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To ensure they continue, give wolverines their space

by Jim Robertson

Printed in the Methow Valley News, April 5, 2006

As Paul Butler pointed out in his excellent editorial ("Travails of a Skunk Bear," March 1), the news that wolverines are still roaming Washington is exciting.

The last time I saw a wolverine in the North Cascades was in 1979. Although much has changed since then, apparently the park and adjoining wilderness and roadless areas may yet compose a habitat extensive and secluded enough for such a secretive animal--and we’re talking Sasquatch secretive--to feel at home.

In the mid ’80s, while backpacking on the volcanic flanks of Alaska’s remote Mount Katmai, I surprised a wolverine crossing my path 20 yards ahead. He reacted not by baring his teeth and snarling, but by getting the hell out of there to the relative safety of a steep cliff formed by a geologically recent lava flow. The animal leapt up from ledge to ledge with the fluid grace of a furry brown waterfall flowing in reverse. Within a few seconds he scaled a pitch that would have meant half an hour of effort for a skilled rock climber.

The encounter made me realize that, contrary to their notorious reputation for ferocity, wolverines will go to great lengths to avoid people. Clearly, in order to thrive, sensitive species like wolverine require vast expanses of wild land and a minimum of human activity.

It was disheartening, then, to learn that Melanie, the young female live-trapped at Harts Pass, fled through the Pasayten Wilderness to Canada after her ordeal. Interminable imprisonment in a coffin-sized box, being jabbed and tranquilized, and awakening to find herself surrounded by people--with tags in her ears and a burdensome collar around her neck--proved to be too much stress to endure.

In a recent Seattle Times article, Forest Service biologist Keith Aubry stated, "...the best way to ensure wolverines continue in Washington is to learn as much about this population as we can." Further knowledge is important, but surely adequate information can be discovered through the use of remote cameras and other less disruptive methods. Terrifying them to the point that they leave the country won’t ensure that wolverines will continue here. The lessons we should learn from Melanie’s ordeal are that wolverines don’t react favorably to intrusive studies and that they are vulnerable to the lure of a baited trap.

Now Melanie faces the grave danger of being trapped for her pelt, since, unlike Washington and many other states and countries, Canadian provinces persist in allowing the archaic tradition of fur trapping.

Last winter in British Colombia, my dog found the chewed-off foreleg of a lynx that the animal had sacrificed in a last, desperate effort to escape a merciless leg-hold trap. Although there is currently no open season on wolverine in the Okanagan region of British Columbia, traps are not always specific to the species they are set for. Twice I’ve had to rescue dogs caught in traps. A trap baited with carrion can catch just about any hungry carnivore that happens along. There is an ongoing season on raccoon in southern B.C., and Melanie could easily have been snared in a trap set for an animal that size.

Those monitoring the radio signal assume she slipped out of her collar; but until they make the effort to retrieve it, we don’t really know if she is free or if she was stuck in a trap, poisoned or starved to death.

Throughout history, trapping has been the greatest threat to the existence of wolverines and their kin. Entire populations have been wiped out across the country, from the Sierra Nevada range to the southern Rockies, and from the Cascades to the Minnesota woodlands.

In their 1927 book entitled Mammals and Birds of Mount Rainier National Park, biologists Walter Taylor and William Shaw give accounts of Washington wolverines trapped and poisoned around the turn of the century. The authors write, "The wolverine, if ever common, has undergone a marked decrease throughout the Cascade Range, probably due to the increasing price put on his pelt by the fur trade."

Washington’s voter-approved trapping ban is still under attack by those bent on returning us to the days when animals like wolverines were seen as nothing more than "fur-bearers," whose suffering and eradication were just part of doing business. Legislators have been considering a bill that would once again legalize the sale of fur from trapped animals.

Anyone concerned about the future of reclusive animals like wolverines here in Washington should contact their representatives and urge them to vote "no" on SB 5319; and to help secure the habitat they need, contact Sen. Maria Cantwell and let her know you support her "Roadless Conservation Act."

Considering current and historic threats to the existence of wolverines in Washington, the best way to ensure they continue here is simply to allow them their space, free from the terrors of cruel and indiscriminate traps.

Even back in 1927, authors Taylor and Shaw had the foresight to observe that, "Where possible, the balance of nature should be left to establish itself."

Jim Robertson is a wildlife photographer and animal advocate.


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