Wolverines have a fierce reputation, so it’s no surprise a new pilot project aiming to train the sharp-clawed scavenger in avalanche search and rescue has raised some eyebrows.
“New ideas normally do sound ridiculous,” Mike Miller, one of the project’s founders, told Outside magazine, pointing out that those who suggested using dogs for avalanche rescue were once thought to be crazy too.
Miller is the founder of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre, where he’s currently training two wolverines known as Kayla and Kasper. Although wolverines are known as solitary animals with incredible jaw strength and a powerful territory-marking odour, Miller says their intelligence and keen sense of smell makes them perfect candidates for the job.
“Anything you can train a dog to do, you can train a wolverine to do, five times quicker,” Miller said.
The Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association has been training dogs to find and dig out humans buried in snow for decades, and according to Steve Kroschel, who’s also involved in the project, it’s the very same concept. The difference is that wolverines are much more intelligent than dogs, and searching for animals buried in avalanches is natural to them. Wolverines are known to search slides for dinner, feasting on animals that have been buried 20 feet below the snow. Their large paws act as snowshoes, and their sharp, curved toes are like built-in crampons, making it easy for them to scale sheer cliffs and ice falls.
They’re powerful, predatory creatures that can take down deer, sheep, small bears and, given the right snow conditions, moose. But there’s evidence that they can be tamed. Kroschel started training wolverines at a sanctuary east of Edmonton 36 years ago.
“There was a time when trappers would catch them instead of shooting them, and there were a few that could be saved for educational purposes,” Kroschel told CBC News.
The secret, he says, is introducing them to humans when they’re first born.
“If you do that with a wolverine, it has an amazing effect,” he told Vice News. “They trust you, they respond to you, they become loyal, they basically demonstrate their real character.”
Despite his confidence in the ferocious animal’s ability to be trained, it’s probably not the face you want to see digging you out of snow. Miller and Kroschel agree, which is why the animals would only be trained to track human scent, before stepping back and allowing a human search-and-rescue team to do the digging.
Whether or not the project goes through is dependent on whether the wolverines will mate in captivity, which Kroschel told CBC is a bit of an enigma.
“There have been a handful of zoos that have been successful in getting wolverine litters here and there, but it’s very spotty.”