Biologist to study wolverine behavior this summer

Posted: Wednesday, April 19, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- When veterinarian Jean Battig pinched the fat on Denali's neck and poked a needle into his skin, the sleeping wolverine kit let out a howl.

''They're not as tough as everyone says,'' said Audrey Magoun, owner of the lap Denali was sleeping on. ''They cry just like any babies.''

Wolverines ferocious?

You've gotta be kidding. Why, just look at those two cute, little, furry baby wolverines crawling around in Magoun's lap, sucking on a bottle of milk, playfully chewing on her fingers and sleeping like, well, like babies.

It's hard to imagine that these same animals a year from now will be capable of crushing a steel trap in their jaws or fending a wolf off a moose carcass.

They're so darn adorable that you want to pick them up, wrap your arms around them and take them home to raise yourself, even if they do have a certain musky smell.

That's precisely what Magoun is doing in an attempt to study one of the north country's most secretive carnivores.

Meet Deborah and Denali, 7-week-old wolverine kits born in captivity on a Washington state game farm. Magoun is borrowing them to raise in the wilds of Alaska this summer and to study their behavior and development.

''I'm basically going to act as their mother,'' said Magoun, as the two kits wrestled in her lap Tuesday afternoon at the Chena Ridge Veterinary Clinic.

That will require camping out in the Bush with them, moving them from spot to spot every few days like mother wolverines do and caching food for them. It also will mean protecting them against such predators as grizzly bears, wolves and other wolverines living in the area.

''I just want to see how much of their behavior is innate and not learned behavior,'' said Magoun, who is funding the study out of her own pocket.

A wildlife biologist who recently retired from the state Department of Fish and Game, Magoun plans to live with the wolverines in a remote part of the Alaska Range for five months this summer. Magoun, who received a special permit from Fish and Game to do so, said she is searching for ''the essence'' of wolverines.

''People know what the canids are like, what felids are like, but nobody knows much about wolverines,'' said Magoun.

Magoun is partial to the animals. She is probably Alaska's foremost expert on wolverines, having studied them for her PhD, which she received in 1985. The wolverine telemetry study she conducted on the Utukok River in northwest Alaska from 1978-1982 was only the second telemetry study done involving wolverines. Magoun said she always has been fascinated by the animals.

''We study wolves, bears, but nobody has spent any time on wolverines,'' she said.

Pound for pound, wolverines are regarded as the toughest, meanest animal in Alaska, able to destroy anything from a steel trap to a hunting camp to a cabin.

The subject of a book titled ''Demon of the North,'' they are legendary for their ability to escape the grip of a steel trap by chewing their way free, whether it means nibbling off a few toes or eating the trap itself.

''Everybody calls them ferocious but they're scavengers, so they're constantly having to defend their food,'' she said. ''They have a really ferocious sounding growl but they're not any more ferocious than any other carnivore.

''There's lots of myths about these little guys,'' said Magoun.

The fur of a wolverine is highly valued by Alaskans and commonly is used as trim on parka ruffs because the guard hairs don't ice up.

Nobody knows how many wolverines are in Alaska but trappers catch an average of about 400 wolverines a year, Magoun said.

Wolverines rarely are seen in the wild. You stand a better chance of seeing a wolf than a wolverine in Alaska. Magoun has seen wolverines only twice without the help of radiocollars to locate them. Most of her observations have come from tracking collared animals by airplane.

The one time she was able to find the den of a mother wolverine and her kits, Magoun set up camp about a half-mile away in hopes of spying on the animals, but the mother moved the kits that same night.

This summer, Magoun plans to camp out with the wolverines and simulate the behavior of a mother wolverine by hiking around to different rendezvous sights, places where a mother wolverine will leave her kits while she is off hunting and then returns to feed them. A mother wolverine has a home range of about 50 square miles, Magoun said.

''I'm going to try to cover as much area as a mother,'' she said. ''Of course, I'm not as mobile as a wolverine.''

When they're sleeping, she will sneak away and watch them from a distance to see if they remain in the same spot until she returns, which is what young wolverines do in the wild.

Magoun also will leave food caches in different spots to see if the wolverines return to those places to feed when they're roaming on their own or if they simply will kill their own food.

She will chronicle their scent-marking habits, also, to see if they repeatedly mark the same tree, something wild wolverines have been documented doing.

Magoun is hoping to keep the kits with her until October, but that will depend upon how independent they get through summer.

''If I can't call them back or keep up with them I have to give them back (to the owner),'' said Magoun, who is training a golden retriever to help her track down the kits in the event they stray off. ''That's part of the agreement.''

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