Wolverines can be taught to sniff out avalanche survivors, trainer says
'It's just like training dogs, but wolverines are so much more intelligent than a dog'
It has long claws and razor-sharp teeth. And it stinks.
So the wolverine, solitary and ferocious, might seem unsuited for role of hero.
But a new one-of-a-kind pilot project hopes to train the blood-thirsty beasts to save lost skiers caught in avalanches.
One of the project founders, Steve Kroschel, says the wolverine's intelligence and powerful sense of smell makes it the perfect candidate for daring mountain rescues.
"Wolverines are so smart that within, I would say, a week, you could train them to do this, to find a human scent," Kroschel said during an interview on CBC Edmonton's Radio Active. "It's just like training dogs. But wolverines are so much more intelligent than a dog."
The largest member of the weasel family, with a stench that has earned them the name of skunk bear, wolverines are both scavenger and predator, and have been known to take down deer, lynx, even bears.
A wildlife photographer in Alaska, Kroschel has spent decades training wolverines in captivity. He got his start in Alberta 36 years ago, working with wolverine kits at Polar Park.
'They stay gentle'
The sanctuary, once located 35 kilometres east of Edmonton, in Sherwood Park, was founded by zoologist Al Oeming.
At its peak, the game farm housed more than 3,000 animals from 166 species. Since Oeming had no affinity for wolverines, Kroschel was allowed to step in.
"Al would receive wolverines from the north. 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. And that's where it first started."
Since then, wolverines have become Kroschel's passion, and he soon realized his uncanny knack for winning their trust.
Despite their nasty reputation, he says wolverines are easily tamed.
"They just really become a companion like no other wild animal that I've ever worked with," Kroschel said. "You can train them to a harness very easily, they love that. And when they're bonded with you, they will follow you around in the mountains like a dog.
"And they stay gentle to you, as opposed to wolves, lynx or grizzly or any of the other fur-bearing animals of North America that I work with."
Never sent to the emergency room
He says the secret to calming wolverines is introducing them to humans when they're first born, and getting them to "imprint on you."
"It will wrestle with me like it's wrestling with its own kind," Kroschel says. "It will bite me on the neck and drag me around, and do all that play behavior like it's killing its prey. And in all these years, I've never been sent to the emergency room.
"No injuries whatsoever."
But even with careful training, a wolverine couldn't be trusted to dig someone out of the snow unattended. Instead, they would be trained to track human scent, and allow search and rescue humans to do the rest of the digging.
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Before the project can ever become a reality, Kroschel and fellow wolverine conservationist, Mike Miller, would need a litter of wolverines to train as mountaineers.
Trouble with mating
But getting these solitary creatures to mate in captivity is nearly impossible.
"Even though they breed, they just don't have young," says Kroschel. "There have been a handful of zoos that have been successful in getting wolverine litters here and there, but it's very spotty and it's kind of an enigma."
The entire project hinges on mating season.
Kroschel recently acquired a female wolverine from Sweden that he's caring for at his wildlife reserve in Haines, Alaska.
He has two males in his care already, and hopes the female will hit it off with one of them.
"One of the males will go down a tunnel and visit her little territory here, and hopefully it will all come to fruition, and it will work.
"A year from now, a baby wolverine, that could be a reality."