Flikr photo by Michiel van Nimwegen

Skiers, snowmobilers, conservationists and other winter recreation stakeholders come together to help protect and find ways to co-exist with the iconic mountain carnivore

Known for its ability to cover distance quicker than a Nordie with perfectly waxed skis, and to cruise up and over mountains faster than the gnarliest ski-mo racer, the wolverine is among the most iconic of winter wildlife species. Skiers, snowmobilers, and others who love spending time in snowy places feel a special affinity with and appreciation for wolverines. Like wolverines, we’re snow-dependent critters who are facing a serious threat because of climate change. Unlike wolverines, we can handle a crowd — even if we’d prefer not to.

Winter recreation stakeholders and conservationists working together to find common ground and develop recommendations for the Forest Service.

Winter Wildlands Alliance has been working with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Round River Conservation Studies to reach out to the backcountry Snowsports community with information about wolverines, how our activities impact the species, and how we might mitigate that impact.

Unfortunately for all concerned, new research shows that backcountry winter recreation — snowmobiling and backcountry skiing alike — impacts wolverines. With help from skiers and snowmobilers using GPS units to track their own movement in the backcountry, scientists discovered that wolverines strongly avoid areas with lots of human activity, whether we’re snowmobiling, skiing, or just tromping through the woods on snowshoes.

Wolverines may use areas adjacent to popular winter recreation areas, and they may pass through areas with heavy recreation pressure, but they’re not sticking around in places where there are lots of people. In short, wolverines don’t den, rest, or eat in places that get a lot of backcountry ski or snowmobile use — even if those places are part of a larger wolverine home range. This is called “functional habitat loss,” and it poses a real concern for wolverine survival.

Wolverine and ski tracks, Moose Basin, Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Forrest McCarthy

The conservation concern here is two-fold. First, wildlife biology 101 tells us that an animal’s home range is the minimum amount of space that an individual requires to live and reproduce. If backcountry skiing and snowmobiling are effectively eliminating portions of a wolverine’s home range, it’s likely we’re having a negative effect on that wolverine’s ability to make a living and reproduce. And since wolverines are pretty rare, impacts to even a few individuals could have population-level impacts.

Second, because of climate change, there are (and will continue to be) fewer and fewer places for all of us — skiers, snowmobilers, and wolverines — to find snow. Pair this loss of snow with a growing interest in backcountry snowsports and new tools and toys that help us travel deeper into the backcountry than ever before, and wolverines may have a tough time finding snowy places that aren’t overly impacted by humans.

The good news is that with some self-imposed restraint we — the backcountry snowsports community — can help reduce our impact on these tough but vulnerable animals, without greatly impacting our own opportunities for fun and exploration in winter.

We’re all familiar with the concept of suburban sprawl. Now think about your favorite backcountry area and how recreation use can sprawl across the landscape as people seek out the next untracked peak or meadow. By limiting that sprawl, we can limit the functional habitat loss that wolverines are experiencing.

As tempting as it is to explore deeper and further into the backcountry, by sticking within established and agreed-upon recreation areas when skiing and snowmobiling in wolverine habitat, you can help reduce your personal impact on the species. And, if we all limit our personal impact, together we can make a big difference in wolverine survival.

For more information, check out the following brochure that we recently produced in partnership with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Round River Conservation Studies.

Wolverine Final Brochure

SnowBall Ladies and Gentlemen in ski flare costume danced the night away to the music of Woodbelly (in Boulder CO) and Curtis/Sutton and the Scavengers (Boise ID).

As part of our annual SnowSchool Support Week WWA threw two SnowBall benefit concerts in Boulder CO and Boise ID in Feburary.  These winter themed galas included bluegrass music, dancing, libations, ski-flare costumes, Arctic Theater Royale, and many awesome raffle/auction items!  Not only did these fundraisers support our work of getting thousands of underserved kids across the country outside on public lands in the winter, but they also served as a gathering place for hundreds of supporters to hear testimonials from SnowSchool participants and volunteers.  At time when the future of public lands, science, education and winter itself are threatened, it was both energizing and affirming to witness broad community support for the SnowSchool program. Our heartfelt thanks goes out to all of the attendees, sponsors, volunteers and SnowSchool supporters (including SnowBall inventor Hal Hallstein) who made these events possible, we are already looking forward to next year!

Funds raised through the 2018 SnowBall events will be used to:

  • Reach thousands of underserved students through SnowSchool.

    Snow scientists HP Marshall and Charlie Luce talk shop at the Boise SnowBall

    We believe that all kids should have the opportunity to experience our nation’s public wildlands. Working with local schools and SnowSchool sites across the country we work hard to bring this experience to the kids who need it the most.

  • Establish new SnowSchool sites: We work with non-profits, the US Forest Service and other local organizations to bring our proven program to new communities across the country. Since establishing the program in 2005 we’ve added 3-6 new SnowSchool sites every winter!
  • Enhance kids’ SnowSchool experience: We improve SnowSchool every winter by designing new learning experiences for diverse students. WWA’s new web-based Snowpack Prediction Contest connects students and teachers with local mountain weather/snowpack stations once they are back in their classroom. The result of this activity expands learning at SnowSchool from a 1-day outing into a 4-month snow and climate science exploration!

-Kerry McClay, National SnowSchool Director

To learn more about SnowSchool visit www.snowschool.org

 

Winter Wildlands Alliance is looking for backcountry skiers, splitboarders or cross-country skiers to help collect data for an important trailhead snowdepth study to inform upcoming winter recreation planning on public lands in the Sierra Nevada.

Snow depth measurements recorded by citizen science volunteers can be integrated into snowpack models to improve the accuracy of the models and to better evaluate how snow is distributed on the mountain landscape. When these measurements are collected at trailheads used for winter recreation activities over time, we can develop a relationship between long-term measurements observed at remote weather and snowpack stations (such as SNOTELs) and conditions at the trailhead. These relationships can help inform whether a trailhead can be opened for snowmobile use in order to prevent damages to the underlying soil and vegetation. Reducing the likelihood of such damage will greatly aid maintaining access to winter recreation opportunities.

In the Sierra Nevada of California and Nevada, we are particularly interested in the timing of sufficient snow depth for winter recreation and how this varies by elevation and location. A major goal is to evaluate how sufficient snow depth timing has varied historically and how this may change in the future. In the last 10 years, we have observed a rise in winter snow levels during storms.

This implies that lower elevation trailheads are seeing an increase in rain and decrease in snow, which means we have to wait longer for enough snow to accumulate to recreate in these places and that our window of time to enjoy places accessed from these trailheads is getting smaller. Developing relationships between trailhead snow depths and remote snow sensors will help us identify trailheads that are most resilient to continued changes in the mountain environment and assess how these changes may play out in the future.

By incorporating field snow depth observations from citizen scientists into snow models, all groups interested in mountain recreation and science will benefit. This information will improve our capabilities to accurately simulate snow cover and snow depth in the mountains. It will also enhance the quality of daily avalanche forecasts during big storms and runoff predictions (think flooding) during storms with high snow levels.

Ongoing work by researchers near Valdez, Alaska has shown very encouraging results. We hope to apply similar techniques throughout the Sierra Nevada during the winters of 2017/18 and 2018/19. Your contributions of snow depth measurements from along your ski tour or when you are staging your snowmobile will be instrumental in helping this project succeed.

Interested? The Community Snow Observations group has put together this tutorial on how to record your depth measurements using the MountainHub App. Also, if you sign up below we will be in touch with information about training opportunities and other project updates.

Sign up here to volunteer!