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In a forest west of Golden, BC, Mirjam Barrueto follows a creek bed, heading uphill, her snowshoe-clad feet crunching on the hard crust of months of snow.
He’s in search of a booby trap of sorts, set to capture sneaky photos and videos of a mammal some might be afraid to find, but Barrueto, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Calgary, is eager to discover: the wolverine.
Once widespread throughout Canada, the wolverine’s range has declined significantly over the last two centuries. Considered regionally extinct in parts of Atlantic Canada, climate change is making things worse for many populations of the animal, both nationally and internationally. The species usually lives in places that have snow for many months of the year.
Wolverines are now listed as “special concern” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. But Barrueto’s work in southeastern BC could help safeguard a population of the species.
And while the images Barrueto’s cameras pick up in the woods will help paint a picture of how well wolverines are doing in that area, for her, they also have a charm.
“They have a nice round face with a pretty impressive jawline and teeth,” he said.
“Sometimes I wish I could hang out with them, but they don’t really want that.”
A shelter from climate change in the mountains
Barrueto has visited camera sites in a 50,000-square-kilometer section of southeastern BC since 2017; part of an area that science shows will remain cooler with more snow than other parts of the region as the province gets hotter and drier. It is what is called a shelter against climate change.
“It’s a place where you go for safety,” said Greg Utzig, a forest ecologist and land management consultant based in the Kootenay region of British Columbia.
“The climate refugia that I have identified for southeastern British Columbia is an area that basically fits into a triangle between Revelstoke, Golden and Mount Robson,” he said.
British Columbia is already feeling the impacts of climate change with last June’s devastating heat wave. As the province continues to warm, southeastern BC will receive less precipitation or the snowy months will become wetter.
But Utzig points out that this triangle of mountains is tall enough to stay cooler than similar areas in the region for the next century. Which is important for wolverines, who usually build their dens in the snow and also use it to hide food, like a refrigerator.
While a climate refuge may protect wildlife from some impacts of climate change for now, “these areas are last-ditch efforts … the only thing that’s going to solve these problems is to stop emitting carbon and leaving fossil fuels behind.” the ground,” he said. Utzig.
CLOCK | It takes a bit of trickery to get wolverines to cooperate for pictures:
Iconic British Columbia creatures, including grizzly bears, mountain caribou and wolverines, like these cool, moist environments, Utzig said. And the hope, he explained, is that if we can restore our climate in the next few centuries, animals can again disperse from these refuges.
Barrueto’s research aims to discover how to make that future possible for the gluttons.
“If we can keep the population here strong … then we also know that their habitat will remain,” Barrueto said.
the future is female
To find out how successful this climatic refuge for the wolverines will be, Barrueto focuses on the females.
Whether or not female wolverines are having babies, their kits paint a picture of how likely that population is to survive.
Barrueto is still unclear on exactly what kinds of disturbances and activities female wolverines can tolerate in this region of British Columbia. used by humans in other ways.
“At what point [are] there too [many] of us that even if there is enough food, [wolverines are] Aren’t you going to stay?” said Barrueto.
For this climate safe haven to benefit wolverines in the future, the population must be healthy now. So Barrueto wants to assess what human activity the females can tolerate while they reproduce; the research hopes it can support decisions about how to manage the area in the future.
But it takes time and a bit of trickery to get the gluttons to cooperate.
Photos of Wolverine’s belly may hold the key
At the top of the hill, nestled in the interior temperate rain forest of western hemlock and red cedar trees, Barrueto arrives at his field site.
He points to a wooden contraption fixed to a tree and two beaver skulls, last year’s bait, hanging from a metal rope.
This bait is the reward for a willing wolverine to climb up the tree to the wooden contraption, a board protruding from the tree called a running post. At the end of one board is a wooden frame that a wolverine can lean on as it stands up to eat the bait.
This year, Barrueto has walked on a new gift: a cattle femur.
“These are the things I don’t tell my neighbors,” he said, unwrapping the bone.
At the base of a nearby tree, dig through the snow to find his motion-sensitive camera, which is designed to start taking photos when a wolverine is nearby. Images showing the wolverine’s belly allowed Barrueto to identify the sex. And, if she is female, whether or not she is pregnant or if she has recently had litters.
Wolverines also have distinct chest patterns, like fingerprints, allowing scientists to identify people.
It took wildlife biologist Audrey Magoun two years studying captive wolverines in Oregon to develop the technique that would require the animals to expose their unique chest pattern. She has been researching the animals for more than 40 years and notes that there are still unknowns about the species and how it will respond to a warmer world.
“I think the wolverine story is much more complicated than we thought,” Magoun said.
‘Climate change is a chronic and persistent threat’
In Canada, wolverines can be found in the Arctic and from British Columbia to Ontario, just part of the area where the species used to live.
“They have lost much of their range,” said Jason Fisher, a wildlife ecologist with the ACME Research Group at the University of Victoria’s School of Environmental Studies. Fisher explains that they used to go all the way through Quebec and Labrador and even to the Maritimes, and then far south to the Great Lakes.
Causes of the decline include trapping and hunting, along with changes to the habitats where the wolverines live, such as forestry, oil and gas exploration, roads, and other developments. Human-caused climate change is also playing a role, but teasing out exactly how can be difficult.
In Canada, research in Rocky Mountain national parks, where there is less development than in unprotected areas, has shown that even there, populations are declining.
“That suggests that the climate change signal is very real and that life is getting harder for the wolverines, either just because of the loss of snow or the loss of available food resources, or probably a combination of both.” Fisher said.
Compared to immediate threats like habitat destruction, “climate change is a chronic and persistent threat,” he said.
hope for the future
As Canada experiences warmer temperatures and less consistent snowfall, Magoun believes we need to take into account not only temperature, but also ways wolverines can prevent overheating: access to water, shade, and lower nighttime temperatures.
Another consideration is connecting disparate populations. Fisher looks to the US, where some wolverines live in patches of snow-covered mountains and “cross valley bottoms that are very developed, that are covered with roads,” she said. “Those snowy patches will get smaller and further apart with climate change over the next century.”
He said flyovers so wildlife can traverse roads, and leaving green spaces to connect these “remnant” populations is key to their future in a warming world.
“The wolverines were here long before us. We have a moral obligation and also a legal mandate to keep the wolverines … in the places where they have historically lived,” Fisher said.
If wolverines can thrive in the triangle between Golden, Revelstoke and Mt. Robson, it would bode well for their future in that region. So Barrueto will continue to harass them and study the images and videos he captures, hoping to find a balance of how the wolverines, the people and the industry can survive there.
“We need to know what things we should stop doing and what things really aren’t that big of an issue,” Barrueto said.
Written and produced by Molly Segal.