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

A 3.0-magnitude earthquake occurred off Ucluelet just after 12:30 a.m. on April 10 and was reportedly felt as far south as Oregon. (Map via United States Geological Survey)
Quake off Ucluelet reportedly felt as far south as Oregon

Magnitude 1.5 earthquake also reported off Vancouver Island’s west coast hours earlier

Theatre manager Sophie L’Homme is ecstatic to share the news that Tofino’s aging Clayoquot Sound Community Theatre is finally getting upgrades. (Nora O’Malley photo)
BC Arts grant funding breathes new life into Tofino’s community theatre

“Once it’s done, it’s going to be a pride of the town.”

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

The District of Ucluelet is fast-tracking temporary use permits for RVs/campervans as seasonal housing. (Westerly file photo)
Ucluelet launches seasonal worker housing pilot project

New program aims to match landowners with staff who need spots for the summer

A discarded blue surgical mask is shown hanging in a bush Dec. 6, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Ucluelet woman apologizes after comparing B.C. mask mandate to residential schools

First Nations Chief Moses Martin, a survivor said ‘I’ll put a mask on any day instead of the experience that I had’

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

The 10-part Netflix series Maid, which is being exclusively shot in Greater Victoria, was filming near Prospect Lake in Saanich last month. (Photo courtesy Fred Haynes)
Province announces $150,000 towards South Island film studio, fulfilling B.C. NDP promise

Investment to fund movie studio feasibility study at Camosun College

Tyson Ginter, 7, is proud of his latest Hot Wheels he recently received by Quesnel RCMP Const. Matt Joyce. (Photo submitted)
B.C. Mountie handing out toy cars to light up children’s faces

‘A lot of times it will be the only interaction they have with the police,’ says Const. Matt Joyce

Most Read