There are many things I imagine wolverines would be pretty good at if given the opportunity: clawing through steel fence, fighting crime, or maybe convincing Paul Ryan to seek the Republican nomination, as one pundit recently suggested.
But I hadn't considered they might also be useful in a mountain search and rescue situation, because like most people I assumed wolverines are reclusive jerks that hate people. As the biggest member of the weasel family, equipped with the jaw pressure of a grizzly bear and a territory-marking odour that earns them the nickname "skunk bear," they've got a tendency to leap at any soft neck tissue they see. They're badass, no question, but low on most people's list of ideal life-savers.
If anyone's going to change minds on this, it's Mike Miller and Steve Kroschel, two dudes in Alaska who really, really love wolverines. The pair have teamed up on a one-of-a-kind pilot project that, fingers crossed, could be using the small but mighty beasts' super powers of scent to save lost skiers caught in avalanches as soon as winter 2017.
"If nobody ever tried, I don't see the harm in trying," says Miller, who is founder of Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre, a backcountry reserve that houses orphan animals. "We're doing it because we think it's possible. And if it works, it will be valuable."
It turns out wolverines happen to be naturally adept at finding buried meat bags after an avalanche. Rather than going through all the work of killing small game like rabbit and geese, they see the sides of mountains as giant freezers full of bigger scores like moose and sheep. They can smell deep below the surface of the snow, scale any terrain, and dig like motherfuckers, too.
Kroschel is a wildlife photographer that has already spent 36 years training wolverines in captivity. He says the secret to scaling back wolverines' blood-thirsty nature is to make sure they see humans when they're first born. "Then they become imprinted," he explains. "If you do that with a wolverine, it has an amazing effect. They trust you, they respond to you, they become loyal, they basically demonstrate their real character."
But even with careful training, Kroschel says the current plan won't allow a wolverine to actually dig for a rescue. He adds his own trained wolverines can still act pretty scrappy. "They bite me on the neck, they drag me around," he tells me. "They know just how hard to bite without killing me."
Instead, with the help of animal behaviourist Chandelle Cotter, they'll train the wolverines to track human scent, and let humans do the digging. "It does sound, probably, far-fetched, but the reality is this kind of training is actually being done all over the world in different projects," Cotter told Alaska Dispatch News, citing rats trained to sniff out mines in Cambodia and Dutch eagles that take out drones.
With extra endurance, strength and a nose at least seven times more sensitive, Miller and Kroschel see a huge advantage over the retrievers or bloodhounds used in regular searches.
Before the project gets off the ground, though, Miller and Kroschel have to achieve something pretty rare: get two wolverines to actually mate in captivity. Kroschel estimates only about 30 wolverines are living in captivity in all of North America. "It's rare, and even rarer to have success propagating them," he says.
Miller recently acquired a female mate from Sweden, named Kayla, that's now over at Kroschel's wildlife reserve in Haines, Alaska, where his own trained males live. The whole project rides on the hope that the wolverines will hit it off and produce pups for next spring.
Miller says the wild search-and-rescue idea grew out of his own experience living near a mountain range that has left many people buried for more than a month at a time. He tells me he'll never forget seeing one woman sit in her car by a hill every day for three months as a search party tried to locate her only son, an Iraq vet killed while backcountry snowboarding.
Miller thinks a wolverine could have found the woman's son more easily, and with her blessing, he plans to name the first born wolverine after her son. "It gave me a higher purpose to have a wolverine and to train it," Miller says. "It's not like I want it to ride a bike or a pogo stick."
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