Rare Carnivore Surveys

Wild Things Unlimited Seeks to Provide Critical Information

Wolverines, fishers and lynx are among the rarest and  least understood mammalian carnivores in the western United States. Like wolves and grizzly bears, these three carnivore species are associated with wild places. Also like wolves and grizzlies, these species no longer occur throughout much of their historic ranges, due to habitat loss and fragmentation associated with residential and recreational development, timber harvest, increased road-building in forests, oil and gas development, and mining. With mounting pressures from industry and recreationists, the availability and security of backcountry habitats required by sensitive carnivore species is coming under question. We believe that human imposed threats to these rare species throughout the western U.S. constitute a significant environmental problem.   We are not alone in that belief.  In the mid-1990's, members of organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state fish and wildlife agencies, along with university researchers and carnivore advocates came together under the Western Forest Carnivore Committee (WFCC) to address the status and needs of forest carnivore populations. Shortly thereafter, the lynx was listed as a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act (2001), and petitions were submitted to gain ESA protection for wolverines and fishers. A growing number of Northern Rockies-based environmental groups share concerns about the welfare of rare carnivores and their habitat, and these groups will benefit from the information we are providing, in their efforts to protect forests in the region.
One of the primary needs identified by the WFCC was the need for baseline information regarding the distributions and habitat associations of forest carnivores throughout their remaining ranges. Especially now, with the lynx listed under the ESA, agencies are in urgent need of information on the locations and habitat needs of these rare cats. Wild Things Unlimited is working to provide that critically needed information relative to lynx, wolverines, and fishers in Montana's Rocky Mountains, from Yellowstone National Park to Glacier National Park.   Through this work, Wild Things Unlimited is contributing to greater understanding of rare carnivore distributions, relationships between rare carnivores and forest habitats, and the impacts of human activities such as road-building and motorized recreation on rare carnivores. Ultimately, the information that we gather on wolverines, fishers and lynx will aid resource managers and conservationists in the protection of important forest habitats, the preservation of biological diversity, and the defense of our remaining wildlands.

Objectives & Methods

Wild Things Unlimited’s Rare Carnivore Surveys project is providing critically needed information by addressing the following objectives:
      1. documenting the presence of wolverines, lynx, and fishers at numerous locations throughout the northern Rockies, and thereby assisting in the compilation of updated distribution maps for each species;
      2. documenting habitat use patterns of wolverines, lynx, and fishers in relation to human activities such as recreation and forest management; and
      3. gathering information related to the overall ecology of wolverines, lynx, and fishers.
All of our projects include extensive fieldwork, and the use of non-invasive methods such as direct observation, snow-tracking, reconnaissance surveys, remotely-triggered camera systems, and collection of hair and scat samples for DNA analyses. We incorporate the public into our data gathering efforts in numerous ways.  We conduct interviews with local outdoors people and backcountry users and record their sightings of rare carnivores in our database. We produce and distribute a Track Identification Guide that provides pictures and descriptions of forest carnivores and their tracks as well as forms for reporting sightings. In addition, we use volunteers in our research projects, and have helped to develop and implement numerous citizen science projects in cooperation with regional conservation organizations.

Accomplishments and Support

Previous to founding Wild Things Unlimited, founders Steve Gehman and Betsy Robinson participated in forest carnivore surveys in and around Yellowstone National Park from 1992 through 1997. They documented presence of 10 mammalian carnivore species throughout northern Yellowstone, and compared the effectiveness of various methods of detecting carnivores. Steve made a presentation entitled "Comparison of three methods of carnivore detection" at the 1997 annual meeting of the Western Forest Carnivore Committee. Steve and Betsy authored articles about their searches for fishers and wolverines for Yellowstone Science (Vol. 3, No. 4 and Vol. 6, No. 3), and an article including some of their findings relative to pine martens and fishers was published in the April/May 2000 issue of National Wildlife.
During the past seventeen years, with help of the grants from a number of foundations and our growing list of supporters, we have greatly expanded our efforts to survey forest carnivores.  We have entered into Cooperative Agreements and developed projects with four National Forests -- Gallatin, Helena, Beaverhead-Deerlodge, and Falthead -- and with Glacier National Park.  In each case, our relationships with agency biologists have been positive, and our results have been well-received. Our efforts have resulted in the documentation of wolverines, fishers, and lynx in numerous areas where previous information was scant or non-existent:  wolverines in seven different mountain ranges; fishers in two mountain ranges; and lynx in five mountain ranges. In addition, we have accumulated significant information regarding the distributions and habitat use patterns of other non-target, but relatively uncommon species such as bobcats, mountain lions, red foxes, wolves, river otters, and martens. For a detailed summary of our area-specific accomplishments, please see our WTU Accomplishments page.
As we continue these labor-intensive and logistically difficult surveys, information accumulates, we gain a more complete understanding of the big picture of rare carnivore distributions and habitat needs in the Rocky Mountains, and the value of the Rare Carnivore Surveys project increases for agency managers and conservation organizations. We have made great progress in learning about the distributions and habitat needs of wolverines, fishers and lynx, and our findings will help agencies and activists pursue their duties and their dreams of protecting these species and the habitat that they need for long term survival.