Our research is situated in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. This vast area is recognized as critical for harboring important source populations that potentially disperse to and populate more fragmented and disturbed ecosystems to the south, east and west. However, the bustling 4-lane Trans-Canada Highway is recognized as a lethal barrier to wildlife and a fracture zone for population connectivity. As the expansion of the TCH moves up Banff National Park’s Bow Valley, it becomes the first attempt ever to introduce highway mitigation at the spine of the Continental Divide and within core wolverine habitat.
We know wolverines are highly sensitive to human disturbance. There is anecdotal information they rarely cross even 2-lane highways. Given highway expansion projects planned in wolverine range in the US and Canada, it will be critical to understand how growing transportation networks affect wolverine movement and gene flow within the natural connected habitat network they rely on for continued survival.
The goal of our work is to noninvasively genetically sample the wolverine population in Central Canadian Rockies to assess whether gene flow and movement of individuals is blocked by a major transportation corridor. We surveyed the wolverine population during winter 2010-11, and will repeat the survey this winter (2012-13). We are collecting information on their occurrence (from cameras) and population genetics (from noninvasive hair sampling). However, funding limitations have hampered our ability to extract the most data from our extensive hair sampling effort. Our findings will be used to inform transportation practitioners planning the design of highways within wolverine range.
Science has overlooked wolverines for decades. They naturally occur in low numbers and thrive in places that push the limits of mammalian existence. Less than 300 remain in Alberta today and they are a candidate species for federally listing in the USA as threatened.
Given their need to travel over large areas, their sensitivity to disturbance and degraded habitats, they are bona-fide indicators of healthy, well-connected landscapes. Today highway expansion projects are occurring at a rapid pace within wolverine range and their stronghold in the Rocky Mountain cordillera in the US and Canada. Understanding how highways affect wolverine dispersal and means of successfully mitigating road impacts will be a critical part of local and continental scale conservation strategies.
Wolverines are notoriously difficult to study. However, noninvasive DNA-based techniques now enable biologists to study elusive, rare-occurring species over vast areas from mere hair samples. Citizen scientists assist us cover this huge area monthly during winter, help expand scientific knowledge and learn about this increasingly threatened species emblematic of all things wild and remote. By participating in this project, we unite the energy and passion of the skier, climber, and conservationist to protect a wilderness icon of North America.
During our winter 2010-11 survey, we skied over 2000 kms, working in teams of two, and more on long backcountry trips. By May, we collected thousands of the most beautiful and curious wolverine photographs you could imagine, AND 900+ hair samples, of which 125 were analyzed for wolverine DNA. Given the hard work we and the citizen scientists put into hair sampling: deep snow, bitter cold, and long work days with short daylengths, we must mine our data to it’s fullest.
Because of budget constraints, last winter only analysed a fraction of the samples. The cost of DNA extraction, species and individual identification (and gender) is $95/sample. We are preparing for our final survey and season of sampling, which wil run from December through April. With our funding goal realized, we will be able to analyze 100 samples, double from last year. This will provide a more thorough and accurate genetic analysis of highway effects, and will make many hard-working volunteers smile at the end of the day.
This project will assess for the first time the effect of a major transportation corridor on wolverine movements and genetic connectivity. The application and conservation implications of our results to other problematic highway-caused fracture zone elsewhere in is seamless and straightforward. This information is timely given potential federal listing of wolverines as threatened in the US in 2013. This project will also be the first to systematically collect information on wolverine occurrence in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and model wolverine habitat using detection/redetection methods (with cameras) to identify critical habitats within the larger wolverine metapopulation.
Dr Tony Clevenger has never seen a wolverine. But then he doesn’t have to if his research uses noninvasive methods to study one of the most reclusive terrestrial mammals in North America. Growing up near the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada, Tony nurtured a strong conservation sense and desire to pursue wildlife ecology. Always fascinated by carnivores, particularly rare and elusive ones, newly graduated from UC Berkeley he planned a winter survey to try and determine whether there were any wolverines left in the southern Sierra Nevadas. Three decades later Tony has finally found the opportunity to conduct some long-awaited research on one of North America’s most iconic and enigmatic species – the wolverine.
Tony currently works at Montana State University in Bozeman, but lives and works year-round in the Canadian Rockies. He has published over 50 articles in leading international scientific journals and co-authored three books including the seminal work, Road Ecology: Science and Solutions (Island Press, 2003). He was a member of a U.S. National Academy of Sciences committee reviewing the Effects of Highways on Natural Communities and Ecosystems. Tony uses his findings to educate transportation professionals and wildlife ecologists as well as guide the design of highway projects in landscapes of conservation concern.
August 20, 2012
I want to thank everyone for your generous offer to help our research. As you’re aware by now, we didn’t each our goal of $9500 for our wolverine research project. Because we didn’t reach our all-or-nothing goal, we don’t receive any of your contributions. Nonetheless, some of you have contacted me lately expressing interest in contributing directly to the project.
It’s actually quite simple, as we have received several donations over the last couple years from people who have been interested in supporting our research.
Since our research funding is managed in both Canada and the US (Montana) donations can be sent directly to one of two institutions. They are both registered charitable organizations and in the US have 501.3c non-profit status, so donations are tax deductible.
If you are in the US, cheques should be made out to the "MSU Foundation" and request that the contribution be given to Fund Account 92564. Please send to:
Rob Ament, WTI-Montana State University, PO Box 174250, Bozeman, MT 59717-4250 USA
If you are in Canada, please make the cheque payable to "Miistakis Institute for the Rockies" and send to the following address:
Miistakis Institute, ℅ Faculty of Environmental Design, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4, Canada
If you're not in the US or Canada, donations should be sent in US dollars to the US address above. There are several ways that money can be sent from outside the US to a US institution (money transfer, bank cheque, etc.). If you have a preference for how to send the donation, please let me know and I can find out what transfer method is preferable to you and possible for the MSU Foundation.
Are there Rewards? Of course! We want to continue that aspect of the Petridish.org proposal. Our research will begin in mid-December 2012 and run until May 2013. We’re already getting geared up and prepared. There’s lots to do and lots of ground to cover over the 4 month period. I’d be glad to speak with any of you by phone, email or directly (what a novel idea!) about any aspect of the work, research updates, funding, wolverines!, assisting in other ways, etc. I’m around Banff-Canmore and not going anywhere until mid-November, so feel free to contact me.
Thanks once again for your support and interest in our research. Speaking on behalf of our research team, we are warmed by your generosity and truly grateful for your support.
Thanks for all your support! 41% of our goal has been met by your generous pledges and we have 40 days left to go. We're confident we'll get there. Spread the word, send the link, Go Gulo!