A Creature They Almost Never See
BY PAT HILL
Steve Gehman and Betsy Robinson, on a backpacking trip to the Yellowstone Headwaters, in the Teton Wilderness
Steve Gehman and Betsy Robinson, of Bozeman, have gotten pretty familiar with the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem while hunting for creatures great and small over the last 20 years. But the couple doesn’t pursue animals for meat, they search for knowledge—about animals ranging from wolves to weasels. The husband-and-wife independent research team studies some of the most elusive animals in the North American wilderness.
“I’m really interested in the weasel family,” Gehman told the Pioneer. And one animal that Gehman and Robinson have concentrated much of their efforts on is the largest member of the weasel family, the wolverine.
“I’ve always found [wolverines] to be fascin-ating,” said Gehman, “and we don’t have a lot of information on them yet.”
Information on wolverines in the wild can be incredibly hard to glean. “They’re out of sight, out of mind,” Jon Schwedler told the Pioneer in 2003, when he was Communications Director for the Predator Conservation Alliance in Bozeman. “They don’t like people.”
“I’ve only seen two in 25 years of tromping around—one in Alaska and one near Logan Pass [Glacier Park],” Gehman said. “Betsy’s never seen one in the wild.”
Estimates regarding the remain-ing wolverine population in the lower 48 states range from between 500 to 750 animals, and Gehman said he thinks about 200 of those remaining wolverines are surviving in the wilds of Montana, with about 20 wolverines in the Gallatin Mountain Range, 20 in the Madison Range, and 50 in the Absaroka Range. Gehman said there may be three or four wolverines in and around the Crazy Mountains as well. He said that the rest of the state’s wolverine population is probably concentrated in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park.
In southwest Montana, Gehman and Robinson, working through Wild Things Unlimited (their independent research firm), learn a lot about these creatures that they rarely see, in part by means of networks of remote-controlled cameras fitted with motion sensors. They gather wolverine hair for DNA analysis with a non-invasive device that snares the hair. And they put in many miles in the backcountry searching for the elusive animal, moving between feeding sites that often stretch between mountain ranges: Gehman said a breeding pair of wolverines will travel hundreds of miles in pursuit of food.
“We’re trying to unravel their feeding behavior,” said Gehman. “We do lots of backtracking between feeding areas. They’re moving tremendous distances… they need a lot of space per animal.”
Wolverines have been referred to as skunk bears because they resemble a cross between both animals. Weighing between 25-60 pounds, the husky, low-slung, bushy-tailed wolverine is brownish in color, with lighter skunk-like stripes on each side of the face and body. The animals have a broad head and neck, with short, rounded ears and small eyes. Wolverines are also equip-ped with long claws and sharp teeth, and their powerful, compact bodies allow them to take down an animal five times their size. The wolverine, though, is primarily a scavenger that feeds on carrion with a strong scent of urine and musk. Gehman said the efficient wolverine consumes every bit of edible material available from a feeding site.
“Their ability to find carcasses is amazing to me,” Gehman said. “One elk carcass in Yellowstone that was buried under four feet of snow and debris was detected and dug out by wolverines. They ate everything from that carcass.” Gehman also said he and Robinson have unraveled another mystery regarding the wolverine’s eating habits.
“Many of the feeding sites we’ve discovered are hunter-related,” Gehman said. “They’re feeding on wounded animals that later died, and on any animal parts left behind by hunters. They’re making huge use of those opportunities.”
Some studies indicate that though their numbers may have rebounded from historic lows in the 1900s, a stable wolverine population in the lower 48 is not a sure bet: Gehman said that when he and Robinson began doing winter surveys for wolverines in the Bridger Mountain Range eight years ago, they found indications of perhaps three to four of the animals for six years running, “but in the last two, there have been no detections there at all.”
“Trapping is still a big concern,” said Gehman, explaining that a wolverine pelt can bring upwards of $350 to a trapper. “So is continued habitat degradation…our presence and numbers really impact wolverines. Montana and Idaho are still strongholds—however, that‘s changing.” But the United States Fish and Wildlife Service decided in March that the wolverine did not need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, a move that Gehman disagrees with, along with environmental organizations like Earthjustice and the Defenders of Wildlife, which have filed a notice to sue the FWP over their decision.
“It’s a bit frustrating that Fish and Wildlife won’t protect wolverines, at least until we can get better information,” said Gehman. “We’ve got animals and habitat here…we need to keep it.”