A Wolverine’s 15 Minutes of Fame
High altitudes. Lots of trees. Deep snow. Frozen animal carcasses. No people.
These are a few of a wolverine’s favorite things.
And for one particular wolverine in Wyoming, being on camera rounds out the list.
Wolverine habitat in Wyoming near where our video footage was captured. Photo by Mike Mazur/USFWS
The Wind River Reservation in Wyoming is an astoundingly beautiful place that provides the right habitat conditions for the wolverine, as well as its favorite prey species like elk, moose and mule deer.
Working with local tribes and partners, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists selected the reservation to conduct studies of the snow-dwelling species. These studies are part of a larger collaborative effort to determine where wolverines are found in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington.
When studying wolverines, the first and perhaps most difficult step is to find one of the elusive creatures. So the biologists devised a plan:
- Find a cold, isolated spot high in the mountains that is suitable for wolverines but not other species, like scavenging birds.
- Hang a deer carcass in a tree, and hang it high enough that it won’t get buried in snow.
- Set up a trail camera nearby.
- Wait for wolverines.
“The camera site was located at an altitude of 11,000 feet, near the convergence of the Absaroka and Owl Creek Mountains and in the heart of big horn sheep, moose and elk wintering range,” recalls Mike Mazur, one of the biologists working on the project. “It’s a great place for hungry scavengers.”
Biologist Pat Hnilicka scopes out a location for the wolverine camera. Photo by Mike Mazur/USFWS
Here, high in the mountains in the dead of winter, the wind blows at speeds of 30 mph on a calm day.
“We tucked the camera in a thicket of trees. There was already three feet of hard-packed snow on the trees when the camera was set up, and the deer carcass was suspended another six to eight feet up the tree in the hopes of keeping it above the snow,” says Mazur. “We had to remember to park our 4-wheelers facing downwind so they didn’t freeze up.”
They couldn’t have anticipated that the wolverine who would wander into their setup would put on such a show.
The following videos are the first time a wolverine has been captured on camera on the Wind River Reservation.
This clip shows the wolverine discovering the carcass just after 10:00 a.m. on March 11, 2017. It’s exhibiting some pretty standard behavior:
All video is public domain footage courtesy USFWS and the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho nations.
However, in the next clip, the wolverine does something unusual: it sees the trail camera, sniffs and adjusts it!
Why would a wolverine notice a camera and behave that way?
According to biologist Pat Hnilicka, it’s all in their nature.
“As scavengers and hunters always looking for their next meal, wolverines are naturally curious and likely to check out novel things, like an unfamiliar camera hanging from a tree,” Hnilicka says.
Our final clip shows the same wolverine returning later in the day for dinner. It puts on a good show, climbing with dexterity and gnawing fiercely. When it’s done, the wolverine rolls like a furry snowball down the hill:
This footage from last season has wildlife officials inspired for 2018.
“Knowing that there are still some wolverines on the reservation has both councils and a lot of enrolled members from both tribes excited,” says Arthur Lawson, Director of Fish and Game for the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. “ I hope we can further the study on the Wind River Reservation and gain more knowledge about the wolverines in our range.”
This year, Hnilicka, Mazur, Lawson and others will establish three new camera stations. Their goal is to increase the number of observations of wolverines on the Wind River Reservation and to see some new faces on camera.
“We’re convinced there are more wolverines than the one individual we’ve detected so far,” says Hnilicka. “We want to observe them and obtain hair for use in genetic sampling.”
Healthy landscapes, like the alpine forests on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, ensure that wildlife like the wolverine can survive, and partnerships allow curious wildlife biologists to learn ever more about equally curious species.
“We greatly appreciate the tribes’ willingness to allow us to help conserve their magnificent landscape and the abundant fish and wildlife that reside there,” says Hnilicka. “We’re looking forward to another exciting year!”
By Jennifer Strickland, a Public Affairs Specialist with FWS in Lakewood, Colorado.