Are wolverines in the Arctic in the climate change crosshairs?

May 24, 2017

Will reductions in Arctic snow cover make tundra-dwelling wolverines more vulnerable to climate change than previously thought?

That's a question scientists hope an innovative method described in a new study co-authored by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) will help answer.

Wolverines are the largest land-dwelling members of the weasel family, and use snow-pack for denning, caching food, and other needs. Since snow cover provides a key component to wolverine habitat, determining where snow will be available, and in what amounts, will be critical to managing the future for the elusive carnivores.

That determination is seen as key to deciding listing under the Endangered Species Act. To better inform this discussion, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has stated the need for more information on the relationship of wolverine distribution to persistent snow at the den-scale.

In their study, the authors looked at snow at the den-site scale in late May using low-altitude aerial photography in wolverine denning habitat both in the Rocky Mountains of the western United States and in northwestern Alaska.

In the Rocky Mountains, they documented snow in all but one study area. Snow in the Alaska study area was mostly gone, with only widely scattered patches remaining for cover. The study emphasizes the need for additional surveys to determine whether reductions in Arctic snow cover could make tundra-dwelling wolverines more vulnerable to climate change than previously thought.

Meanwhile, the WCS Arctic Beringia Program is focusing on how wolverines use that snow and how obligate this usage is--information vital to optimally managing this species in a time of rapid climatic change.

Staff have just returned from three months of working on Alaska's North Slope in frigid temperatures in an effort to identify areas used by wolverines and monitor them with remote cameras and GPS collars. This equipment will document how wolverines use the landscape from a time of 100 percent snow cover to bare tundra, allowing scientists to assess how animals use snow, their productivity, diet, and other key questions.

"The question on how wolverines will be affected by climate change is clearly complex," says WCS wolverine program coordinator and lead researcher Tom Glass. "During our aerial and ground-based surveys on the North Slope, we have observed the use of snow holes for denning, and also by both males and females for caching food, resting, or perhaps shelter from predators such as wolves." If snow is lost too early, then wolverine kits may be exposed to the elements and predators before they are ready.

Using both traditional scientific surveys as well as learning from local Iñupiat experts who have hunted and trapped wolverines (locally known as Qavvik) for generations, new information collected will help inform an assessment of the health of the population.

Glass's work over the next two years will focus on mapping habitat use in the spring as snow melts earlier and more variably in the Arctic.

"Given the iconic recognition of wolverines, it is surprising how little we know about their ecology in the Arctic," says Glass.

To secure a future for wolverines, increasing that understanding is priority one.
"Detecting Snow at the Den-Site Scale in Wolverine Denning Habitat," appears currently in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. Access full article at: ( Authors include: Audrey J. Magoun of Wildlife Research and Management; Mark L. Packila of Wildlife Air; and Tom W. Glass and Martin D. Robards of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

This work was supported by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Wilburforce Foundation, and The Wolverine Foundation, Inc.

About the Wildlife Conservation Society. WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. To achieve our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in nearly 60 nations and in all the world's oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission. Visit: Follow: @WCSNewsroom. For more information: 347-840-1242.

Wildlife Conservation Society

Related Climate Change Articles from Brightsurf:

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?
Climate science has focused on avoiding false alarms when linking extreme events to climate change.

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.

Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.

Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.

Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.

Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.

Read More: Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to