It’s true, we got a late start, the snow turning to mush in the warm sun under our snowmobile tread as we head out mid-morning. I'm tagging along with Wyoming Game and Fish Wolverine Biologist Lee Tafelmeyer into the south end of the Wind River Range to take down a motion-sensored camera he's been baiting with roadkill deer and beaver carcasses in an effort to take photos of wolverines. It's all part of a multi-state project to count this elusive species in the West. Last year, they took 53 photos of an estimated five animals.
After the snowmobile ride, we plan to ski several miles too.
“Just the nature of wolverine research, it's going to be hard,” Tafelmeyer says.
That's because wolverines live in the highest mountains and are very rare. Lee says, trapping in the 19th century nearly wiped them out. Researchers think there's only around 300 in the lower 48 and only those five in Wyoming. But Tafelmeyer says, as the largest animal in the weasel family, they're not shy.
“A lot of people just call them, like, bad asses, really,” he says, laughing. “That's a one word description of a wolverine.”
He says one radio-collared male was tracked down from Yellowstone and oilfield workers reported seeing him crossing the Red Desert! Then he turned up in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado almost 500 miles away.
"They actually had a collared male wolverine that went up the north face of Mount Cleveland, the highest peak in [Glacier National Park]. And it did, like, almost 5000 vertical feet in 90 minutes or something crazy like that." Tafelmeyer says rock climbers attempted to ascend the wolverine's route. "They spent, like, a day studying the route and looking at it and didn't even attempt it because it looked so burly."
And he says, they aren't that large. “I mean, this is an animal that's two feet off the ground, weighs 25, 40 pounds. And it just goes,” he says. “It'll go anywhere. It'll cross the Tetons in a day, from Jenny Lake over to the west side.”
Anywhere in search of food. Its Latin name is Gulo Gulo, which means, glutinous glutton. It hunts snowshoe hares, marmots, squirrels.
“They've been known to take down animals as big as a moose before, but that's rare.
In winter, though, they're alpine scavengers.
“There's a story that a wolverine dug down through 20 feet of avalanche debris to find a dead mountain goat that got swept away in the avalanche. So that's 20 feet of concrete. That wolverine smelled it through that and dug straight down to that carcass.”
Today, we learn something about how hard snow digging can be. On our way to collect photos, the snowmobiles get stuck in the fast melting snow. Really stuck. We decide to turn back.
“The safe side of me probably says, it's time to turn around.”
But for wolverines, there's no escaping this wet snow. Right now, at this time of year, females are raising young in snow dens.
“When the snow is really wet and heavy and the water starts to drop out of the snow pack, it's a problem because the kits get wet inside the den,” says the Wolverine Foundation’s executive director Rebecca Watters. “And that's potentially a problem for disease and becoming ill and getting cold.”
Her group isn't one of those challenging the federal decision not to list wolverines, but she says she’s glad the courts sent them back to the drawing board. Watters says with their crampon-like claws and snowshoe-shaped feet, wolverines are an ice age animal that persisted into a warming era.
“The problem with climate change as a threat to a species like the wolverine is that this is a systemic threat, it’s at a society-wide and global level. I think we need to assess what the states are doing and look at how that turns out.”
By states, she means Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington, working together on a federal grant to count wolverines and study their range. She says states were able to adopt strict regulations to keep sage grouse from getting listed, so maybe they can do the same for wolverines.
Nichole Bjornlie with Wyoming Game and Fish says Wyoming hopes to do just that.
“We classify wolverine as a species of greatest conservation need in the state, as well as a protected animal by statute,” she says. “So Game and Fish has long recognized this is a potentially sensitive species, one we haven't had the opportunity to really devote funds and personnel to up until now.”
To get a better count of wolverines, she says next year, they plan to set up 25 more cameras in the Bighorn Range and the National Parks. She says there's even talk of relocating wolverine into the state from Alaska where there are larger populations. A big help, she says, would be for people who see a wolverine to send photographs to Wyoming Game and Fish. She says, every sighting is useful to them.
As to the camera I snowmobiled out to see with Lee Tafelmeyer, he gives me a call after he pulls it down a few days later.
“Looks like we have a red fox, got a little squirrel here,” he says, looking through the 900 some photos the camera took in the last month.
“No wolverine this time?” I ask.
“No wolverine this time,” he says. “Nope, that's too bad.”
The elusive wolverine slips away again.