Human disturbance is pitting wolverines against an unlikely competitor: Coyotes

Human disturbance is pitting wolverines against an unlikely competitor: Coyotes

In March this year, headlines across the United States announced the rare sighting of an elusive creature in Yellowstone National Park: the wolverine. In the accompanying photographs, a lumbering, blackish-brown animal stands in profile on a snowy road. The individual, thought to be one of only around 10 wolverines that call Yellowstone home, continued on into the trees and disappeared. But new research in Biological Conservation shows that already-rare wolverines (Gulo gulo) may be imperiled by the expansion of coyotes — with human activity to blame.

Although coyotes rarely make the national news, both coyotes and wolverines thrive in similar habitats, eat similar food, and depend on similar climates. Unlike the wolverine, however, the coyote (Canis latrans) appears in abundance across North and Central America — so much so that the small canines outnumber the largest member of the weasel family by as much as or more than a thousand to one.

One place where wolverine and coyote populations often intersect is western Canada. With rugged mountain ranges, heavily timbered woodlands, and deep snowpack, British Columbia and Alberta offer a perfect refuge for both animals. Still, wolverines and coyotes rarely vied for the same food or habitat — until now.

“[C]oyote ranges have rapidly expanded due to increased exploitation of landscape disturbance, while the continental range of wolverines has contracted,” the study says. (Mongabay reached out for comment to the study authors, and while they agreed to answer our questions, they had not done so by the time this article was published.)

The study went on to explain that it was competition with other animals, like coyotes, that posed the biggest threat to wolverines. But why do the two species seem to be interacting more often, despite always having shared similar habitats? According to the research led by Gillian Chow-Fraser, the boreal program manager at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the answer is us. Generally speaking, although coyotes and wolverines inhabit the same area, they don’t often naturally cross paths. However, when humans disturb a wolverine’s habitat by building roads, trails, or pipelines, it drives the two species closer together.

Lead Image: A wolverine by Hans Veth via Unsplash.

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