Cascadia Wildlife Blog
News from the Wolverine Tracking Project and more
Its been an incredible winter season and we can't believe summer is just around the corner! We're trading in our snowshoes for hiking boots and getting ready to hit the trails!
Our amazing volunteers worked hard this winter, trekking and breaking trail through heavy snow and braving wild winter storms to collect camera footage, tracking data and genetic samples. We couldn't do this work without their help!
Over the course of this epic winter season, trackers completed 12 tracking surveys, surveying over 12 miles on Mt. Hood! The tracking survey season was especially long this year due to several late season snow storms and tons of snow. Unlike most years, the winter tracking survey season went all the way into April!
Our camera crews monitored a total of 23 cameras this winter on Mt. Hood and in the surrounding forest. Camera crews ventured out and brought back footage from 17 sites in addition to 6 volunteer-owned cameras.
Here at the Wolverine Tracking Project, we're on the lookout for four target species: wolverine, Sierra Nevada red fox, gray wolf and Pacific marten. We were so excited to see several target species detections at our camera sites and tracking surveys this winter!
The Sierra Nevada red fox was detected by trail cameras at 2 different sites this winter. This fox can be found in high montane habitats throughout the Sierra Nevadas of California, the northern California Cascade range and the Oregon Cascades. We've typically seen fox detections near the tree line between 4,000-6,000 feet.
Surprisingly, a fox was detected at 3,290 ft at a site well below the tree line, not far from a major highway! The more we study them, the more accurately we will understand the areas they use.
Photos from top to bottom: Sierra Nevada red fox pauses by a tree then walks past the camera; A red fox sniffing the snow; A close-up shot of a fox's fuzzy ears and head as they walk by.
Next up from our target species list, the Pacific marten. We had several Pacific marten detections this winter at one of our upper elevation camera sites. We are always excited to see these mustelids at these sites as they are an indicator of a healthy forest ecosystem.
Below, we see this marten head straight towards the camera with their tracks visible in the snow behind.
Marten walking through the snow, towards the camera.
Our tracking volunteers also found evidence of marten on one tracking survey this year. This photo shows the long bounding stride of marten through the snow.
Tracking volunteers observing marten tracks in the snow.
Next up we'll take a look at our carnivore detections from this winter. Oregon is home to 24 species in the Carnivora order and our camera surveys detected several of them including mountain lion, bobcat, coyotes, black bear, skunk and weasel.
Oregon's largest felid, Mountain lion, was detected at two camera sites, as well as one volunteer-owned camera, all on the eastern side of the forest. These cats prey on deer and elk which were also prevalent in these areas.
The long tail of the mountain lion is a telltale feature seen in these two photos.
Photos top to bottom: The back of a mountain lion as they walk through the forest; The rear and tail of a mountain lion sneaking past through the night.
An incredible video of this mountain lion was caught by a volunteer-owned camera. This is a great clip of this feline's direct register walk, which is a gait pattern that trackers look for.
A mountain lion saunters past the camera.
The bobcat is another elusive feline predator that was detected at 10 camera sites this winter! These felids are much smaller than mountain lions and are named for their recognizable bobbed tails. We saw bobcats exploring the camera sites, rolling around in the snow and rubbing their faces on branches to leave their scent. This scent marking behavior is something we look for on our camera surveys.
Photos top to bottom: Bobcat lurking in the night; A bobcat rubbing their face against a branch; A bobcat sniffing the bait box and then rolling in the snow.
Here we can see a perfect bobcat paw print in the snow. Bobcat tracks were detected on two tracking surveys this winter.
Bobcat print in the snow.
One of our most abundant species the camera surveys detected this winter was the coyote. Coyotes were detected at 13 camera sites, almost every single one! These canines are very curious and they spent a lot of time exploring the camera sites. They displayed scent marking behavior, urinating or rolling around on the ground and rubbing up against trees.
Photos top to bottom: A snow covered coyote peers at the camera; A coyote rolling and rubbing their body against the ground; Coyote posing for a photo; Coyote sniffing and exploring a trail through the snow.
In addition to our camera detections, coyote tracks were found on four of the group tracking surveys. Here are two photos of coyote tracks the volunteers found.
Top and bottom photos: Coyote prints in the snow.
Black bear was detected at two of the camera sites, as well as two volunteer owned camera sites. We saw mama bears with their cubs playing and rolling around in the snow early this winter and then again, investigating the bait box at the start of spring.
Photos from top to bottom: A black bear cub playfully rolls in the snow; The backs of a large bear and her cub; Three bears ambling past the camera by the tree with a bait box.
Trackers also detected bear sign on this wooden trail marker. Bears will scratch and claw trees as another form of scent marking. Bear was detected on one of the tracking surveys this winter.
A wooden trail sign that has been clawed and chewed on by a black bear.
There are two subspecies of skunk in Oregon, the Western spotted skunk and the striped skunk. We saw both subspecies on the camera surveys this winter and because they are nocturnal, both detections were at night. These skunks are well known for the strong musk they produce as a defense mechanism from a gland located under their tails.
From top to bottom: A striped skunk passing through the camera site and stopping at a fallen log; A spotted skunk seen at the base of a tree.
Oregon is home to two species of weasel, the short-tailed weasel, also know as ermine and the long-tailed weasel. These small mustelids were found at four of our camera sites and three of our tracking surveys!
When hunting in snow, weasels will often burrow for small prey as seen in this clip. Keep an eye on the bottom of the frame and you'll see this slinky predator burrow into the snow as well as their various tracks.
Weasel burrowing in snow.
A weasel observing the snowy surroundings.
Two subspecies of elk roam Oregon and we caught sight of the western species, Roosevelt elk, at one of our volunteer owned cameras this winter. This is a great shot of this elk foraging in the snow.
Elk foraging in snow.
Along with coyote, deer was the most abundant species detected on our cameras. Black-tailed deer were seen at 12 of the sites, mostly in lower-elevation areas. Deer don't travel well in deep snow and will migrate to lower elevations as winter progresses. Deer was detected at one tracking survey at a lower elevation transect.
From top to bottom: A buck foraging in the snow; A close-up of the eyes, ears and antlers of a deer posing for the camera; A curious deer gets up close and checks out the trail camera; Deer foraging and picking up a small twig from the snow.
So many snowshoe hares! The snowshoe hare was quite common throughout the winter at our trail cameras and we enjoyed watching them bound through the sites. They were also one of the more abundant species detected on our tracking surveys. Snowshoe hares were detected at ten camera sites, including four volunteer-owned cameras and their tracks and sign were seen at seven of our tracking surveys!
Photos top to bottom: A snowshoe hare pausing in the snow; Close-up of a hare; Snowshoe hare bounding through snow leaving behind prominent tracks.
This photo from one of our tracking surveys below, features the easily distinguishable tracks of the snowshoe hare. As the hare hops through the snow, the larger hind feet will register in front of the fore feet.
Snowshoe hare tracks in the snow.
Squirrels are other busy small mammals seen regularly on our camera and tracking surveys. We loved seeing these critters scurrying about and nibbling on conifer cone scales. This winter our surveys detected Douglas and Western gray squirrel. These two species are fairly active all winter long.
Dwelling in conifer forest, the Douglas squirrel was seen at 12 camera sites and every single tracking survey! These squirrels are noticeably smaller than Western gray squirrels and are native to the Pacific Northwest. The two clips below catch Douglas squirrels foraging for conifer cones; the seeds are some of their favorite foods.
A fast moving Douglas squirrel snatches up a cone.
A squirrel faces the camera while eating and then bounds away.
A squirrel caught on camera from above leaving faint tracks in the snow.
This winter we saw an unusually high number of Western gray squirrels. While Douglas squirrels prefer conifer forests at various elevations, the larger Western gray squirrel is typically found in oak and ponderosa pine habitats at lower elevations. While they are known to venture into higher elevation conifer forests, they are considered rare in these habitats. The Western gray squirrel was seen at five camera locations and three tracking surveys, none in the ponderosa pine region.
A Western gray squirrel from behind as they venture through the forest.
Our tracking survey volunteers found tons of track and sign from these busy critters. In the photo below, you can see tiny squirrel toe and claw prints from a Douglas squirrel in the snow.
Squirrel toe prints in the snow.
As we mentioned above, squirrels love to snack on seeds. Trackers found lots of evidence of squirrels pausing to nibble on a conifer cone and leaving remnants in the snow.
Remnants of a conifer cone in the snow, fed on by a squirrel.
Although it doesn't happen often, we sometimes catch bird activity on our trail cameras and on our tracking surveys.
Gray jays, also known as Canada jays or 'Camp Robbers', are know for their mischievous antics! These birds will steal food from your campsite or directly out of your hand! This jay can be seen landing on the bait box before flying off.
A gray jay investigates the bait box on a tree before flying off.
We saw several wild turkeys on two of our camera surveys in the eastern part of the forest. Here in Oregon, we have thriving populations of wild turkey. Turkeys are not native, but were introduced to this area in the 1960s.
We see the tail end of this turkey as they run through the camera site.
The feathered tail end of a large turkey moving quickly through the forest.
A wild turkey walking through a camera site.
Tracking survey volunteers found other evidence of birds as well on one of the tracking surveys this winter. These two photos feature the tracks of the ground-dwelling bird, ruffed grouse.
Top and bottom photos: Ruffed grouse tracks through the snow.
Thats a wrap for our winter wildlife review!
Thank you to everyone that took part this survey season, we are so grateful for your help!
Make sure to check back next month to see who's in the forest on our summer surveys!
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!
WELCOME TO A NEW YEAR
Happy New Year! 2022 was a great year for us. We saw so many amazing animal photos retrieved from our cameras, and fascinating tracks and sign of animals on our tracking surveys. We were so excited to get some target species detections in the past year, including several red fox camera sightings, as well as finding marten tracks. We are excited to see what 2023 brings! Thank you to everyone that has supported us over the past year.
We had three tracking surveys in December, and our volunteers saw track and sign of a variety of animals. Let's take a look at some of the last tracks they found before ringing in the New Year!
While trekking through the snow at Mt. Hood, some of the most common tracks to find belong to Douglas squirrels and snowshoe hares. These animals are always on the move, looking for plant matter to eat amongst all of the snow.
Luckily, these animals both have fairly distinct gaits that we can learn to identify! Below is a Douglas squirrel trail. These animals hop forward, with their rear feet swinging around their front feet and landing slightly ahead of where their front feet are planted. Additionally, if the prints are clear enough to make out toes, you will see four toes on the front feet of a Douglas squirrel and five toes on the rear feet.
A Douglas squirrel trail, left as it hopped all over the surrounding snow.
Next let's look at a snowshoe hare trail. Like the Douglas squirrel, these animals hop forward with their rear feet landing ahead of their front feet. One difference we can see from the squirrel trail, however, is that a snowshoe hare's front feet will land one slightly in front of the other, rather than side by side. This allows the hare to have more stability while moving quickly. With that pattern and such large rear footprints, a snowshoe hare trail is often easy to identify once you know what to look for!
From top to bottom: A snowshoe hare trail, with rear feet landing in front; this hare was traveling in the direction of the camera. A closer look at a single snowshoe hare track, with front feet overlapping a bit and larger rear feet close to the camera.
Now you know how to identify two of the more common tracks you might see at Mt. Hood! While our volunteers saw tons of these tracks in December, they also saw some more unique track and sign. Let's take a look at some other highlights!
Here is another sign of squirrel. One must have been sitting in this tree while eating something, and all of its scraps fell to the ground below!
The remainder of a squirrel's snack lays on the snow beneath a tree.
Our volunteers also found evidence of an even smaller critter! A deer mouse left this trough-shaped trail through the snow, before scurrying down into a tunnel below the snow. These tunnels give the mouse a better chance of going undetected by predators.
A trough-shaped trail, left by a deer mouse, leads to a tunnel under the snow.
Our volunteers also found some tracks belonging to members of the mustelid family! These animals generally have long bodies that are low to the ground. Mustelid feet have five toes, and they move with a unique bounding gait. This gait also has the rear feet landing in nearly the same spot as the front feet.
First, we have a weasel trail. These could be from a short-tailed or long-tailed weasel, but they can overlap in size, so it can be hard to positively identify. It looks like the feet overlapped a bit in some spots as well.
A weasel trail moving away from the perspective of the camera.
Volunteers also found a marten trail! This is a Wolverine Tracking Project target species, as there is a healthy population at Mt. Hood and they are good indicators of forest health. For this trail, you can see a similar gait to the previous weasel. We have also included a single track, where you can see how the feet landed in similar spots and are overlapping.
From top to bottom: A marten trail loops around in an arc. A close-up shows the marten's individual feet landing closely together.
Those are just some of the animals that volunteers might cross paths with on a tracking survey. Check back in next month to see what else they find!