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Fish and Game Looks for Wolverine

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Photo by Steve Kroschel © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain Prairie Photo by Steve Kroschel © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain Prairie

Rare, reclusive, and enough spunk for a superhero

“Picture a weasel,” wrote Ernest Thompson Seton in Lives of Game Animals back in the 1920s, “and most of us can do that, for we have met that little demon of destruction, that small atom of insensate courage, that symbol of slaughter, sleeplessness, and tireless, incredible activity—picture that scrap of demoniac fury, multiply that mite some fifty times, and you have the likeness of a Wolverine.”

About the size of a small dog, usually between two and three feet tall and weighing in between 20 and 40 pounds, gulo gulo (gluttonous glutton) looks most like a tiny bear as it makes its way through the woods on its short legs. Not that I’ve ever seen one, and you probably haven’t either, because the wolverine is one of the rarest animals in North America. How rare? It’s believed that in the lower 48 states, there are no more than two or three hundred of them.

Wolverines like wooded mountains, and if you give them the option they’ll take the high ridge routes sooner than creeping through the valleys. But when it comes to food, they’ll go wherever they have to, led by a keen nose: it’s said the wolverine can smell a dead carcass even buried under six feet of snow.

They quite like snow, as a matter of fact; they’re built for cold weather, with a heavy, long and thick coat of hair that can make overheating a problem. Wolverines, according to one study, stay at or near snow 95 percent of the time.

Mama wolverines—or soon-to-be mama wolverines—dig dens in the snow, some with tunnels up to ten feet long, to birth their young, a process which takes place in late winter and early spring. As a mustelid, wolverines have a strong, musty smell but the kits (at least those born in captivity) are birthed covered in some kind of thick, waxy goo that smells so horrendous it can be difficult to get close without becoming nauseous.

The males, by the way, are slightly promiscuous, generally preferring two or three regular females on their string.

“The wolverine earned its place in North American folklore long before north-country trappers and a few over-zealous naturalists began to spin tales of a beast of great ferocity, cunning, and extraordinary strength,” writes the Wolverine Foundation,  a non-profit organization comprised of leading wildlife scientists formed to promote interest in the mustelid. “Indian mythology,” they say, “describes the wolverine as a trickster-hero, and a link to the spirit world.”

It appears incredibly vicious for its size; an adult wolverine, it’s said, can take down a full-grown moose, which is comparable to your house cat taking down a deer in your backyard. Luckily, they don’t seem to be overly aggressive; just don’t try to mess with one that has a meal to protect.

Or pick one up. An Inuit tale relates the story of a half-ton polar bear that attempted to crush a wolverine to its chest. The polar bear dropped dead when the cradled, ferocious creature tore out its heart.

You might also want to be careful if you try to trap one. Douglas H. Chadwick, a Montana wildlife biologist, wrote in an essay about trapping wolverines for study in Glacier National Park that they built “stout box traps from spruce and fir logs. The walls were eight inches thick. That didn’t keep some of these animals from tearing their way out in a matter of hours. If one was still there when we lifted the lid a notch to peer in, the opening instantly filled with a blur of claws like crampons, teeth that can crunch a moose femur and deep, rattling growls—wolverine for, “Hope you don’t need your face, Tame Boy, because I’m going to take it off!”

If that doesn’t make you think twice of trapping one, by the way, make sure you know exactly where you are. For while it’s still legal to trap a wolverine in Montana, the animal is protected in Idaho.

While they’ll nibble on berries and roots, wolverines are carnivorous, and mostly eat a diet of meat. Like the bear they resemble, they much prefer animals already dead, even though they’re more than capable of killing their own food. 

And the range they travel to obtain that food is huge: the estimate is around 500 miles, which they travel in a circular, or figure-eight route.

Jeff Copeland studied the wolverine in central Idaho for three years—from 1992 to 1995—for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service, “It’s just never ceased to amaze me how far these animals go in a short period of time,” he says. “The hallmark of the wolverine is probably its insatiable need to be on the move.” And he believes the wolverine mostly earned its vicious reputation because human encounters with it invariably occurred when a person found one in a trap.

In an interview with Inside 13, Douglas Chadwick described the wolverine as “super-weatherized. They have huge feet for their body size, and formidable claws that act like crampons. These traction snowshoes let them lope across snowbound and icy terrain where you or I would be sinking thigh-deep and sliding away down a slippery chute. These creatures also come with a nearly moisture-proof, double-fur coat that sheds snow and frost, a big heart, and a kind of amped-up metabolism to keep them warm. On top of all that, they’re just unbelievably strong and tough.”

This picture of wolverines is actually painted with broad strokes because very little is actually known about the animal. We don’t even know how many there are. Copeland’s studies from the early ‘90s suggest that, based on population density and what little is known about range, maybe 150 of them live in central Idaho. No one knows how many live in our area, but that’s a mystery the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is working to solve this year. Wildlife biologists Lacy Robinson and Michael Lucid are undertaking a study of area wolverines, and the Friends of Scotchman Peaks turned out for a winter hike in January to lend them a hand.

Fish and Game is planting wolverine ‘traps’ in the woods in an attempt to gather information on local populations. They’re not really traps, however; instead, they’re more of a bait station equipped with a motion-sensitive, infrared camera and some homemade DNA catchers.

Volunteers wired frozen beaver carcasses to trees (wolverines come equipped with a special tooth in the back of their mouth that makes them more than capable of ripping apart and eating frozen food). To reach the carcass, the wolverine must climb past metal gun brushes that protrude from the trunk; the brushes, it is hoped, will snag enough hair to provide samples for DNA analysis. And if all goes well, the motion up the tree will trigger the camera to trap a photo of this shy, rare creature.

Why the Friends? The answer is wilderness. The Friends of Scotchman Peaks (www.scotchmanpeaks.org) are seeking federal wilderness designation to protect around 88,000 acres in the Cabinet Mountains, for as many reasons, it seems, as there are people who live here. One of those reasons would be the wolverine. Given its incredible range and reclusive nature, the wolverine needs wilderness areas to survive.

The bait station the Friends helped to establish will also be maintained by the crew. “The bait station will be checked and “reset” on February 5 by FSPW volunteers,” wrote Sandy Compton. “The gun brushes will be replaced and the originals placed in envelopes for microscopic inspection by Robinson and Lucid. Data from the camera will be retrieved by pulling out a 2 gigabyte flash card, which will be replaced by another. And, the beaver—however much of it might be left—will be replaced by another. Around the middle of February, FSPW volunteers will take the bait station down.”

In March, the Friends will be hosting  presentations by Doug Chadwick (quoted earlier), a wolverine lover and author of The Wolverine Way. The presentations will take place in Troy, Trout Creek and Sandpoint. 

*Jeff Copeland’s quotes on wolverine travels came from an article in National Wildlife (Oct-Nov 1997) titled “The Wanderer—What drives the wolverine’s seemingly insatiable need to stay on the go?” written by Stephen Stuebner. 

The photos in the gallery to the right of this story are all courtesy of Friends of Scotchman Peaks


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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

wildlife, Friends of Scotchman Peaks, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Sandy Compton, wolverine, gulo gulo, Douglas H. Chadwick, Jeff Copeland, Lacy Robinson, Michael Lucid

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