Lone wolverine continues to roam Sierra

February 24, 2011

Pictured – Buddy the wolverine (Photo courtesy of Neal Wight, Jacob Katz, Mark Elbroch)

To wildlife biologists who track him and take his picture with motion-sensor cameras, he’s “Buddy”.

To the rest of us, he’s the Wolverine of Donner Summit, a remarkable reminder of what’s at stake in the Northern Sierra.

Wolverines were thought extinct from the Sierra – something we had already lost to development and loss of habitat.  But you can read more about Buddy – and his travels in the upper Yuba Watershed – in the excellent piece by Pulitzer Prize winning Sacramento Bee reporter Tom Knudson here or below.

Granted, conservation and development issues can bog down in zoning designations and sewage capacity and traffic models.  Buddy is a reminder of what’s really important: that the wild heart of the Sierra Nevada is still beating.

The Sacramento Bee
Lone wolverine continues to roam Sierra

Published Sunday February 20, 2011

“Picture a weasel – and most of us can do that, for we have met the little demon of destruction, that small atom of insensate courage. … Multiply that mite by some fifty times and you have the likeness of a wolverine.
Ernest Thompson Seton “Lives of Game Animals, Vol. II,” 1925 – 1927 ”

Pictured – Buddy's Range


He wanders long distances at night, alone.

He curls up under wind-stunted trees at the timberline.

And from a distance, he can hear the rumble of traffic along Interstate 80.

But almost no one has ever seen him.

“He’s gone before you even have a clue he’s there,” said Amanda Shufelberger, a wildlife biologist with Sierra Pacific Industries who has tracked the animal across the Sierra Nevada since 2008. “He does not want to see you.”

Three years after the discovery of a wolverine in the Tahoe National Forest north of Truckee, the elusive creature continues to roam the region, defying expectations, delighting many and stirring calls to find him a mate.

Where he came from is a mystery, although his DNA closely matches that of wolverines in the Sawtooth Range of Idaho. While other wolverines have reportedly been spotted over the years, he is the first confirmed in California since 1922, when a trapper killed one.

“It’s human nature to root for the underdog. This is like the under-wolverine,” said Bill Zielinski, a carnivore specialist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station.

“Here, against all odds, is an animal that has made an amazing trek to be with us in California. Any betting person would not have guessed it would have persisted as long as it has.”

The longer it remains, the more scientists learn. For instance, they know from dozens of motion-sensing cameras that this wolverine loves to travel. It’s been spotted across 216 square miles – that’s more than 100,000 football fields – of rugged terrain from Donner Pass north to the headwaters of the Yuba River along Highway 49.

He is a night owl, too, and not at all camera shy. Of the thousands of photos scientists have captured, most have been snapped at night, some by flash, which does not seem to trouble him. Those images reveal a playful side after the wolverine has wolfed down the pinkish-yellow chunks of raw chicken used to lure him to the camera station.

“He just kind of rolls around on this back like, ‘Oh I’m so full. Thanksgiving dinner!’ ” said Shufelberger.

He is exceedingly clever, as well. Other wild animals simply tug at the bait as it sits inside a wire cage nailed to a tree – but not this wolverine.

He takes the cage itself apart, not by force but with cunning. “He gets into the back where the two seams (of wire) meet and pulls out a couple of horseshoe nails and pulls out the meat gingerly,” said Shufelberger.

The coldest nights, the deepest snows do not deter him. Like wolverines everywhere, he is a powder keg of courage and tenacity, fearing nothing, feeding on carrion, marmots, whatever he can find – and capable of driving much larger black bears and mountain lions from a carcass.

“This is one thing that has really captivated people’s interest and imagination,” said Ann Westling, a public affairs officer for the Tahoe National Forest in Nevada City. “So many people want to know what’s going on with the wolverine. That sense of wildness has been fascinating to folks.”

Highways pose a threat

But other characteristics worry scientists, including the animal’s tendency to venture near roads and people. Last June, it was spotted crossing Highway 49 near Yuba Pass.

“It looked like a big, very overgrown, very furry cat with a stocky body, short legs, a short bushy tail and a bit of a smushed-in face,” Diane Bagues of San Leandro, who was attending a San Francisco State birding workshop in the area at the time, wrote in a letter to wolverine scientists. “I am very certain about what I saw.”

In late October, the animal’s tracks were found a half mile from an even more dangerous highway – busy I-80 at Donner Summit – by Mark Elbroch, a doctoral student in wildlife biology at UC Davis and the author of two books on animal tracking.

“I was literally just out for a jaunt,” said Elbroch. “I saw a set of old tracks and blew it off and said, ‘Oh it can’t be. It must be a dog,’ because there were dog and people tracks everywhere.”

Farther from the road, the prints became more distinct. “They were the size of your hand with five toes on each foot,” Elbroch said. “Dogs and cougars have four toes. And there was a C-shaped palm patch. That’s what really sealed it.”

To be sure, he followed the tracks to a clump of trees where the animal had bedded down just a few hours earlier. True to form, it had vanished. But in the snow were 12 chocolate-brown hairs that Elbroch picked up with a Leatherman tool, dropped in a plastic bag and sent to the U.S. Forest Service for DNA tests. The hairs, the agency later discovered, not only were wolverine but from the same male scientists have been tracking since 2008.

“I was thrilled,” said Elbroch, who with two colleagues later captured photos of the animal on the north side of Castle Peak with a motion sensing camera. “To go out on a day hike and hit a wolverine track in the Sierra is like finding the needle in the haystack. It’s absolutely amazing.”

So far, the wolverine apparently has not tried to cross I-80. “I am so nervous for him,” said Shufelberger, who also documented the animal close to the interstate in March 2010.

(The latest photograph of the animal was captured Jan. 17 near Webber Lake, more than 10 miles north of the highway.)

“It’s defied the odds,” said Zielinski, the carnivore scientist. “It shows how capable and nimble this animal is in a place where its habitat overlaps with fairly high human density.”

There is a biological barrier scientists find even more worrisome: Try as they might, they can’t find a female.

“A male and a female would be real exciting,” said Chris Stermer, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game who along with other researchers has collected strands of wolverine hair for DNA analysis in recent years.

All were positive for the same male. “If it’s one animal, it’s not a population,” Stermer said. “That’s really what we would like.”

Scientists have traced the animal’s DNA to wolverines in the northern Rockies and believe he may have wandered down solo from Idaho – a journey of more than 500 miles across rivers, deserts, highways and railroads.

Still, they don’t rule out the possibility that a handful of homegrown California wolverines, including females, could be hiding out, undetected, in the remote Sierra backcountry.

“There is that possibility,” said Stermer. “Wolverines are found in extreme, high alpine habitats that are hard to survey. They avoid people, and they are very good at it.”

Last year, Stermer baited a camera site in the Red Cones area outside Mammoth Lakes for months, hoping to photograph a wolverine reportedly spotted there.

“It sounded very credible,” he said. “I got lots of marten but never a wolverine.”

Some back reintroduction

Today, the animal’s ghost-like status is prompting some to call for a dramatic reintroduction effort in which out-of-state wolverines, most likely from Canada or Alaska, would be transplanted into the Sierra, hopefully jump-starting a new population.

“Wolverines are an icon of wilderness,” said David Garcelon, president of the Institute for Wildlife Studies in Arcata, who in December submitted just such a proposal to the state Department of Fish and Game. “That’s something I’d like to bring back.”

Zielinski, the Forest Service scientist, likes the idea. “Yeah, I’d like to see wolverines restored to the Sierra if the circumstances permitted, if the politics were right,” he said.

But others are critical. “That animal is not part of the now-extinct – as far as we know – Sierran population. It’s a long-distance migrant,” said Jim Patton, curator of mammals at the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. “I would just leave it alone.”

Whatever its future, this wolverine – unlike the spotted owl – poses little threat to economic development because it occupies such harsh alpine terrain.

Shufelberger has spent three winters following the wolverine through the Sierra backcountry on skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles, and her fascination with it has grown into admiration, respect, even fondness. She has even given the animal a nickname: Buddy.

“Everyone asks me: ‘When are we getting Buddy a girlfriend? Can I donate money to make this happen?’ ” Shufelberger said. “People really want to bring some females into the state of California.”

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