Meghan Riley has never seen a wolverine in person, on the ground, in the wild, despite years of researching the elusive animal.
Once while accompanying her husband, who is also a biologist, she got to hold an anesthetized one. She’s seen them from the air, and she’s seen plenty of pictures. But the closest she’s gotten to a sighting on the ground is when she, while working as the field coordinator on Wyoming’s wolverine research project, found tracks that were less than 12 hours old.
Riley isn’t discouraged. The elusive and solitary nature of the wolverine that makes it so difficult to study also makes it captivating, she said. That’s why she’s happy to be part of a team of wildlife officials in Wyoming trying to get a better understanding of where in the state the wolverine roams.
The team’s effort last winter to find out where female wolverines live yielded some of the first data for a multi-state effort to track the animals. They confirmed for the first time that wolverines are roaming mountain ranges beyond the Tetons.
In August 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew a proposal to list wolverines as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Although the wolverine isn’t protected, the federal agency did identify large data gaps regarding where wolverines live and how many there are in the region of northwest Wyoming, said Zack Walker, the nongame bird and mammal program supervisor with Wyoming Game and Fish.
Wolverines are difficult to study in part because of the high elevations where they live. In the winter they can be found at 10,000 feet, and in the summer even higher, Riley said. The stocky, clawed carnivore that resembles a badger also lives a solitary existence. In the Teton Range, there are an estimated four wolverines, so just finding one is a difficult task, Riley said.
“Wolverines are such a tough species to study I think there is a lot of conjecture out there,” she said about the possible population figure in Wyoming.
Researchers believe poison targeted at wolves decades ago, along with illegal trapping, took a toll on the wolverine population in the region. The species is slow to rebound because only about two young are born every few years, Walker said. At one point several decades ago, scientists believed wolverines were extinct in Wyoming, he said.
Wyoming’s effort to count wolverines last winter specifically sought to find females. Males travel farther than females, so a sighting of a male doesn’t mean there are reproducing populations in the area, Walker said. If females are spotted, those places could have sustained populations.
Biologists lured the animals to areas equipped with camera surveillance. Hair snares collected samples of fur, which biologists are DNA-testing to decipher how many different animals visited the sites and whether they were male or female.
Biologists set up the cameras and hair snares at 18 sites in the Salt River, Gros Ventre, Absaroka and Wind River mountain ranges. The sites were selected based on research by Bob Inman, wildlife biologist with the Wolverine Initiative. Inman tries to predict good wolverine habitat, usually at 8,500-feet or higher with steep rocky slopes. Biologists believe the talus and boulders at these elevations provide good habitat for wolverines to cache meat.
The cameras captured 53 total images at five stations; three located in the Wind River Mountains, one in the Gros Ventre Mountains and one in the Absaroka Mountains, Riley said. The Wyoming researchers haven’t yet received the genetic testing results, but they believe that one radio-tagged wolverine — based on its coloring — came from Montana, which would confirm the wolverine’s behavior of long-distance movements across mountain ranges.
“Nothing really stops them,” Walker said. “If they decide to go a certain direction, they do it. They are bigger, tougher badgers.”
Wyoming isn’t the only state trying to gather data on wolverines. Biologists in Washington, Idaho and Montana are joining the Wyoming team in a larger effort to look at the animal’s occupancy across the region. This winter, Wyoming Game and Fish will continue its study and look at both sexes of wolverines.
States will pool data to gain a better understanding of wolverine habitat, Walker said. That information can act as baseline data for monitoring.
Although U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services said wolverines didn’t warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, it noted there was uncertainty about how climate change will impact the animal, Riley said. Some groups are fighting the decision not to list the wolverine. Studies such as the one in Wyoming provide important data, as land managers try to keep the species at a healthy population level and avoid listing.
The need to understand and protect the animal goes deeper than just management, Riley said.
“One thing about wolverines is they are emblematic of wild space,” she said. “They need large swaths of undisturbed wild landscapes. Acting as stewards for wolverines, we are also maintaining the character of all these wild places we cherish.”
This video was created by a Wyoming research team using a remote camera in northwest Wyoming: