Feb 15

Wolverines could be eliminated from mainland United States by the end of the century due to climate change, according to a new study by a researcher from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.  

Built to thrive in deep powder snow, springtime snow cover helps protect wolverine dens from predators. However, the new study shows that climate change might endanger wolverines in the mainland U.S. by eliminating springtime snow and significantly increasing summer temperatures.

Photo of North American wolverine standing on wet log in rain

The largest member of the weasel family, the elusive wolverine has a fearsome reputation.

State of the art global climate model 

Some 15,000 or more wolverines are currently believed to roam Canada, and an unknown number reside in Alaska. Only a few dozen to a few hundred are believed to live in the mainland U.S., almost all of them in the mountains of Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Washington State. 

Using a state of the art global climate model, the study’s author Synte Peacock explored possible future scenarios for the Northwest U.S. The model showed that present-day wolverine habitat would probably have no snow cover during many springs after 2050 and that summer temperatures may also increase radically across wolverine habitat.

Photo of wolverine walking in snow

Wolverines are well adapted to their cold habitat, with a thick, bushy coat and broad, hairy paws. The powerful jaws and large teeth are able to demolish frozen carrion and bone.

Wolverines to retreat as snow melts 

“That fast drop in spring snow cover was a real surprise to me, and it’s something you see even in a pretty moderate scenario. Without spring snow, wolverines would have to adapt very rapidly to find new ways of sheltering their young” Peacock said. 

Although it’s unclear exactly how wolverines would respond to such changes, the new simulations suggest that the very low numbers of wolverines currently living in the mainland U.S. would likely decline further in response to habitat deterioration.

Photo of European wolverine in snow covered woodland

Wolverine populations in North America and Eurasia are sometimes divided into separate subspecies, known as Gulo gulo luscus and Gulo gulo gulo, respectively.

Wolverines have a circumpolar distribution in the northern hemisphere, and are found from the western U.S., Canada, and Alaska to Russia, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Although Peacock’s model was only applied to the mainland U.S. she noted that there are similar concerns about warming temperatures in other countries where wolverines occur. 

Watch 14 videos of the wolverine on ARKive

To read more, see the National Geographic article. 

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author

  • Chris (February 15th, 2011 at 10:47 pm):

    When I was out in Alaska, they were shooting these on sight for their pelts. In three months, only two were seen, but both were hanging up in their garage a few hours later. Can’t imagine this helps things! Stunning animals, though – move like an anteater.

  • Liddy (February 28th, 2011 at 2:52 pm):

    I suppose humans will also be one of the causes for this beautiful creatures demise.. Sad.