Cascadia Wildlife Blog
News from the Wolverine Tracking Project and more
Our story begins in the early 2000’s, when biologists on the Mt Hood National Forest received a report of a wolverine on the mountain. The person who reported the sighting had no pictures to substantiate their claim, so the Forest Service called on Cascadia Wild (who lead tracking outings on the mountain for elementary school kids at the time) to see if they would be able to investigate. No evidence was ever found to support the sighting and it went down in history as another one of those mysteries. But the Wolverine Tracking Project was born.
Since then, volunteers have gone every year to Mt Hood searching for tracks in the snow and monitoring trail cameras, searching for sign of wolverine returning to our area. The Wolverine Tracking Project produced a lot of good data - some of the earliest detections of gray wolves moving into the area and important information on the distribution of Sierra Nevada red fox - but no wolverine were seen.
Until two weeks ago.
The morning of March 20, Tom Hunter was out fishing in his boat, as he often does. Done for the day, he headed back home, taking a route that skirts McGuire Island to check on the eagle nests he likes to keep tabs on. This day, however, he saw something unexpected. At first it looked like a young bear cub, so he went closer to investigate. Unmistakably, it was a wolverine!
He fumbled around for his phone as the wolverine went up the bank away from the water, and Tom worried he might have frightened it away. But at the top of the bank, the wolverine turned and stood there, watching him in the same manner he watched it. After a few minutes, the wolverine went back to the beach and continued on its way, loping down the beach like it had a mission in mind. Tom managed to take a dozen or so pictures of the mysterious animal before it disappeared into the distance.
Tom had seen wolverine before as a kid in the Wallowas, so he recognized the animal and knew it was very rare. His first thought was for the safety of the animal, so he did not want to share the photos widely. He also knew, however, that a wolverine was a potentially dangerous animal especially to small pets, and that people would want to know. He and his wife Terri shared the pictures with a neighbor, who posted them to a private marina security Facebook group.
Another neighbor, Kim Prothero, was on the phone that day with her daughter and browsing facebook, when she saw the wolverine photo. She stared at it, getting excited. Kim is an experienced community scientist and has been fascinated by wolverines ever since reading the amazing book The Wolverine Way, by Douglas Chadwick. The previous summer when looking for a new community science project to be involved with, she did an internet search for wolverine and found Cascadia Wild’s Fox Scat Surveys. The information she learned at the training about red fox and the project’s other target species, wolverine, stuck.
“It looked like a wolverine,” she said, “but I also knew that wolverine were very rare and that couldn’t be!” She hung up the phone and called to her husband, and they both scoured internet pictures to see if there was any other animal they may have mistaken it with. But the conclusion was unmistakable. Kim immediately knew that this sighting was very important and contacted Cascadia Wild.
Meanwhile, the wolverine continued its journey.
Two days later, it was spotted again near Damascus. How it got through or around Gresham remains an impressive mystery! Three days later, it was spotted further south, near the town of Colton. The last sighting was on April 25th, over a week ago, so it seems safe to assume the wolverine has left has left the populated areas, and the Columbia River, behind.
Wolverine tracks on the Columbia River, confirmed by Cascadia Wild.
It is hard to say where this individual came from or how it ended up on the Columbia so close to Portland. Likely it is a young adult who is dispersing from its natal home and trying to find a place to settle down. During this time of their lives, wolverines can travel long distances, hundreds of miles in some cases, before they finally settle down. As another testament of a wolverine’s ability to travel, in 2020 a lone individual was seen on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington, another very unlikely location for a wolverine and well away from any known populations; nobody knows where that individual came from or where it went from there.
Historically, wolverines roamed much of the northern United States, but trapping and habitat modification have caused their demise in many areas of their former range. The closest healthy wolverine populations are now in the Washington Cascades. Wolverine seem to be doing well there, and over the last several decades have been slowly expanding their range southward. In 2020, wolverine kits were seen on Mt Rainier, the first wolverine family in the park in over 100 years. Traveling from Washington and crossing the Columbia would not be a difficult feat for a wolverine, and this seems like the most likely scenario. Wolverines have also been documented in the Wallowa Mountains in eastern Oregon, so that area, or nearby areas of Idaho, could potentially have been this individual's birth place as well.
Seeing a wolverine so close to the big metropolitan area of Portland is definitely unexpected. For breeding, wolverines prefer areas with dense snowpack into late spring, so in the western US they are found primarily in high elevation forests. With their thick fur and large, snowshoe-like paws, they are built for cold weather. For food, wolverines are primarily scavengers. Their preferred food is carrion of large ungulates such as deer and elk, and they depend heavily on winter-killed animals which they cache in snow to keep fresh. Birthing dens are located at the end of a long snow tunnel where the young will be safe from predators. So deep snowpack into May is important to their survival.
Wolverines have huge home ranges, estimated at up to 400 sq. miles, which is over twice the size of the greater Portland metropolitan area. Because of their preferences for cold weather and for roaming widely, they tend to be associated with mountainous areas and large wilderness areas. It is hard to say where this individual will go from here, but its trajectory was pointing towards the Cascades, where suitable habitat does exist.
With such huge home ranges, wolverine are few and far between even under optimal conditions, making them very difficult to detect. It is no wonder there have been so many unconfirmed sightings over the years.
How do we add to our knowledge of wolverine? Tom Hunter was asked in an interview if he would treat the river any differently now that he made his amazing discovery, and in his answer he describes the key to this sighting: “I would spend more time watching the shore lines when I’m going out and coming home [from fishing]. I was observant before, but now I’ve been really tuning in,” he said. Tuning in is the most important thing a person can do. Tom’s ability to tune in, to notice the unusual, and be curious enough to investigate, are what allowed him to have this amazing sighting. We would like to thank him for being an inspiration to us all.
It is hard to say where this wolverine will go from here, but we hope it will find a good home to settle down in.
Please keep you eyes and ears open and let us know where it shows up next!
Many thanks to Tom and Terri Hunter and to Kim Prothero!