Encounters of a wolverine kind
It is the radio call weâ€™ve been waiting for all season.
Adam and I linger beside the truck, waiting to unload a couple of snowmobiles and get on with our assignment for the dayâ€”setting up our first camera station. But our attention is focused on the Forest Service radio. Waiting. Sherrie and John are up Twisp River checking on two wolverine traps that emit a â€œclosedâ€ signal from their radio transmitters. They have checked the first, and found it occupied by a marten. They should be at the second trap at any moment.
After fifteen minutes of fidgeting, kicking at snow and checking our watches, the radio comes to life. We eavesdrop on static and garbled voices, and finally make out words that change our day. Thereâ€™s a wolverine in the trap. Our afternoon becomes more interesting. And longer. We pile back into the truck and drag our snowmobiles toward Twisp River.
This winter, ten or more Forest Service employees and volunteers tend ten wolverine traps on the outskirts of the North Cascades. Weâ€™ve been at it for two weeks alreadyâ€”replacing bait, checking the function of the traps, dealing with radio transmitter malfunctions and shoveling snow off of the traps. The status of the traps is checked each morning with radio receivers. We physically inspect and test the traps every three days or so. It is a fair amount of work, and the crew comes home each afternoon a bit weary and smelling of snowmobile exhaust. So far we have caught nothing but martens.
Why all the fuss? Because the North Cascades mountain range is home to wolverines, and we know nearly nothing about them. If you were to quiz a wolverine biologist about wolverines here, you would repeatedly hear the words â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ How many are there? How big is a home range? Is it a self-sustaining population? Declining? Increasing? What habitats do they use? Are there threats to their continued existence? A single wolverine has a home range that easily exceeds a hundred square miles of rugged, mountainous terrain. Population density is low. They are extremely difficult to study. And yet land managers are still expected to manage them intelligently.
(Title) A snowy North Cascades in prime habitat for the ever-elusive wolverines(Above) The winter terrain of Washington Pass only accessible by snowmobileÂ
There are studies from the northern Rockies that fill in some of the basics about the species, but there are always regional intricacies of habitat and population that make extrapolating information about Montana wolverines to a Cascades population difficult.
And so here we are. Near the trap, John and Sherrie build a flat platform out of the most readily available resourceâ€”snow. In a few hours the snow table will be the â€œoperating tableâ€ as the wolverine is measured and fitted with a GPS collar. We work quietly, trying to disturb the nearby animal as little as possible.
John wants a second look at the wolverine, and I am eager for a first look, so we approach the closed trap. The sound of our footsteps in the snow triggers a deep, throaty growl from the depths of the trap. This is no marten. It sounds like a bear. And so we peer into the trap, pointing a flashlight and opening the door as little as we need to. The traps are built of solid timber, and the lid takes some effort for us to lift, but still we need additional mechanical stops on the top to prevent the wolverine from pushing the lid up and escaping. Their strength is legendary.
In the light of the flashlight, her eyes reflect green. She stalks back and forth against the back of the trap. The biologist in me carefully studies the ears and makes sure there is no collar already on herâ€”there are wolverines in the area that have been trapped before and may or may not be wearing a defunct collar, and may or may not still have colored ear tags in their ears. This oneâ€™s ears show no signs of tags or tears where tags may have once been. This is what we have been hoping forâ€”a new animal.
Wolverine tracks crossing the Twisp River
But for more than a moment, scientific curiosity pales beside the appreciation of seeing the animal with my own eyes. It is dark and hunched at the back of the trap. A rip in its upper lip shows the white of sharp teeth. Her crouched movement suggests a suppressed rage and indignity. We close the trap and begin waiting.
Patience, I think, is one of the defining qualities of anyone who works with or watches wildlife. There are moments of unbelievable beauty or incredible observations, to be sure, but they are earned by thousands of hours of quiet, slow time.
Sedating and handling a large carnivore is not something to be taken lightly. If there is ever a time for professionalism and organization, this is it. While we lean against our snowmobiles and talk quietly, our boss is on the phone, organizing snowmobiles and trucks and people. We re-read our protocol so that we are prepared for what is to come. The wolverine will be sedated for only 45 minutes, and there is a lot to do in that time. People are assigned jobs and responsibilities. Equipment is checked and re-checked. And we wait.
As a group we gather and talk about the process before we approach the trap. John, my supervisor, and Scott (who works for the state) have been at this for the entirety of the projectâ€™s five years, and have handled every wolverine captured. Theyâ€™ve done it enough that they come with an easy confidence that settles the rest of us. We are given assignments, and weâ€™ve read the protocol, but there is no substitute for having done it before. Of primary importance is the well-being of the wolverine. Syringes are filled and put in pockets with hand warmers, equipment is laid out and ready. The less time we spend handling her, the better, and every minute counts.
Eowyn, the wolverine, sedated before studying and monitoring
And in truth, it goes by in a blur. John jabs her in the flesh of the hip with a syringe mounted on a plastic pole. We all back off and wait for ten minutes. A peek in the trap confirms that sheâ€™s out. Scott reaches in and picks her upâ€”twenty pounds or more of live fury is now lolling and quiet as a bag of turnips. He carries her by me and I note the dark chocolate color and the white-yellow claws on the paws like a mini-grizzly. And the smell. She smells deep and animal and wildâ€”like a bull elk in rut or a bear. I am surprised by this, though I shouldnâ€™t be. One thing weasels are known for is their musky scent, and this is the king of the weasels.
Immediately, we are into the handling of the animal. Adam and my assignment are to keep track of the wolverineâ€™s vitals. Every ten minutes we take her body temperature, count her heartbeats and record the number of respirations. An animal under anesthesia is at the mercy of her handlers; she cannot even regulate her own body temperature. We are ready with hand warmers and blankets, but thankfully she stays within the parameters of a healthy animal. We weigh and measure her. John injects a pit tag between her shoulder blades, giving her a number that can be read with a reader, just like many people do for their pets. And most importantly, we fit a GPS collar on her. For the next eight months or so (until the battery runs out), this collar will connect with orbiting satellites that pinpoint her location and transmit it. E-mailed GPS locations arrive at Johnâ€™s desk and are promptly mapped. A wonder of technology.
At about 40 minutes she gives a kick or two, and there is time for a few posed photographs before we put her back in the trap. John injects her with another dose that counteracts the sedative. We close the lid and move away. And again we wait. On a good day, the sedative wears off in an hour or so and we can release the wolverine. Today fades into tonight as we wait for two hours before she is ready to go. John and Scott wait until they see her acting â€œnormallyâ€ in the trapâ€”walking without wobbling and biting and snarling like a wolverine should. Anything less is unacceptable. The last thing we want is to release her when she isnâ€™t ready.
Adam monitors Eowyn’s vitals while scientists study her
When sheâ€™s ready she bounds out of the trap. She bounds for ten yards or so, but then stops to look back at us, perhaps gauging which of us she should kill first, but then thinks better of it and slowly walks up the hill. Green eyeshine, a slow, hunched walk, one of the wildest animals in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the rarest to see.
It is then that I sniff the tips of my fingers and smell wolverine. This is the first wolverine I have ever seen. How many people have seen a wolverine? How many have touched one? I feel truly lucky. And in a stunned moment, I realize that this is part of my job. The hours of snowmobiling, shoveling and checking empty traps that have passed and are yet to come are suddenly a small measure against the privilege of touching something wild, beautiful, rare and free. And I am unafraid to tell you that I feel a personal connection that her cut lip and scar, the stink of her, and the unique pattern of color on her chest only help to reinforce. I have touched this animal.
It has been ten days since that wolverine, whom the people in charge are calling Eowyn for our own sake of keeping track of her (Iâ€™m sure she has her own name) touched me. Every morning the first question in the office is â€œWhere is she?â€ And when we point to the map, I smell the stink of her on my fingers and remember the bale in her eye.
Until that collarâ€™s battery fails, she is giving scientists a glimpse of how a wolverine uses the landscape, how she travels, and how much space she needs. This is all important information for people and organizations that need to manage wolverines in the Pacific Northwest. If there is a hope for the species, in the face of human expansion and recreation in wolverine habitat, in the face of a warming world that threatens the existence of the persistent snowfields on which they depend, it is in these data points.
At some point last night, Eowyn crossed the border into Canada. It is miles and miles and miles of the heart of the North Cascades between Twisp River and Canada. Steep, rugged terrain that would challenge the best of us. Ten days for her. Where is she going? What is she thinking?
Photos courtesy of Daniel Harrington.Â
The Author – Daniel Harrington
Daniel Harrington is an itinerant wildlife biologist who has stumbled from seasonal job to seasonal job for the last fifteen years or so. He has held addresses in twelve different states, and gained experience working with raptors, songbirds, Canadian lynx, northwest amphibians, and now wolverines. In addition to a degree in biology,Â he holds a degree in English/writing, and has been published in several newspapers, the Methow Naturalist, and Oregon Literary Review. He also author’s a blog.
Studying Wolverines in the North Cascades
US Forest Service employees and volunteers from the Methow Valley Ranger District, with direction from the USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station, have been trapping wolverines in the vicinity of the Methow Valley for five years, and have gleaned valuable information from GPS collars placed on five different wolverines. Little is known about North Cascades wolverines, and they are an extremely difficult animal to study. This studyâ€”the only study of its kind in the Pacific Statesâ€”seeks to understand the size and dynamics of the wolverine population in these mountains in order to estimate the size of the population, potential threats, and any management implications. The North Cascades appear to provide an â€œislandâ€ of wolverine habitat, and historical records indicate that wolverines were extirpated from the area in the middle of the century and have only re-established a steady population in the last twenty years or so. Therefore the genetics and gene flow of this population is of particular interest. In order to expand and build upon the data already provided by trapping, this winter we begin establishing baited camera stations and snow-tracking wolverines, hoping to find and identify additional individual wolverines in the area.