By Kristian Rasmussen

Pioneer Staff

One of the most secretive animals in the EastKootenays is finding itself in the spotlight as researchers begin to unearth the hidden world of the wolverine.

Dr. Tony Clevenger, who is a research scientist at the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, along with a host of citizen scientist volunteers, has set out to record populations of wolverines and the effects of the TransCanada Highway on their genetics and movements in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks.

Currently in the second and final year of the study, which began in the winter of 2010, the group has used non-invasive hair traps and remote cameras to track the whereabouts of the animals.

We have found there are 22 individuals captured by hair trapping: 15 males and seven females, Dr. Clevenger said.

The hair samples of the wolverines were gained by hanging 48 beaver carcasses in trees with barbed wire wrapped around the trunk. The wolverines accessed the carcasses by climbing up the tree, leaving behind small amounts of fur in the barbed wire.

The survey sites were spread out over 6,000 square kilometres and checked via cross-country skiing volunteers three times during the season, at 30-day intervals.

Theyre all exciting trips, many quite fatiguing and cold, but all quite fun in their own way, Dr. Clevenger added. No one saw a wolverine, but we saw hundreds of tracks, many fresh, and on a few occasions we were only minutes behind the wolverines.

In the first year of the study, 40 volunteers signed up for the adventure of tracking down the Kootenays most elusive creature. Volunteer numbers have more than doubled this winter with participants hailing from as far away as Quebec and Vancouver.

Citizen science, we realized, was critical given the large extents of our study area, our full time crew of four people, and the need for assistance in setting hair traps, covering large areas, and safety, Dr. Clevenger said. There are many experienced backcountry skiers in this area, many see wolverines or their tracks while out, and we figured they would be a big asset if we could recruit them.

Volunteers were paired with a member of the research staff and cross-country skied more than 2,000 kilometres to check various hair traps through the three national parks. During last winters study, 84 per cent of the hair traps were visited by a wolverine.

When all of the research is complete at the end of this winter, hair samples will be genotyped at the Forest Service Conservation Genetics lab in Missoula, Montana. To learn more, visit wolverinewatch.org/blog .