s no surprise that wolverine sightings are rare. Seeing a wolverine might just be compared to drawing three lucky cards out of a stack of a million. And given these odds, finding a den is likened to finding a needle in a haystack. Even observing wolverine tracks in the snow might be considered a winning hand—it is for me.
Without Mystery, There are No Hypotheses
To the west of Talus Lodge, at the height of Ptarmigan Plateau, we glassed for tracks—a necessary ingredient when attempting to locate a wolverine den with a drone. Following protocols originally developed in Norway, the drone is a non-invasive eye in the sky. Aerial imagery is examined for a centroid of tracks that lead to and from the entrance of a den, typically tucked under a large boulder insulated underneath a wintery blanket.
Though I have surveyed for wolverine presence in the past, this time something was different. As we paused, binoculars in hand, I felt a magic, a comfort in the air. I suspect these feelings had always been there. Maybe it’s time or a few years where my health prevented me from skiing along the path of the wolverine, but on this day, I was attuned to it. With the sun warming my cheeks, I was at peace, connected, as if I was returning home—and it was a shared home.
It is not a stretch to say the inherent mystery of the natural world leads wildlife ecologists down a life-long path of curiosity. Without mystery, there are no hypotheses, no exhausting days in the field looking for clues in the form of scat, hair or tracks nor countless hours hunched behind a screen analyzing data to make sense of those clues. And, without our ability to extrapolate answers from these clues that inform land management, it is increasingly difficult to protect the magic still felt in our remaining, untamed corners.
Alas, the wolverine eluded us the first round. A month later, I returned with my husband, Mike. We were alerted to tracks spotted during an early morning ski by Talus Lodge. We headed out, and there they were: a beautiful snowy line of loping three-by-three fresh wolverine tracks. We followed the single set of tracks for a short time, my curiosity coaxing us forward. The tracks veered into a patch of trees. To my delight, there were two tracks laid by kits.
In elated disbelief, I called back to Mike, “Baby wolverine tracks!”
My heart was full to the point of bursting. A wolverine family was in our midst. I envisioned the two kits rolling on their backs in the soft spring snow, chasing snowshoe hare like a dog trying to catch a squirrel, with mom coercing them back towards the safety of their den. I knew that before long, this female wolverine would be guiding her growing kits across the vast and rugged landscape they too will call home.
Realizing a den was most certainly in the vicinity, we skied back to the lodge, and waited for Alex to join us. Alex arrived the next day, drone in hand, and we set off to conduct an aerial survey used to inform a spring den site investigation. If we’re lucky, we’ll discover signs of denning, hair and boney prey remains concentrated under a large boulder. Our first try was unsuccessful, but as you read this, we will probably be out, up high, peeking under suspect boulders.
Lessons from the Wilds
The excitement, discovery and glee experienced when first detecting this family’s group of tracks is at the core of wildlife research. It is at the core of what drives many of us into the mountains to find connection. No sighting is needed, just the simple knowledge that our wild friends are roaming and raising young in these rugged hills. That knowing is visceral. I felt it again on the plateau.
Wolverines, though fierce and resilient, have their own vulnerabilities. In these high slopes, they find refuge from competitors, adversarial human encroachment, and resource exploitation. Wolverines show us where wild hearts still exist—perhaps even thrive. Wildness has many definitions but, however you view it, nature’s unspoiled spaces have long nurtured and challenged us.
A friend’s five-year-old nephew, Owen, recently asked if a wolverine’s bite force could crack open a brick. Knowing bones are no match for a wolverine’s bite force, I reciprocated his curiosity to say that if any animal could crack open a brick it is sure to be a wolverine. Upon hearing this, Owen rolled around with joy; he did not ask where to find them.
Scientist or mountain enthusiast, the adult heart is not that different from Owen’s. In a modern era of boundless stimulation and the ease of access to earth’s quietest corners, imagination may seem reserved to childhood fantasy. Yet, still clinging on, amidst the perpetual and expanding anthropogenic footprint, myth, magic, and mystery can be felt. We yearn for it. In the mountains, we find it. And in the mountains, we find wolverine—their lessons as tracks in the snow.