Out of Bounds

The Toughest Weasel

There are an estimated 300 wolverines left in the southern extent of the animal’s range

By Rob Breeding

Those of us of a certain age share a memory of when we first learned of the natural world. It was in elementary school, on one of those blessed days our teacher broke out a Disney True-Life Adventures film, and we were afforded an afternoon off from studying.

Those films I watched in the 1970s were magical for a city boy like me. I dreamed of the wild places and wildlife depicted in “The Vanishing Prairie,” “Seal Island,” and “The Living Desert.” The Disney approach told the story through the lives of wildlife. Humans were absent and the narration, by Winston Hibler, leaned hard on anthropomorphism.

In “Seal Island,” for instance, the females arrive at the breeding grounds after the beachmaster males. As the girls frolic just offshore, Hibler tells us, “Perhaps they’re just playing hard to get.”

Sort of a cringey, old-school anthropomorphism. 

The True-Life film that had the most lasting impact on me was “White Wilderness,” an Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature. Later we learned the infamous lemming-suicide sequence, suggesting the arctic rodents hurled themselves off cliffs while migrating, was staged.

I remember those falling lemmings. What Disney left out were the rodent wranglers just off-screen, herding those adorable lemmings to their deaths.

The animal I most remember from “White Wilderness” is the wolverine. Before that movie, all I knew about wolverines was that they were the mascot for Michigan, which sports one of the finest lids in all of football.

“White Wilderness” taught me that wolverines, the largest terrestrial weasel, are worthy football mascots. The film casts them as bullies of the Arctic, bossing about the tundra much larger predators such as wolves and grizzlies.

To a certain degree this is true, but like the suicidal lemmings — sacrificed for art I guess — True-Life embellished reality to tell a pre-determined story.

Do wolverines bully wolves? Most certainly. Lone wolves at least. A big part of that is the wolverine’s sheer aggressiveness. Nature is no place to risk injury flexing your toughness in a pointless fight. So the larger predators often give wolverines wide clearance. 

But wolves are also a wolverine’s most common predator and a pack of wolves is a serious threat. 

As far as grizzly bears go, despite what “White Wilderness” suggests, wolverines pose little threat to the bears. Sure, a griz might avoid a scrape with a hungry wolverine, especially a griz with a full belly. But if that bear decides to kill an annoying wolverine the only recourse for the weasel is to run away.

The threat wolverines can’t run away from is global warming. The species requires cold, alpine habitat where snow lingers well into spring. Females burrow into that snow to build birthing dens and to raise their kits. Cold also helps preserve the carrion that scavenging wolverines rely on late in the spring.

In response to these threats, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a new rule last week listing the wolverine population in the contiguous United States as threatened. There are an estimated 300 wolverines left in the southern extent of the animal’s range. While there are documented wolverines as far south as California’s Sierra Nevada range and in Utah, the bulk of the threatened population lives in the Northern Rockies and Washington’s Cascade range. The more robust Alaska population is not covered by the rule.

Wolverines once lived as far south as Arizona and New Mexico, and east to Maine.

This frailty of wolverines is hard to accept. Since the fourth grade I’ve lived under the illusion that these ferocious weasels were invincible heroes of the wilderness. Watching clips from those old True-Life gems was challenging as well. I still find Hilber’s voice almost as comforting as I did when it meant no math today. 

Like a lot of media produced in the previous century, however, it doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny.

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