The Wolverine Way: A Q&A with Wildlife Biologist and Author Douglas Chadwick

November 12th, 2010

Douglas Chadwick (Photo Credit: Rick Yates)

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with wildlife biologist and writer Douglas Chadwick, author of The Wolverine Way, to de-mystify wolverines and discuss his role in Nature‘s Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom.

Mr. Chadwick spent years studying the elusive creatures in Glacier National Park, and lends his expertise to the program in an effort to demonstrate another side to the wolverine, beyond its notoriously ferocious reputation.

Nature‘s Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom airs Sunday, November 14 at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Mr. Chadwick answered our questions via email.

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Douglas Chadwick: I’m a wildlife biologist who studied mountain goats in the Rockies for seven years. I turned to writing about natural history and conservation around the world, mainly for National Geographic Magazine. But I still spent my free time next door in Montana’s Glacier National Park, watching goats, grizzlies, and other wildlife. When I heard about a wolverine study there, I asked if I could tag along for just a few days, hoping to learn a little about one of the most mysterious animals on the continent. As I helped radio-track some and listened to the researchers’ stories, I met a creature covering the huge, rugged countryside like no other, summiting peaks in midwinter, and even driving grizzlies off carcasses. Before I knew it, “just a few days” had turned into years of adventure as part of the research team.

IT: Wolverines tend to seek tough terrain and roam territories of nearly 500 square miles. Is there a reason they require so much space?

DC: Wolverines are what I’d call super-weatherized. They have huge feet for their body size, and formidable claws that act like crampons. These traction snowshoes let them lope across snowbound and icy terrain where you or I would be sinking thigh-deep and sliding away down a slippery chute. These creatures also come with a nearly moisture-proof double-fur coat that sheds snow and frost, a big heart, and a kind of amped-up metabolism to keep them warm. On top of all that, they’re just unbelievably strong and tough. This adds up to wolverines being able to master high, steep, and wintry terrain better than most other predators and scavengers. Still, there isn’t a lot of grub to be had around in such a harsh niche, each wolverine has to search across an enormous territory, and it has to be willing and able to make a meal of practically any groceries it comes across. Here is an animal that will tunnel down through 15 feet of snow and dig out hibernating marmots, make a meal from the bones of a mountain sheep carcass it cached months earlier in a snowbank, or try to take on a full-grown elk or caribou. A fellow volunteer, Alex Hasson, really summed up the wolverine survival strategy when he said, “You cover enough ground, you’re gonna find something to eat.”

IT: In Native American mythology and even popular culture (such as X-Men), wolverines are depicted as destructive and ferocious, despite their relatively small size. Based on your encounters, is there another side to these creatures despite this reputation?

DC: While there are plenty of tales about wolverines stalking and attacking people out in the countryside, I don’t know of a single one that ever proved to be true. Now, if you corner them, as we did when capturing the animals for radio-tagging, they certainly do live up to their ferocious reputation, rushing at you with spit flying from big, bared teeth and the kind of bad-dream growls and roars you hoped never to hear up close in reality. But you see, that’s how the demon-of-the-north stories got started — because woodmen met wolverines mostly in steel-jawed traps they had set or when they returned to a back-country cabin and surprised a wolverine that had broken in to raid food. Even most scientists believed wolverines were solitary, too vicious to get along with each other after they left their mother’s side at the age of six months. Yet we found male wolverines forming long-term bonds with females, spending time with them now and then outside of the breeding season, visiting them and their babies inside dens, and sometimes traveling and hunting with their yearling offspring. Although I met visitors in Glacier Park scared to death of meeting a wolverine because of stories they had read, I often ran into folks who described watching wolverines goof around together while exploring a boulder field or mock-wrestling as they slid down a snowbank. The more we’re able to study this species, the more clearly we see a bright, inquisitive, playful mammal with a surprisingly sociable side.

IT: Can you tell us about your experience working on Nature?

DC: All I can say is that we did our best to point the Nature film crew toward certain subjects, and they took off from that point on their own, drawn into the adventure and sense of discovery just as we were. It was a pleasure to work with people who almost immediately “got it.” That is, they realized the opportunity before them to document these wildest of wild lives and share that information — and that wonder — with the public. I think that the producer/director, Gianna Savoie, turned out to be like us in another way as well: the more she learned about wolverines, their lifestyle, their unsurpassed survival skills, and their indomitable spirit, the more she not-so-secretly wanted to be one.

IT: National Geographic has sent you around the world for wildlife stories. What
has been your favorite placed you have visited for your research?

DC: Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of learning about animals from snow leopards to great whales in ecosystems from the Equatorial tropics to the sub-Antarctic. Most everybody is naturally fascinated by big, majestic creatures. They radiate a lot of star power, and most everybody is fascinated by them. Yet I consider myself just as lucky to have become better acquainted with the group that contains the largest number of known species on Earth, the beetles, and with genuine super-organisms, the ants and their amazing social systems. This may sound a little woo-woo, but I view the whole biosphere is one long-running, ever changing miracle. Drop me anywhere, the livelier the better, and it will be my favorite place as long as I’m there. However, if you told me I could go wherever I want to in the world tomorrow, I’d probably say thanks and hike right on over into Glacier Park again. It doesn’t get any better or prettier or more free-feeling than a good day along the Crown of the Continent, hanging out with wolverines and their neighbors, from grizzlies to golden-mantled ground squirrels.