For the first time in over a hundred years, wolverines are back in Yellowstone national park! These small, furry animals have slowly been reestablishing their presence in nature preserves around the country, but their numbers still remain extremely low.
Throughout the United States, conversationalists estimate that there are no more than one thousand individual wolverines. This number stands in sharp contrast to their original North American presence, as the wolverine used to thrive throughout the northern United States, Canada, and Europe.
Since the 19th century, however, the wolverine population has been in steady decline thanks to a number of contributing factors. The fur trade was once the largest threat to these shy, reclusive mammals, but deforestation and loss of habitat has become an increasingly pressing concern in recent years.
Considering the rapid decline of the wolverine population around the world, the wolverine family sighted in Yellowstone becomes all the more important. Not only do the trail cameras indicate that the wolverines in question are healthy and thriving in their home, but they also show a potential for growth in the population!
The cameras caught the image of a female wolverine and her two cubs, or kits, earlier this year. Since the trail cameras were installed in 2014, seven wolverines have been captured on film. The presence of young wolverines, however, indicates that the wolverine population within Yellowstone is poised to continue growing.
As researchers continue to track and study the movements of the different individual wolverines within the park, they are careful to emphasize that tourists and backpackers should not try to actively seek out encounters with these animals.
While they may have a reputation for being fierce hunters and powerful predators, wolverines are quite shy. If encountered in the wild, they’re far more likely to turn and run away than they are to charge at a larger creature, especially a human.
Each wolverine has a unique “chest blaze”, a splash of white fur on their chests that take a distinctive shape. Since no two wolverines have the same pattern on their chests, researchers are able to identify individual animals and track their behaviors and patterns throughout the park.
The only real predator of the wolverine is the wolf, which is another area for concern as researchers continue to observe the rebuilding population. Yellowstone is working to restore its wolf population, and there are some concerns that the presence of the wolverine’s only natural predator may be a deterrent to the wolverine population’s continued growth.
Thus far, however, both the wolf and wolverine populations seem to be rebounding in equal measures! The vast natural bounty of Yellowstone itself provides enough space for multiple hunting species, and researchers are optimistic that the two endangered populations could continue to recover at the same pace.
Dr. Tara Chestnut, one of Yellowstone’s park ecologists, announced that the park would not be releasing information on where the wolverines had been spotted. In continuing to protect that information, the park hopes to protect the habitat of the growing wolverine family, especially as the two female specimens focus on raising their kits.
Instead, Dr. Chestnut recommends that any visitors to Yellowstone national park keep an eye out for wolverines as they go about their usual routine. “Backcountry enthusiasts, skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers can help us monitor wolverines and contribute to studying their natural return,” she adds, and suggests that any sightings be reported to the Mount Rainier wildlife observations database.
As Yellowstone continues to reestablish the equilibrium that has been slowly eroded over the last couple centuries, it’s easy to look at the task of environmental restoration as daunting or overwhelming. However, the reappearance of wolverines serves as an important reminder that the task isn’t nearly as hopeless as it may seem and is in fact the first step in restoring a healthier, more complete world!