Spatial ecology of wolverines at the southern periphery of distribution


  • Associate Editor: Michael Chamberlain.


Wolverines (Gulo gulo) in the conterminous United States have experienced range contraction, are uncommon, and have been designated as warranted for protection under the United States Endangered Species Act. Data from the southern edge of the wolverine's circumpolar distribution is sparse, and development of effective conservation strategies would benefit from a more complete understanding of the species' ecology. We captured and radio-monitored 30 wolverines in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), tested for seasonal habitat selection by elevation band, and examined a suite of spatial characteristics to clarify our understanding of the wolverine's niche. Wolverines in GYE selected for areas >2,600 m latitude-adjusted elevation (LAE; n = 2,257 wolverine locations [12 F, 6 M]). Wolverines avoided areas <2,150 m LAE, including during winter when the vast majority of ungulates are pushed to these elevations by deep snow. Wolverine home ranges were large relative to body size, averaging 303 km2 for adult females and 797 km2 for adult males (n = 13 [8 F, 5 M] and 33 wolverine-years). Resident adults fit with Global Positioning System (GPS) collars used an area >75% the size of their multi-year home range in an average of 32 days (n = 7 [5 F, 2 M]). Average movement rates of 1.3 km/2-hr indicated that both sexes move distances equivalent to the diameter of their home range every 2 days or the circumference of their home range in <1 week (n = 1,329 2-hr movements, n = 12 individuals [7 F, 5 M]). This capability for movement, the short time-frame over which home ranges were developed, and a lack of home range overlap by same sex adults (equation image, 90% CI = 0.0–4.8%, n = 22 pairs) suggested territoriality. We estimated wolverine density to be 3.5/1,000 km2 of area >2,150 m LAE (95% CI = 2.8–9.6). Dispersal movements extended to at least 170 km for both sexes (n = 5 F, 2 M). At the southern edge of distribution, where suitable and unsuitable conditions exist in close proximity, wolverines selected high-elevation areas near alpine tree-line where a mix of forest, meadow, and boulder fields were present, deep snow-cover existed during winter, and low temperatures near freezing can occur throughout the year. Persistence in these areas where the growing season is brief requires large home ranges that are regularly patrolled, a social system that provides exclusive access to resources, and low densities. These characteristics, along with low reproductive rates, are prevalent throughout the species range, indicating that wolverines are specialists at exploiting a cold, unproductive niche where interspecific competition is limited. The vulnerability inherent in occupying this unproductive niche was likely influential in previous declines within the conterminous United States and will remain a factor as wolverines encounter modern human influences. Conserving wolverines in the conterminous United States will require collaborative management over a large geographic scale. © 2011 The Wildlife Society.