The wolverine is a mid-sized carnivore with a legendary reputation for being a fearless predator and a crafty thief of trap lines. The wolverine’s home range is remote, rugged and snow covered for most of the year—the kind of places humans rarely go.
Mothers-to-be have been known to dig through as much as 15 feet of snow to reach natural cavities under boulders or downed trees to create a den for 2 to 3 babies or “kits.” Males tend to spend their life within a 500 square mile area, along with 2-3 females. Because of their fairly low birthrate and their need for large areas, there are not many wolverines—perhaps about only 15-20 across the entire Payette National Forest, located in Idaho.
Why the sudden interest in wolverines? Increasing interest in winter recreation has brought humans into the isolated regions that once were sanctuaries for wolverines. While state and federal natural resource managers have expressed concerns about the potential impact of winter recreation on wolverines since the 1980s, there have been few studies that show how recreation may influence wolverine reproduction or habitat use.
Females are known to be sensitive to disturbance around their dens. If disturbed, mothers may abandon the den and move their kits, potentially exposing them to cold, predators or other hazards. As a result, these rare animals are in danger of becoming even rarer.
The Payette National Forest is part of a large research effort led by the Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) that spans three forests to find out more about how wolverines react to human presence. Jeff Copeland from the RMRS and nationally recognized expert on wolverines is leading the effort. Kim Heinemeyer, of Round River Conservation Studies is the co-lead. Phase one of this effort was undertaken in 2008 with winter aerial surveys that provided information on the distribution of wolverines and winter recreation use across the Payette, Sawtooth and Boise National Forests. Phase two of the research will focus on collaring wolverines and tracking recreation more specifically so areas of overlap can be studied.
While the U.S. Forest Service is providing most of the funding for the study, Copeland & Heinemeyer received a Southwest Idaho Resource Advisory Committee grant with the help of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and are being aided by the Central Idaho Recreation Coalition, The University of Montana and the Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game in their efforts.
These diverse partners are asking McCall area residents and visitors to help with phase two of this extremely important research to increase understanding of the relationship between wolverines and recreation. Copeland describes the study as “an opportunity for all stakeholders to work together to increase our mutual understanding of an important issue.”
The Idaho State Snowmobile Association (ISSA) is one of the original instigators of the project. The ISSA and the other partners are working with land managers so that recreation decisions can be based upon the best available scientific information and to enable land managers and recreationists to work together to insure the future of both wolverines and recreational opportunities. The researchers are asking recreationists to carry small data loggers when they recreate this winter. “Absolutely no personal information is required or recorded when checking out the devices,” Sandra Mitchell, of the ISSA, said. “The whole enterprise operates on the honor system.”
Local merchants have volunteered to provide information and drop off locations for the units. Most are also offering discounts and even a free drink to people who turn in a data logging device. Brochures and the units will also be handed out and can be dropped off at popular parking lots and trailheads on the forest.
Participating merchants are Hinson Power Sports, Gravity Sports, McCall Brewery, Salmon River Brewery and Carl’s Cycle in Boise. Drop boxes for the data logging devices will also be located at the McCall Ranger District and Idaho Fish & Game.
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