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Photo: Amy Macleod

You may or may not have heard of a wolverine. This elusive animal is the largest member of the weasel family. Little is known about this iconic species of Glacier National Park, which typically occupy remote stretches and high elevation habitats.

Your generous donations to the Glacier Conservancy and additional support from the National Park Foundation are supporting a continuing study on Glacier’s wolverines, uncovering more about this rare and mysterious mammal. Keep reading to learn about how your support is giving park managers the tools they need to consistently monitor Glacier’s wolverine population and keep it protected across the region.

Research Helps To Better Understand and Protect Glacier’s Wolverines

One of the first wolverine studies conducted in the lower 48 states was in Glacier National Park from 2002-2008. The multi-year study was chronicled in the book The Wolverine Way by Douglas Chadwick.

During the winter of 2016-2017, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies – along with federal, tribal, university, and private partners – conducted the first range-wide survey for wolverines in the western United States. Using 185 remotely triggered camera stations and hair snares to detect wolverines, this study established a baseline for wolverine population estimates across Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington.

Now, there is a need to repeat this survey every five years to consistently monitor wolverines and determine if their populations are stable, increasing, or decreasing.

In an effort to learn more about Glacier’s wolverines and how your donations are making a difference, we caught up with Shawn Servis, the wildlife technician assisting with the current wolverine study in Glacier National Park. Keep reading to get the inside scoop and see some amazing photos from this study that your support is making possible.

Glacier National Park Conservancy (GNPC): Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What led to your interest in studying wolverines?

Shawn Servis (SS): I was born and raised in Missouri. I served in the Marine Corps between 2007 and 2011 and pursued a degree in biology shortly after my enlistment ended. Wildlife work seemed like a good fit for me, and I turned out to be right. I’ve been working as a wildlife technician jumping around between Montana and Idaho since 2014. During that time, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to participate in projects involving just about every North American species I could ever desire to work with in my lifetime. It’s been a wild ride at times, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

My interest in wolverines probably stems from a stereotypical boyhood fascination with animals that live on the fringes. That appreciation has only grown stronger as I’ve gotten older and gained a deeper understanding of ecological and biological relationships.

A woman smiles while standing along a trail in the alpine landscape of the Rocky Mountains

Wildlife technician, Shawn Servis, on his way to Morning Star Lake in Glacier National Park. Shawn is assisting with the current wolverine study in Glacier National Park.

Photo: Shawn Servis

GNPC: Have you seen wolverines in the wild? Any particular encounters that stand out to you?

SS: I have been lucky enough to spot a wolverine in the wild. During the summer of 2018 I was conducting a black swift survey at Feather Woman Falls near the Sperry Chalet. I was on my break interval looking over the valley and about 25m below me on the scree field was a wolverine cruising along up to the Sperry Glacier trail. I was pretty happy to knock that one off my bucket list. I was actually able to see a wolverine before I finally spotted a mountain lion!

A flock of bighorn sheep traverse a road with snowcapped mountains in the distance

An early morning in the park.

Photo: Shawn Servis

GNPC: What is the most impressive or captivating wolverine story that you’ve heard?

SS: Wolverines are well known for their tenacity. It was documented that a wolverine traveled nearly 500 miles across Wyoming and Montana in the span of just eight days. I have trouble getting out of bed after 30 miles of skiing spread out over three days. The wolverines are putting me to shame out here, even with the mechanical advantage of man-made devices attached to my feet. It really puts things into perspective how tough they really are.

GNPC: What is something that most people don’t know about wolverines?

SS: Wolverines have fairly large olfactory turbinates for their size. This allows for them to take in a large volume of airflow very efficiently. They have a very keen sense of smell that allows them to scavenge/locate prey under up to 20 feet of snow. I’ve personally seen sign of them digging down through about 6 feet of snow to pull out deer carcasses. I’m always impressed with how they are able to locate food that’s seemingly undetectable, and then successfully move so much material to reach it.

A bighorn ewe and lamb graze along a meadow in the alpine of the Rocky Mountains

Volunteer Jeremiah Knudsen helps set up a wolverine station in Glacier National Park.

Photo: Shawn Servis

A bighorn ewe and lamb graze along a meadow in the alpine of the Rocky Mountains

Look closely, and you can see the camera on the left at one of the 34 wolverine stations in the park.

Photo: Shawn Servis

GNPC: Can you tell us a little bit about how this study is being implemented?

SS: We are placing 34 wolverine stations across a grid overlay of Glacier National Park. We’re looking to cover as much of the ground as possible, ranging from Kintla, Marias Pass, the Belly River drainage and everything in between. If there’s a major drainage, we’ve probably got a station somewhere close by. Each station consists of either an automated pump that dispenses a scented lure onto a femur bone on a daily basis, or a more traditional bait station using a deer quarter and a scented lure that’s placed on a sponge. These attractants are suspended in a tree, and placed beneath them are wired bore brushes that double as hair snares. When an animal climbs the tree to access the bait, they inadvertently leave behind tufts of hair that will be collected and used to identify the animal’s unique genetic sequence. This should give us a pretty good estimate/inventory of Glacier’s wolverine population around the areas being surveyed. Just across from all of these stations are motion activated cameras. As long as they’re functioning properly, we’ll be able to know exactly when the animals visited the stations and be able to collect some great photographs along the way.

The first photos from the wolverine study that is taking place this winter in Glacier National Park. Click on the photo to view and scroll through the whole gallery.

Photos: NPS

GNPC: Why is this study important for the viability of Glacier’s wolverine population, and wolverines as a whole?

SS: I have spent eight out of nine years of my wildlife career invested in Canada lynx research. Over those years I have developed an eye for what is suitable and unsuitable lynx habitat. It became shocking to me just how narrow, fragmented and fragile their band of habitat really is. Like the lynx, the wolverine falls into the category of being a highly specialized species. With that, they are at an increased risk of population declines if detrimental changes are occurring within their range. This makes them a species of precedence to focus on and learn as much as we can about them. The more knowledge we gather today, the more capable we will be to implement management decisions in the future. Glacier is a honey hole for wolverine habitat in the contiguous United States and will serve as an excellent baseline to help serve the population as a whole. With some prudence and good will, we can help to ensure a future for these incredible animals.

I want to thank John Waller for trusting me to put the wheels into motion on this project. Steven Cross for his intimate knowledge of the E. side of the Park, being a human snow plow, and being an exceptional co-worker. Also, thank you to all of the volunteers and donors that have helped us along the way. Your efforts and contributions are very much appreciated.

How You Can Help Glacier’s Wolverines

You can help protect Glacier’s wolverines by making a donation today, sharing this blog post with a friend, or following the Glacier Conservancy on social media. We appreciate your support!

Wolverine walking on snow.

Photo: Kalon Baughan

Your Support Makes A Difference

This project and many other critical projects would not be possible without your donations to the Glacier Conservancy. Learn more about how your support is making other scientific research projects possible in Glacier National Park.