The wolverine has a circumpolar distribution (click to view PDF) that corresponds with the boreal zone of the northern hemisphere, occurring throughout arctic and subarctic regions and boreal forests of Eurasia and western North America (Kvam et al. 1988 from Pasitschniak-Arts and Larivière 1995). It is generally found south to 37 degrees north in North America and 50 degrees north in Eurasia (Pasitschniak-Arts and Larivière 1995, Copeland and Whitman 2003). The wolverine’s worldwide presence (fundamental niche) is congruent with the distribution of persistent spring snow cover and may reflect adaptations toward elevated thermal avoidance (Copeland et al. 2007)
Historically, the distribution of wolverines included areas as far south as all Norway, the southern parts of Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania, and northeast Poland. Present populations are found only in the central to northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia mainly north of latitude 60° N (Landa et al. 2000)
The following summaries of the wolverine’s distribution in Europe are excerpted from Landa et al. (2000)
At the beginning of the last century, wolverines were found at relatively high densities in the mountainous parts of central and northern Sweden. Reproducing populations also existed in the boreal forest areas even as far south as Dalarna and Värmland counties in southern Sweden. The hunting statistics indicate that the population declined steeply from about 1870 until they received protection in 1969. At that time, wolverines were limited to a small population in the mountain areas along the Swedish-Norwegian border. The population has increased since protection. Based on records of active natal dens during 1995-97, the population was estimated at a minimum of 265 individuals in all of Sweden, with almost 200 of these in the northernmost county (Norrbotten). The population seems to be stable, although limited and restricted local control actions were introduced in 1996.
The species was, until the beginning of this century, distributed throughout most of the forested and mountain areas as far south as the southernmost counties of Norway. Today wolverines are found mainly in mountainous areas in south-central Norway and along the Norwegian-Swedish border from Hedmark county northwards. Wolverines were hunted to functional extinction in southern Norway, where the species received protection in 1973, but recolonized the Snøhetta plateau in southcentral Norway in the late 1970’s. The 1995-97 population was estimated to consist of a minimum of 30 individuals. Reports indicate increasing geographical distribution and numbers in southcentral Norway during recent years. This population is isolated from the larger population in northern Norway by 100-200 km.
As in the other Fennoscandian countries, wolverines were historically persecuted in Finland. The population, as revealed by hunting statistics, showed a steady decline from before the turn of this century, when about 50 individuals were killed annually, to less than half the numbers around 1930. Finnish wolverines probably reached a minimum population level before receiving protection in 1982. The minimum population was 50-80 animals during the 1980s. The main population is within the areas of semi-domestic reindeer husbandry in the northern parts of the country. However, a smaller part of the population is located adjacent to the Russian part of Karelia in the east-central part of Finland. In recent years, some overall recovery has been observed.
In Russia the distribution of wolverines follows the boreal taiga zone and the southern border is roughly around 600 N. The species is absent from the northernmost tundra areas. Populations are believed to fluctuate according to fluctuations in ungulate populations. However, a considerable overall population decrease seems to have taken place during the last 30 years.
Komi has the highest numbers of wolverines in the European part of Russia today. The total population was estimated to be 885 individuals in 1990.
Wolverines do not seem to have occurred in dense populations in this forested region. In the forest and tundra areas of Nenetsky Autonomous Area, the population is believed to be limited by motorized hunting. The total population was estimated to be 408 individuals in 1990.
The populations in the game hunting districts of the Kola Peninsula were believed to be relatively dense at the beginning of the 1970’s (mean density of 0.8 wolverines/100 km2). Scientific sources reported a sevenfold drop by the 1980’s, and the population was estimated to be 160 individuals in 1990.
The overall densities in game hunting districts were estimated to be 0.7 wolverines/100km2 in early 1970’s, and decreased to 0.2 wolverines/100km2 in 1987. The major declines took place in the southern parts of Karelia; the population seems to have been more stable in northern parts. The total population was estimated to be only 80 individuals in 1990.
Distribution of the wolverine in China appears to be subdivided into 2 subpopulations. Wolverines are confirmed present within the Great Khingan Mountains of NE China with densities estimated at 5.5/1000 km2 (Zhang et al. 2007). The wolverine is believed to be present within the Altai Mountains of northwest China although presence there is unconfirmed.
Recent unpublished survey efforts in Mongolia appear to confirm wolverine presence within the Altai Mountains along the western borders with Russia and China, and within the central mountains of Hovsgol and the Khentii aimag along the Russian border (Jeff Copeland, Rebecca Watters, personal communication).
Canada (Excerpted from: Slough 2007)
Following COSEWIC’s (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) first assessment of the status of the wolverine in Canada, it delineated two geographically separated wolverine populations in 1989, the eastern population of Quebec and Labrador and the western population of northern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon (Dauphiné 1989). The eastern population was isolated from the western population by the 1960s (Dawson 2000), and densities have since declined to very low levels or possible extirpation (Fortin et al. 2005). Likewise, there has been no evidence of wolverines on Vancouver Island since 1992 where the population and/or subspecies may be extirpated (E. Lofroth, pers. comm.). Two subspecies of wolverines are recognized in Canada (Hall 1981); G. g. luscus, found across Canada, and G. g. vancouverensis, found on Vancouver Island. Banci (1982) found little evidence for classifying the Vancouver Island population as a distinct subspecies, however it is still recognized as such (Nagorsen 1990).
The present range of wolverines in Canada includes much of northern and western Canada, where they inhabit a variety of treed and treeless ecological areas at all elevations. Range reductions began with human settlement in the mid-19th century in New Brunswick (where wolverines were extirpated), boreal Ontario, Quebec and Labrador, and in the aspen parklands of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Wolverines never occurred in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, the Queen Charlotte Islands, and some islands of the Northwestern Arctic Archipelago in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut (Dauphiné 1989). The northward range shift in Ontario may have been influenced by climatic warming since the 1800s, which has led to a decrease in snow cover needed for successful denning (Aubry et al. 2007). It is doubtful whether viable populations ever occurred in southern Ontario, the prairies, or the arid region of southern British Columbia, since historical depictions of wolverine range (e.g. Kelsall 1981) were largely compiled from unverifiable anecdotal evidence, extralimital records, and the interpretation of fur returns, which were tied to socio-economic factors and not necessarily furbearer populations at the source of data collection. In any case, these areas did not produce consistent long-term wolverine harvests (Novak et al. 1987).
United States (except Alaska) (Excerpted from: Aubrey et al. 2007)
The distribution of current wolverine records in the contiguous United States is limited to north-central Washington, northern and central Idaho, western Montana, northwestern Wyoming, and Oregon.
Contrary to most previous interpretations (Seton 1929, Hall 1981, Hash 1987), the wolverine’s historical range was discontinuous in the Pacific states. A similar pattern was noted in the Rocky Mountains; wolverine distribution appears to have been relatively continuous in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, but there are substantial gaps in our records in southwestern Wyoming and northwestern Colorado that correspond to gaps in the distribution of both alpine habitat conditions and spring snow cover. Disjunct distribution patterns may reflect sampling error or other limitations of historical data. However, Schwartz et al. (2007) evaluated genetic differences among wolverine populations in various portions of their holarctic range and concluded that California wolverines were isolated from other populations in North America for >2,000 years. Wolverine populations in Colorado and Utah may also have been isolated to some degree, and genetic tests of this hypothesis are in progress (M. K. Schwartz, United States Forest Service, personal communication). Causal factors for the apparent extirpation of wolverine populations in the Sierra Nevada and southern Rocky Mountains by the mid-1920s are unknown.
Published accounts by early naturalists indicate that wolverines were rarely, if ever, encountered in the upper Midwest and Northeast regions of the contiguous United States. Historical records are sparse and haphazard in that area, and the habitat conditions that are associated with wolverine records in the western United States are generally lacking. Additionally, some early wolverine records from the northeastern United States may represent misidentifications. Most wolverine records from that region cannot be verified and, according to several historical accounts from the 1800s, both bobcats (Lynx rufus) and Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) were sometimes called wolverines by early settlers (Penobscot 1879, Hough 1893). Thus, available evidence suggests that wolverine records from the northeastern United States probably represent dispersals from populations in other regions. Whether wolverines occurred in that region prior to European settlement is unknown. Range loss was most apparent in the southern and eastern portions of their historical distribution in California, Utah, Colorado, and the Great Lakes region. The most recent verifiable record of wolverine occurrence in California dates from 1922, in Utah from 1921, in Colorado from 1919, and in Minnesota from 1899; the only documented record from any of these states during either recent (1961–1994) or current (1995–2005) time periods is one from northeastern Minnesota in 1965. Given the extent to which these areas have been surveyed for wolverines and other forest carnivores (e.g., Halfpenny 1981, Kucera and Barrett 1993, Aubry and Lewis 2003, Zielinski et al. 2005), and the concerted efforts made by resource management agencies and conservation organizations to compile occurrence records of rare and elusive forest carnivores, the lack of verifiable records in these states for >80 years provides compelling evidence that the wolverine has been extirpated from those portions of its historical range.
[Editor’s note: Recent instances of wolverine re-occupation have occurred into California (Moriatry et al. 2007. Wolverine confirmation in California after nearly a century: Native or long-distance immigrant? Northwest Science 2:154-162.) and Colorado (Wildlife Conservation Society, unpublished data)].
The wolverine may have experienced significant population declines or local extirpations in the Cascade Range and northern Rocky Mountains during the early 1900s, as has been speculated (Wright and Thompson 1935, Newby and Wright 1955, Newby and McDougal 1964). Between 1921 and 1950, there is only 1 wolverine record from Washington, 1 from Oregon, 5 from Idaho, 13 from Montana, and 1 from Wyoming. However, records from these states in subsequent years were relatively numerous, suggesting that wolverine populations may have become reestablished in northwestern regions after a period of range-wide decline.
During the 1960s and 1970s, wolverines began appearing in low-elevation, nonforested habitats in eastern Washington and Oregon. Several authors claimed that these and other verifiable records obtained during this period demonstrated that wolverines were reclaiming broad expanses of their former range (e.g., Nowak 1973, Yocom 1974, Johnson 1977). In 2011, wolverines were documented in northeast Oregon (ODFW news release, TWF study information); however, there is still no evidence of wolverine occurrence in eastern Washington currently. It is unclear why wolverines began appearing in previously unoccupied areas during this time period. Previous researchers speculated that wolverine populations became reestablished in Montana during the mid-1900s through dispersals from Canada (Newby and Wright 1955) and subsequently expanded their numbers and distribution in the northern Rocky Mountains (Newby and McDougal 1964). Thus, anomalous wolverine records in eastern Washington and Oregon during that time probably represent dispersals from Canada or Montana that failed to establish resident populations.
Alaska appears to support viable populations of wolverines throughout the state, with the exception of islands in the Bering Sea, the Aleutian chain, Kodiak, Prince William Sound, and outer islands in the Alexander Archipelago (Copeland and Whitman, 2003). No statewide population estimates are available.
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