By Laurie McClellan
for National Geographic, Polar Bear Watch
It’s one of the most elusive superstars of the northern wilderness: the wolverine.
Nicknamed “the devil bear” for its fierce disposition, the wolverine is known to hunt moose and even tangle with grizzlies. Yet despite its hunting abilities, this member of the weasel family, closely related to river otters and minks, is only about the size of a cocker spaniel.
Getting a photograph of a wolverine was a mixture of luck and perseverance for photographer Peter Mather, who spent a month trying to capture an image of one. While driving down a remote highway in the Arctic’s northern Yukon, Mather spotted ravens circling overhead. When he stopped to investigate, he discovered a dead caribou surrounded by wolf tracks. He set up a camera trap, but when he returned a week later, he was surprised to find wolverine tracks by the carcass instead. The animal had been feeding on the caribou, which lay exposed on a riverbank.
One week later, when Mather came back to check his camera, he found that the river had flooded and frozen over, trapping the caribou underneath. Still, the wolverine had managed to chew through a foot of ice to get to the frozen carcass.
Eating frozen carcasses, it turns out, is standard wolverine behavior. Even though a typical wolverine weighs less than 35 pounds and measures about three feet long, not counting its bushy tail, this tenacious predator can kill animals as large as deer and elk—especially when deep snow slows such hoofed mammals. Wolverines have been seen driving wolves and even grizzly bears away from carcasses.
Though they have never been common, trapping reduced their numbers substantially in the 19th century. Today in the United States, only about 300 wolverines live in the lower 48 states, spread between the Rocky Mountains in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming and the North Cascades in Washington. The wolverine population is larger in Canada, which is home to an estimated 15,000.
“As a wildlife photographer in the north, you’re always trying to see wolverines, but they’re extremely rare,” said Mather, who noted the inherent challenge of finding one in harsh, snowy habitat.
Those snowflakes may actually hold the key to the wolverine’s survival. Wolverines have adapted to life in the snow in unique ways. They can sniff out the bodies of animals killed by avalanches and buried under six feet of snow. With powerful jaws, wolverines chew and consume meat that’s frozen completely solid, devouring even the bones and teeth of scavenged carcasses. Wolverines spend their winters hunting as well as scavenging. When they’re chasing prey through deep snow, their oversize paws act like snowshoes and allow them to catch deer and elk.
Though wolverines still survive in the Arctic and elsewhere, conserving their habitat is vital. Human encroachment, including recreational winter activities, and impacts from climate change could threaten the survival of this predator.
To photographer Peter Mather, the wolverine remains a symbol of the wild north. “When I think of wilderness,” he says, “I often think of wolverines, because they’re so tough and resilient.”