In an uncharacteristically uplifting post last week (semi-satirically entitled “Be of Good Cheer”), I shared the news that wolverines—critically endangered from decades of falling prey to the “tradition” of fur trapping—are for now off the hit list of species allowable to trap in Montana, thanks to an injunction filed by animal advocacy groups that resulted in a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO). While about every other “furbearer” in that state remains at risk, to the wolverine now spared the prospect of being caught by the leg in a steel-jawed trap for days and nights on end until some trapper arrives and clubs them to death this is nothing short of a Christmas miracle!
But that miracle may be short-lived if trappers and the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks department—who are trying desperately to reverse the TRO against wolverine trapping—have their way.
In addition to being inherently cruel and demented, trapping is a lazy-man’s blood sport. Even some hunters resent the ease at which trappers can score a kill. A trapper can be likened to a fisherman who casts several baited hooks out into a lake and leaves them there, not bothering to come back for a week or so to see what he’s caught. All the while, the animal struggles and suffers—out of sight, out of mind…
Throughout recorded history, trapping has been the greatest threat to the existence of wolverine and their kin. Entire populations have been wiped out across the country, from the Sierra Nevada to the southern Rockies and from Washington’s Cascade mountains to the Minnesota woodlands.
In their 1927 book entitled Mammals and Birds of Mount Rainier National Park, authors Walter Taylor and William Shaw give accounts of Washington wolverines trapped and poisoned around the turn of the Twentieth Century. They write, “The wolverine, if ever common, has undergone a marked decrease throughout the Cascade Range, probably due to the increasing price put on his pelt by the fur trade.” Even a hundred years ago these two had the foresight to observe, “Where possible, the balance of nature should be left to establish itself.”
I couldn’t agree more.
The shadowy wolverine is one savage scavenger who is very dear to my heart. Despite their scarcity, I’ve been extremely fortunate to see them on four separate occasions, each one a high point in my memory. If my life were to flash in front of me, it would appear as a wildlife slide-show set to music—a Bolero, building in intensity—featuring images of black bears and cougars; bison, bighorns and bugling elk; snowshoe hare and ermine in a frosty meadow; pine marten in the boreal forest; mink and otters in the wetlands and badgers in the sagebrush. Moose, wolves, lynx and grizzlies in the wilds of Alaska would appear as the music reaches a crescendo, followed by a wolverine effortlessly scaling an alpine slope as the grand finale.
The first timeI saw a wolverine was in 1978, on a steep, snowy mountainside in Washington’s rugged North Cascades range. I was on a solo climb, my ice ax at the ready to avoid an uncontrolled, high-speed slide to the valley bottom. Suddenly, a fast-moving, dark-colored animal raced across an even steeper pitch about 50 yards above. Judging by the size and shape, my initial impression was coyote or wolf; then as I watched it move and got a better view of its stature, I recognized it for what it was—a wolverine! After he streaked out of sight, I continued my slow ascent, kicking steps into the snow and sinking my ice ax in for safety’s sake, up to where his trail—the only remaining sign of the incredible spectacle I’d just witnessed—crossed the steepest pitch of the slope. When I reached the wolverine’s distinctive, five-toed tracks, I could see that though his rapid traverse appeared effortless, he had dug his sharp claws deep into the snow with each step—confirming that a wolverine is as well adapted to its mountain habitat as an otter is to water, or a raven to air.
Since I considered it my back yard, I was thrilled to know that the North Cascades National Park and adjoining wilderness areas comprised a habitat extensive and secluded enough for such a secretive animal—and we’re talking sasquatch secretive—to feel at home.
I knew it had probably been a once in a lifetime sighting, but when some of the snow melted, I decided to return and planned to stay a while this time. I crossed the slope where I’d last seen the wolverine and headed over a pass into a trail-less, glacier-carved valley in search of a likely den site. Thinking like a wolverine, I chose a spot that had rarely, if ever, been visited by human beings, setting up camp by a small alpine tarn. As luck would have it, I came across a set of the familiar five-toed tracks that led up toward a small cave under a rocky cliff. Not wanting to disturb the cave’s occupants, I watched the opening from a respectful distance. Within minutes, I heard the sound of falling rocks and looked up to see a wolverine, probably a mother, eying me suspiciously from the ledge above her den.
Appreciating how unwelcome I was, I quickly determined that I had accomplished all I could hope to achieve without annoying the animal to the point that she might leave the area for good. Though I was tempted to stay around in hopes of a photo op, I instead did the right thing and moved on, leaving that wild place to the wildlife who depend on it.
Not being a fan of intrusive hardware, like the ear tags or radio collars used in the study of wild animals, I never reported the sighting or the location of the den to wildlife “authorities.” I object, on behalf of animals everywhere, to the ham-fisted treatment of wildlife for “research” purposes, and I knew that rather than taking my word for it, some overeager biologists, wildlife “managers” or other self-appointed “experts” would march out there and trap, collar or otherwise traumatize the animal.
My misgivings proved justified. Years later, I learned that at least two young wolverines were trapped, jabbed with needles, immobilized and manhandled; their ears were tagged and they were fitted with awkward, bulky radio-collars. It seems the biologists at the scene badgered their captives in every way imaginable, short of sending them to Abu Ghraib or on a hunting trip with Dick Cheney.
Worse yet, by meddling with such rare and reclusive animals—keeping one of them confined for days until “game experts” from Missoula, Montana could make the trip across two states to get some hands-on of their own—they may have separated one yearling from her mother. (Judging by the tracks around the box-trap, mama wolverine must have stayed around until people roared into the area on snowmobiles, forcing her to reluctantly abandon her trapped youngster and retreat further into the wilderness.)
After an Interminable imprisonment in a claustrophobic box trap, and then awaking from an unsettling tranquilization surrounded by gawking people—now with tags in her ears and a burdensome collar around her neck—another young female wolverine trapped by biologists in Washington fled through the Pasayten Wilderness and across the border into Canada.
When a Forest Service biologist told the Seattle Times, “…the best way to ensure wolverines continue in Washington is to learn as much about this population as we can,” I had to wonder if tormenting an animal so much that she hurriedly left the relative safety of Washington State (where a voter-approved initiative has banned recreational fur trapping) was really the best way to ensure the species continues. Canada and Alaska persist in allowing that archaic tradition. Putting animals through unnecessary suffering is just part of doing business up there—not a safe place for a “fur-bearer” of any kind.
Further knowledge is always helpful, but surely new information can be acquired through the use of remote cameras and other less disruptive methods. And really, how much more do we need to know before we reach information overkill?
We already know a lot about wolverines, such as the fact that they are the largest terrestrial mustelid—the brontosaurus of the weasel family. Among their relatives, the only species any larger are the sea otter and the Amazonian of all otters, the giant otter of the Amazon River basin. A wolverine looks like an oversized, striped mink or a small, elongated, agile bear. (Sorry I don’t have a photo of one to include here; all the sightings I’ve had have been brief, and all of the wolverine moved too quickly to get a clear photograph—just a couple of the challenges of using only ethically-acquired images.)
Putting their trademark pungent anal scent glands to good use, they seem to take special pleasure in fouling trapper’s cabins (whether for recreation or revenge, only the wolverine really knows…and they’re not telling). Possibly their best known attribute is their ferocity—wolverines could easily be considered the Tasmanian devils of the Northern Hemisphere. But a real-world Bugs Bunny would no doubt meet his match with these part-time predators.
The main thing we need to know about wolverines, we already well know: as a species, their numbers are perilously low.
I had my third wolverine sighting in the mid-1980s, on the volcanic flanks of Alaska’s remote Mount Katmai. I was backpacking with a couple of friends when we surprised a wolverine who crossed barely 20 yards in front of our path. He reacted not by baring his teeth and snarling, but by getting the hell out of there to the relative safety of a rocky cliff formed by a geologically recent lava flow. The naturally acrobatic animal leapt up from ledge to ledge with the fluid grace of a furry brown waterfall flowing in reverse. Within a few seconds the wolverine scaled a pitch that would have taken an hour and a half of effort for a skilled rock climber.
The encounter made me realize that, contrary to their notorious reputation for fierceness, wolverines will go to great lengths to avoid people. Clearly, in order to thrive, sensitive species like wolverine require vast expanses of wild land—and a minimum of human activity.
The most recent sighting I had was just a few years back, during one of my many trips into Yellowstone while living near the park in southwest Montana. That sighting was bittersweet as the wolverine was barely within the park boundary, and I knew all too well that trapping was legal at the time anywhere outside the protection of Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t help but think just how easy it would be for a trapper to snag this far-ranging park animal in one of their horrible torture devices. All they’d need is a state permit, a few steel-jawed leg-hold traps, a snowmobile and a complete and utter lack of conscience, remorse or compassion.
There are only around 250 to 300 wolverines in the continental United States, but for reasons that have nothing to do with science and everything to do with “higher priorities” and political pressure from trappers, they are still currently considered only a “candidate” for federal Endangered Species Act protection.
Even the Montana state game department must understand that a population as pitifully low as the wolverine’s suffers immensely when a trapper kills even one individual. Prior to the TRO, “game managers” were set to allow five wolverines to be sacrificed to the gluttonous trappers. What’s the point of having a season on five wolverines? Clearly it’s symbolic—just a matter of principle for them. But a principle is supposed to be a moral or ethical standard based on something upright and upstanding, not an immoral standard based on something lowly and loathsome like trapping.
It’s high time to ban wolverine trapping entirely—as a matter of principle!