Cameras catching elusive wolverines in action

Source: Great Falls Tribune
Click here to read the article: http://www.greatfallstribune.com/story/news/local/2017/03/10/cameras-catching-elusive-wolverines-action/98996248/

Karl Puckett , kpuckett@greatfallstribune.com

Wendy Cole and Daniel Madel of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks hoisted packs on their backs, strapped on snowshoes and set off across a field of deep snow, headed for a distant mountain ridge on the Rocky Mountain Front.

“There’s wolverine habitat you’d like to sample,” said Cole, “and there’s wolverine habitat you can sample as a human.”

Wolverines number 250 to 300 in the mountains of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington, with some areas impossible to reach.

Inhospitable habitat and relentless traveling — they can climb over a mountain without slowing down — make wolverines difficult to study, and they’re rarely seen, much less photographed.

But now DNA and photographic evidence is being collected across the wolverines’ range in the West thanks to a first-of-its-kind study of the candidate for Endangered Species Act protections whose snowy habitat is threatened by climate change and fragmentation.

The work could lead to new conservation initiatives, one being reintroductions into areas where wolverines have been gone for a century.

A team of adventurous souls with the necessary skills to travel and survive in the backcountry where wolverines roam are serving on the front lines, including Madel and Cole.

“They are kind of like solitary mountaineers a lot of the time,” says Cole, a wildlife biologist, after trekking through deep snow to an elevation of 6,000 feet to check a location baited with smelly deer and beaver meat.

Gulo gulo is the largest land-dwelling member of the weasel family with males weighing up to 40 pounds and females, 26. It lives in high mountain environments near the tree line where conditions are cold year-round and snow cover persists well into May or even June.

Each of its feet has five toes with curved, semi-retractile claws, which are great for digging and climbing. And those feet are wide, allowing them to easily scamper over deep snow.

It’s like having built-in snowshoes and crampons.

“They’re just built to live in cold, snowy environments that are high in the mountains here in the western U.S,” said Bob Inman, FWP’s carnivore-furbearer coordinator and one of the leaders of the study.

So that’s where researchers must travel to learn about their habitat and population.

They’re using snowshoes, skis and snowmobiles to reach bait stations where remote cameras and brushes are set up to collect photos and hairs for DNA analysis. It’s their job to collect the photos and the wolverine hair.

“The hardest part is the physical travel,” Inman said.

Eleven teams of people with the necessary backcountry smarts including experience working in avalanche country were selected for the job of setting up and monitoring 186 bait stations in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington to see whether wolverines are around.

Of the total, 51 are located in Montana.

“It looks like the birds have pecked the heck out of that deer leg,” said Madel, a wildlife technician who usually works in grizzly bear management.

Madel and Cole, snowshoeing across snow untouched by tracks or footprints, had arrived at a bait station just as the snow began floating down over the pine forest, which opened up in places offering views of mountain ridges once the sky cleared.

“Do you want to do the bait?” Madel asked Cole.

Deer and beaver meat hung from a tree. A sponge, soaked with skunk lure, dripped onto the meat, with winds carrying the scent up and down the valley. It all needed to be replaced with fresh meat and lure.

Hard-wire brushes used to clean guns stuck out from a plastic strap around the tree.

A remote camera that can sense movement and temperature change was positioned in a second tree.

The idea of these bait stations is that wolverines will leave behind hairs on the brushes when they climb the trees to get the meat, allowing researchers to obtain DNA and photographic evidence of their presence.

“Saying there is habitat for wolverines is different than wolverines actually being there,” Cole said.

Wolverine habitat has been divided into eight-mile by eight-mile cells, with the bait stations randomly placed within those areas.

So far, thousands of photos have been triggered but it’s not always wolverines. Marten, bobcat and lynx and a lot of birds also are checking out the meat and triggering the cameras. Grizzly bears are hibernating, so they’re no threat to destroy the stations, although Madel carried bear spray on this trip just in case.

Through mid-February, cameras had captured between 15 and 20 individual wolverines at bait stations in Montana, Inman said. The survey officially ends March 31.

In two to three instances, two wolverines showed up on camera, Inman said. That was a surprise.

“The thought is they are solitary individuals,” Inman said. “It could be older offspring with a parent or a male-female pair. You don’t see a wolverine very often and two together is really unusual.”

Pegs were pounded into the two trees for steps and Madel went to work on the camera while Cole worked on hanging the fresh bait.

A sickening smell fouled the air when the skunk lure, contained in a Powerade bottle, was dumped into a plastic bag to soak the sponge that also would be attached to the tree.

“I think one of the coolest things about this project is it’s on such a large scale,” said Cole, noting that scientists, who usually guard data closely, are sharing information for this project.

In the past, wolverines have been studied in single regions, with differing techniques used in those individual efforts, Inman said.

This study stands out because uniform data collection techniques are being used across the entire range of the wolverine, he said.

“It’s never been attempted before,” Inman said.

That’s required participation from state wildlife agencies in 11 western states, federal land managers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a couple of universities.

Although wolverine survive in some of the most inhospitable country in the nation, they are susceptible to habitat fragmentation and climate change, Inman said.

“Long-term, we think it’s important to have a connected landscape,” Inman said. “These animals live on mountaintops and there are very few individuals on any given mountain range.”

When new wolverines are born, they disburse and find their own territory, crossing great distances across valley bottoms and even plains country to find new mountain ranges.

In May 2016, a wolverine was shot by a rancher in North Dakota near Alexander, about 30 miles from the state’s border with Montana. It had been more than a century since a wolverine had been confirmed in the state. That wolverine, a male, originally had been caught and fitted with a tracking device at Togwotee Pass in Absaroka Mountains in Wyoming. Prior to being shot in North Dakota, it had been to Colorado. And it may have been the same wolverine that was spotted running across a wheat field near northcentral Montana’s Havre four weeks prior to being shot 360 miles away near Alexander, Inman said.

“That’s speculation on my part, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were all the same individual,” Inman said. “That’s one of the most amazing things about this species is their ability to go over incredibly rugged terrain in no time.”

One priority of the wolverine conservation study is identifying areas of connectivity between isolated wolverine habitat, Inman said.

A student at Montana State University working on a doctorate is pulling together data to create a map that would show where a wolverine “would cross the road if you will,” Inman said. Eventually, when that map is completed, it could be used by land trusts that work with landowners on conservation easements, Inman said.

Wolverines were wiped out by hunting, trapping and poisoning by the early 1900s.

In the 1930s, they began to return from Canada and have since reoccupied portions of their historic range in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, Inman said.

Today’s Lower 48 population is estimated at 250 to 300 compared to 15,000 to 20,000 in Canada.

Individual wolverines may have moved into historic range in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, but have not established breeding populations.

“The wolverine is basically a relic of the ice age, and it still persists where ice-age conditions persist,” said Tim Presso, an attorney for Earthjustice, which supports federal protections for wolverines. “But those conditions are under extraordinary threats from a changing climate.”

On Aug. 13, 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew a previous proposal to list the North American wolverine in the contiguous United States as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The initial proposal had cited climate change as a factor in the proposed listing.

Later, after saying it had carefully considered the best available science, the agency determined that the effects of climate change were not likely to place the wolverine in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future. As a result, it said, the wolverine did not warrant protection.

Earthjustice, representing conservation groups, sued the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The population estimate of 200 to 300, Presso said, is generous, and might be one of the lowest for a species in the Lower 48 with the animals primarily confined to the highest, snowiest alpine areas of five states and totally dependent on a cold and snowy environment.

“There just aren’t a lot of these critters around and they already exist in pretty fragmented habitat,” he said. “And climate change is just going to shrink available habitat more and more.”

Reproductive dens are exclusively in snowy landscapes, Presso said.

In 2016, a federal district court judge in Montana sided with the environmental groups and invalidated the withdrawal of the proposed listing.

That sent the Fish and Wildlife Service back to the drawing board to reconsider the impact of climate change.

A decision on listing the wolverine is now pending.

Legal action by environmental groups also halted trapping of wolverines in Montana in 2012.

States hope current efforts to conserve wolverines as part of the four-state study will help to avert a federal listing.

“Colorado and California are places where there are big chunks of wolverine habitat that we know are not occupied at this time and haven’t been for 100 years,” Inman said. “So we’re working with the U.S. and Wildlife Service to try and develop policies that would facilitate reintroductions into those big chunks of habitat.”

Wolverines are no threat to livestock or people, Inman said. But people are wary of reintroductions, he said. That’s because a listing of wolverines, should it occur, would come with land-use restrictions, he said. States are addressing that concern, Inman said.

Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has programs for species that are candidates for federal protections whereby private landowners, if they take conservation steps on their land, can avoid further restrictions should that species be federally protected later.

“With wolverines, they spend 99.9 percent of their time on public land so those assurances can’t be granted,” Inman said.

State agencies are in discussions with the Fish and Wildlife Service on new policies that would make reintroductions on public lands more palatable to states, he said. The goal would be that states would receive assurances, too that they wouldn’t see restrictions if they take proactive steps to bring wolverines back, Inman said.

“We think we could almost double the population in size by reoccupying Colorado and California,” Inman said. “There’s enough habitat to make a very significant improvement.”

A third priority of the study is establishing a monitoring program to keep tabs on whether the population is increasing, stable or decreasing, if funding is available, Inman said.

Earthjustice’s Presso said a one-year study of wolverines would be only a snapshot. “You can only draw so many conclusions from what you gather in the course of one winter,” he said.

After beginning the journey into wolverine country by crossing a field, soon Madel and Cole were lifting their legs high climbing steep terrain and weaving through forest. Snowshoes broke through tender spots, up to the knee in the worst sections. Tree bows heavy with fresh snow rained down on their heads with just a bump. Cole and Madel stopped several times to swig water and remove layers of clothing as they worked up a sweat.

An hour later, they had reached the bait station in Helena-Lewis and Clark and National Forest more than 30 miles from the nearest town.

“There’s definitely a sense of urgency every field day,” says Cole, noting they are always racing daylight, fighting the cold and monitoring avalanche danger.

Madel and Cole check bait stations in the Cabinet-Yaak Mountains near Libby, the northern Bitterroot Range near St. Regis and Superior and the Front west of Augusta.

“Our unofficial term is it looks very wolveriney,” Cole says of the rugged, mountainous, snowy areas where the bait stations are located.

A 10th station is so remote it can’t be checked until spring. It’s in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It took Madel and Cole three days to hike 38 miles to the site, where they put up a cow femur and scent pump. The scent pump automatically drips scent every 24 hours onto the bone.

One bait station in the Yaak requires a 25-mile trip by snowmobile and snowshoes.

Cole and Madel enjoy the work and view wolverines as a “super cool” study subject.

“‘Oh my gosh, there’s a wolverine, there’s a wolverine!’” has been Cole’s reaction when she and Madel have discovered pictures of wolverines on the cameras, which has occurred twice at a station outside of Superior.

With an amazing sense of smell and digging ability, wolverines, primarily carnivorous scavengers, dig up dead animals to eat, Madel said.

It’s not uncommon for wolverines to dig 20 to 30 feet into the snowpack to find animals that died in avalanches, Madel said. Avalanche areas, Cole added, serve as “little coolers” keeping meat fresh.

They also are capable of killing small animals such as marmots, and larger animals such as moose, caribou and deer hampered by deep snow.

A lot of study of wolverines has occurred over the past 10 years, but they still are misunderstood, Cole said. Resembling a small bear with a bushy tail, one nickname is the “mountain devil.” Stories from trappers about how mean wolverines are persist 100 years after they were first told, she noted.

“No, they’re just effective at surviving,” said Cole, noting that wolverine need to be tenacious and strong because of where the live.

A study that brings more attention and knowledge about their characteristics is valuable because people may not care about a mean animal, “But they might care about something they admire,” Cole said.

Madel downloaded the contents of the camera to his cellphone and began scrolling dozens and dozens of images.

They temper their expectations, but always are hopeful.

“I’m sure we’ll have a lot of bird photos,” Madel said.

No wolverine had visited the site. But even no pictures or DNA is valuable information because the study is focused on whether wolverine habitat is occupied — or not.

Follow Karl Puckett on Twitter @GFTrib_KPuckett