A trail camera photo of a wolverine in B.C.’s Shuswap region. (Photo courtesy Grant Hiebert)

A trail camera photo of a wolverine in B.C.’s Shuswap region. (Photo courtesy Grant Hiebert)

Researchers puncture the myth of the Vancouver Island wolverine

VIU team shows Island wolverines largely indistinct from mainland counterparts

The Vancouver Island wolverine may no longer roam this side of the strait, but then again, it appears the subspecies never really existed in the first place.

New research out of Vancouver Island University suggests that the Island wolverine, a red-listed species in B.C., is not, it turns out, distinct from wolverines found on the Mainland and therefore not at-risk after all.

Proving this wasn’t easy, as there have been no confirmed wolverine sightings on the Island since 1992.

“This is what makes it so interesting. They’re a bit of a sasquatch story for the Island,” said Jamie Gorrell, a VIU biology professor.

READ MORE: Wolverine research in the Kootenays boosted by citizen science

Many of the records of wolverines on the Island came from old trappers’ logs, as the animals’ pelts were sought-after and valuable, said VIU biology grad Evan Hessels.

Gorrell speculated that land-use changes over the years and fragmentation of forests have been other factors in wolverines’ decline. Whatever the reasons, wolverines on the Island are “are rare and possibly extirpated,” wrote Hessels, Gorrell, Eric Lofroth and Richard Weir in a research paper published last month in the Journal of Mammalogy.

Wolverines are shy and steer clear of human activity, which makes them hard to find at the best of times, even in areas where their population is known to be higher.

“How do you study something that you can’t see?” Gorrell asked. “Instead of trying to go out and catch wolverines from the Island, what we decided to do was take a trip back in time and go to the museums.”

Gorrell and Hessels visited the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC and scraped bits of dried flesh from skulls and drilled into skulls, teeth, claws and bones. They collected dust, broke it down chemically in the lab with enzymes, studied “certain spots in the genome” and compared multiple samples.

“The coolest part in my opinion was getting DNA out of close to 100-year-old museum specimens,” Hessels said. “It was definitely a happy moment when we were able to get success with that.”

The researchers didn’t have any preconceptions about what they might find, though Hessels said “you always hope to be surprised.”

Gorrell said the 1935 research that classified the Vancouver Island wolverine subspecies was based on skull measurements and said it’s not uncommon now for old taxonomic studies to be re-evaluated using DNA.

READ MORE: ‘Biggest bobcat I’ve ever seen’: Vernon-area photographer

Gorrell said his team’s findings could potentially lead the B.C. government to review the classification of the at-risk Vancouver Island wolverine, as wolverines elsewhere in B.C. are considered threatened but not at-risk.

“If it remains a subspecies, then we have a real problem if this subspecies is endangered or potentially extinct, which is terrible,” Gorrell said. “If they simply say it’s not a subspecies, then it maybe takes away that problem for us, and then those resources to figure it out can be diverted to another species which is maybe in a worse situation.”

The findings open up the possibility for human intervention to re-introduce wolverines on Vancouver Island, but the researchers said that’s unlikely. While increased biodiversity is desirable, introducing a predator into Vancouver Island marmot habitat would create a conflict of interest and the journal article suggests “priorities should be weighed appropriately.” And questions would need to be answered first, Gorrell said.

“If [wolverines] did get eliminated from the Island, why? What was the factor that drove them out?” he asked. “If we haven’t addressed that, then trying to bring them back would probably just be a big waste of time, effort and money.”

Theoretically, wolverines could swim over via the Discovery Islands, which could explain an unconfirmed sighting in Sayward just last month. Gorrell said there’s “no reason” to think they’re cut off from Vancouver Island.

“Multiple unconfirmed sightings are reported every year, raising the possibility that the population still exists today,” notes the journal article, adding that the animals are elusive, nocturnal and live in mostly remote regions. “Some wolverines may still roam undetected.”

Plan your future adventures throughout the West Coast at westcoasttraveller.com and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @thewestcoasttraveller. And for the top West Coast Travel stories of the week delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our weekly Armchair Traveller newsletter!

British ColumbiaCanadaEndangered SpeciesvancouverislandWildlife

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

It’s been almost a year since the last public performance inside the Chemainus Theatre. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Lead donors pledge $60,000 in matching campaign at the Chemainus Theatre

Perrys, Hiltons and Duncan Iron Works help to Bridge the Gap during COVID shutdown

Doug Routley is the chair of a special committee on reforming the Police Act. (File photo)
Routley selected chair of a special committee on reforming the Police Act

Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA acknowledges there will be a lot of material to process

Ladysmith’s famous Festival of Lights decorations are still up as of March 1, 2021. (Cole Schisler photo)
PHOTOS: It’s still looking a lot like Christmas in Ladysmith

Festival of Lights volunteers cannot remove the holiday roof top displays due to COVID-19

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. seniors aged 90+ can start to sign up for vaccination on March 8

Long-term care residents protected by shots already given

Firefighters from three departments battled a house fire south of Nanaimo for more than nine hours Sunday. (Photo courtesy Martin Leduc)
Home in Cedar destroyed by fire

Firefighters from three fire departments battle blaze fanned by strong winds Sunday

Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about phase two in B.C.’s COVID-19 immunization plan as Premier John Horgan and Minister Arian Dix look on during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, March 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. reports 438 new COVID cases, 2 deaths

Long-term care outbreaks are decreasing

Needles are seen on the ground in Oppenheimer park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on March 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’c chief coroner says increased drug toxicity responsible for record overdose deaths in January

165 people – the largest number of lives lost due to illicit drugs in the first month of a calendar year

The victim of the homicide on Cowichan Lake Road early Monday morning was 17 years old, and was stabbed in the incident. (File photo)
Duncan homicide victim was 17 years old

RCMP report that teenager was stabbed

(File photo)
RCMP arrest man after report of gun-toting threat-maker near Parksville schools

43-year-old man taken into custody; students at nearby schools were asked to stay inside

The machines are akin to ATMs and allow drug users at risk of overdose to get hydromorphone pills dispensed to them after their palm has been scanned to identify its unique vein pattern. (CANADIAN PRESS)
Feds dole out $3.5M for ‘vending machines’ to dispense safer opioids in B.C.

Vancouver and Victoria both have a MySafe machine to help reduce overdoses

Kelowna’s lakefront visitor centre is one of 130 around the province. Tourism businesses have been hardest hit by COVID-19 restrictions on travel. (Destination B.C.)
Tourism, small business getting COVID-19 help, B.C. minister says

$300M grant program has delivered $50 million so far

The incident happened in downtown Castlegar. Photo: Betsy Kline
Castlegar teen recounts stabbing after stranger breaks into grandmother’s house

The unnamed teen survived a terrifying attack Feb. 21

(Black Press file photo)
Agassiz boy, 11, dies from ‘extensive injuries’: Homicide team

Agassiz RCMP were called out Friday to assist with a child in medical distress

Dr. Amit Desai of St. Francis Hospital receives a COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 17. (Photo courtesy of CHI Franciscan)
B.C. has now vaccinated more people from COVID-19 than total confirmed cases

B.C. has reached a milestone, vaccinating roughly 1.6% of its population from the coronavirus

Most Read