Recovery of wolverines in the Western United States: Recent extirpation and recolonization or range retraction and expansion?


  • Associate Editor: Jeff Bowman


Wolverines were greatly reduced in number and possibly extirpated from the contiguous United States (U.S.) by the early 1900s. Wolverines currently occupy much of their historical range in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, but are absent from Utah and only single individuals are known to occur in California and Colorado. In response, the translocation of wolverines to California and Colorado is being considered. If wolverines are to be reintroduced, managers must identify appropriate source populations based on the genetic affinities of historical and modern wolverine populations. We amplified the mitochondrial control region of 13 museum specimens dating from the late 1800s to early 1900s and 209 wolverines from modern populations in the contiguous U.S. and Canada and combined results with previously published haplotypes. Collectively, these data indicated that historical wolverine populations in the contiguous U.S. were extirpated by the early 20th century, and that modern populations in the contiguous U.S. are likely the descendants of recent immigrants from the north. The Cali1 haplotype previously identified in California museum specimens was also common in historical samples from the southern Rocky Mountains, and likely evolved in isolation in the southern ice-free refugium that encompassed most of the contiguous U.S. during the last glaciation. However, when southern populations were extirpated, these matrilines were eliminated. Several of the other haplotypes found in historical specimens from the contiguous U.S. also occur in modern North American populations, and belong to a group of haplotypes that are associated with the rapid expansion of northern wolverine populations after the last glacial retreat. Modern wolverines in the contiguous U.S. are primarily haplotype A, which is the most common and widespread haplotype in Canada and Alaska. For the translocation of wolverines to California, Colorado, and other areas in the western U.S., potential source populations in the Canadian Rocky Mountains may provide the best mix of genetic diversity and appropriate learned behavior. © 2014 The Wildlife Society.