Wolverines return to an area they've not been seen for 100 years
The first reproductive female wolverine and her offspring have been spotted in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state in more than 100 years, scientists say.
"It's really, really exciting,” said Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins. “It tells us something about the condition of the park — that when we have such large-ranging carnivores present on the landscape that we’re doing a good job of managing our wilderness.”
The sighting is rare. In North America, population estimates range from 6.2 wolverines per 600 square miles in "high-quality habitat" to 0.3 per 600 square miles in "low-quality habitats," according to the National Park Service.
Until the 2000's, the last known Michigan sightings of wild wolverines were in the early 1800's. In 2004, coyote hunters spotted what is believed to be the state's last wild wolverine about 90 miles north of Detroit. The female lived primarily in the Thumb's Minden City State Game Area. That's where state environmental officials said hikers found its body in March 2010.
Only an estimated 300 to 1,000 of the stocky carnivores move through the lower 48 states, the park service said.
Scientist Jocelyn Akins of the Cascades Carnivore Project and volunteers discovered the mom and her kits in Mount Rainier National Park. Camera stations installed in 2018 help researchers identify wolverines based on their distinct chest blazes and can indicate if a female is lactating, officials said. The pattern of fur on the animal's chest is "unique enough to identify them individually," the scientists said in the release.
“Many species that live at high elevation in the Pacific Northwest, such as the wolverine, are of particular conservation concern due to their unique evolutionary histories and their sensitivity to climate change,” Akins said. “They serve as indicators of future changes that will eventually affect more tolerant species and, as such, make good models for conservation in a changing world.”
The Cascades Carnivore Project conducts collaborative research and conservation efforts for at-risk mountainous species with an emphasis on wolverines, the Cascade red fox, Canada lynx and fisher, its website says.
With the wolverine finding and sightings in adjacent areas and the suitable wilderness habitat in the national park, more wolverines may return to Mount Rainier, scientists say.
While the locations of the cameras are not made public, researchers said visitors still can help monitor activity.
“Wolverines are solitary animals and despite their reputation for aggressiveness in popular media, they pose no risk to park visitors," said Tara Chestnut, a park ecologist. "If you are lucky enough to see one in the wild, it will likely flee as soon as it notices you.”
Wolverines are considered the largest land-living members of the weasel family. Wildlife experts don't know for sure how the wolverine arrived in Michigan.
Their reputation as fierce hunters led to their selection as a mascot for Michigan and the University of Michigan's sports teams, despite the state's lack of native wolverines.