Industrial development is giving coyotes an advantage in wolverine habitat, new study finds

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Industrial development is helping coyotes settle in wolverine country and outpace the rare carnivore despite its fierce reputation, according to a recently published study.

“Roads and seismic lines were actually fueling competition between wolverines and coyotes,” said Gillian Chow-Fraser of the University of Victoria, lead author of the paper published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Chow-Fraser said it’s another example of how human activities on a landscape have far-reaching consequences for all the animals that live there.

“We see them changing the animal community in all sorts of ways.”

Change odds

Chow-Fraser, his academic colleagues and the Government of Alberta examined data from 154 camera traps collected in 2006-08 and 2011-13 in two regions of the province – the relatively untouched Willmore Wilderness Area and Kananaskis Country, which is heavily laced by roads and cuts from forestry, energy and recreational development.

In total, the study analyzes data from 2,790 weeks of camera deployment.

Coyotes and wolverines have different habitats and wouldn’t normally interact, Chow-Fraser said.

But, as development opens up pathways in the boreal forest and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, now it does.

“It increased the chances of them occurring simultaneously in one area,” Chow-Fraser said.

The data showed that on a road or cut line, the two animals were three times more likely to show up at the same location within a week of each other than elsewhere.

Fierce competition

Wolverines are ferocious beasts and Chow-Fraser isn’t suggesting coyotes beat them fang to fang. Rather, they are coyotes, with their superior numbers, using up resources wolverines could once rely on for themselves and their kits.

“We’re talking about a competition for resources or space,” she said. “There are a lot of coyotes and they outnumber wolverines in those places where there is a high density of linear features.”

New research shows that industrial development is helping coyotes move through wolverine country. (Liam Cowan/WCS Canada)

Other predators such as wolves, cougars or bears aren’t the problem, Chow-Fraser said. These animals feed differently and do not compete with wolverines.

Wolverines are considered a “data deficient” animal in Alberta. The most recent estimate of the province’s population – now 20 years old – is less than 1,000 animals.

We definitely need to start taking wolverine status more seriously.​​​​– Gillian Chow-Fraser, researcher

“Alberta’s population is considered to be declining at an unknown rate,” says the Alberta Wolverine Fact Sheet.

A 2020 study by the Alberta Conservation Association for the provincial government concludes that there are no “robust” population estimates for wolverines in the vast majority of their range.

“In 2022, Environment and Parks will review new information and data available on wolverines to determine if an updated status assessment should be conducted,” said department spokesman Jason Penner.

A wolverine is shown in this Alberta camera trap photo from 2012, at the same location where a coyote was also photographed a week apart, provided by lead researcher Gillian Chow-Fraser of the University of Victoria. (Document/The Canadian Press)

Federally, wolverines have been listed as a species of special concern since 2014. This status under the Species at Risk Act does not require governments to develop a recovery plan for the animal.

“There really needs to be a reassessment of wolverine numbers in Alberta,” Chow-Fraser said. “We definitely need to start taking the status of wolverines more seriously.”

The study shows how human intervention on a landscape creates new circumstances that alter the way species interact for millennia.

Chow-Fraser likens the wolverine’s situation to that of the caribou, which now suffers from wolf predation because roads and logging lines have cleared the way into the deep forest.

“We need to think about how industrial development fundamentally changes the wildlife community.”

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