Lonesome Stranger

In early March, I checked my voicemail to hear my good friend Katie Moriarty exclaiming as fast as a Douglas squirrel that had just emerged from a bag of espresso beans, “Oooooh man, check your e-mail, check your e-mail, check your e-mail, and call me NOW!” I clicked open a message entitled “TOP SECRET: burn after reading,” and I, too, quickly became as excited as an overcaffeinated squirrel.

That morning, Moriarty, an Oregon State University graduate student in the department of fisheries and wildlife, working on her thesis on the movements of martens (Martes americana), had been reviewing photos taken by one of her thirty motion-activated cameras in the mountains north of Truckee, California. As she scrolled through the usual candid-camera cache of wind-driven branches, squirrels, coyotes, ermine, and the occasional bobcat, she came across a photo of something quite unique: the hind end of a wolverine, an animal that hasn’t been documented in California for nearly ninety years.

The last known California wolverine was shot in 1922, making Moriarty’s discovery nearly as thrilling for the biological community as the ivory-billed woodpecker re-sighting in Arkansas in 2004. “It’s exciting to have verified confirmation of a wolverine, because there have been hundreds of unconfirmed sightings over the years,” says Moriarty.

Wolverines are the largest terrestrial members of the weasel family; they look like small, long-legged brown bears with large cream-colored stripes running down either side of their bodies. Their tendency to be fierce towards other creatures has earned them nicknames such as “devil bear” and “skunk bear.” Wolverines are very solitary, wide-roaming animals, and are thus difficult to study and count in a consistent fashion. There are estimated to be fewer than 500 wolverines left in the continental United States, although the federal government does not consider them an endangered or threatened species. Subspecies of wolverine exist in northern Europe and Asia as well. Despite low population estimates, it is still legal to trap them in Alaska and Montana.

California once had what biologist Shawn Sartorius of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s office in Helena, Montana, dubs “a pretty special population of wolverines,” which were more closely related to Eurasian wolverines than other populations in North America. “They were probably isolated in North America for quite a long time before European colonization,” he explains. The reappearance of a lone wolverine in California instantly raised questions about its background: had someone released a once-captive animal or had a wild individual migrated from afar?

“The nearest known population of wolverines is about 600 miles away,” says Kevin McKelvey of the US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. He points out that DNA analysis of Sierra Nevada wolverines from museum collections makes it clear that migration between isolated populations has rarely happened in the past. Moriarty explains that wolverines are known to travel long distances—upwards of fifty miles in a day—but 600 miles is a new precedent.

“Wolverines are associated with alpine habitat and don’t usually come below the tree line unless they’re roving males. That means they’re highly dependent on latitude and climate,” Moriarty says. Since the wolverine she caught on camera was indeed an adult male, it’s possible that he was a migrant trying to claim new turf. That would be good news for the expansion of the species, if he could only find a female to share his new digs. “If the wolverines could recolonize the Sierras,” says McKelvey, “it would represent a major increase in their US population and range.”

It became clear to Moriarty that she needed DNA from this wayfaring stranger to determine whether or not he actually belonged to the historic California population. A massive search team to find him, or at least hair or excrement he’d left behind, was put together, including fifteen scientists, two California Department of Fish & Game staff, and myself. The search employed snowmobiles, snowshoes, cross country skis, and even dogs—not hunting dogs, of course, but canines trained to find scat. Special bait stations with several motion-sensing cameras pointed at a hunk of deer meat were set up in hopes of snapping more photos. The stations also included hair snares, since DNA can be gathered from follicles.

In the end, we covered over 150 miles of Sierra Nevada backcountry terrain via human power. Although we never had a live sighting of the wolverine, the baited cameras did snap a few more action photos, and hair and scat were retrieved. DNA tests ultimately proved that the wolverine was most closely related to the Rocky Mountain populations and not a California native.

Word of the displaced beast rapidly spread around the nation. Local TV stations were right on the scene, and then NPR, CNN, and NBC began picking up the story. People began to ask, what might a reappearance of wolverines in California mean for an area that isn’t used to having them around? Armand Gonzales, wildlife program manager with California’s Department of Fish & Game, points out that the major industries in the Truckee and Tahoe areas—residential development, commercial timber harvest on public and private lands, and outdoor recreation—could be affected if wolverines move back into town.

“[If] we’re able to conclude with reasonable certainty that there is more than one, and they are possibly reproducing, then the regulatory oversight of projects like development and harvesting in the area will become much more complex,” Gonzales says. “This would have a direct monetary effect on the local economy, would require redirecting staff time to deal with the additional regulatory oversight, and possibly restrict the timing and location of winter recreation.” He says that the agency continues to receive unconfirmed reports of wolverine sightings.

Historically, wolverines and humans rarely tangled for territory. “Wolverines tend to live in places that are remote from human habitation and even tend to be remote from things like timber harvest,” says Sartorius. “They live very high on mountain slopes so there aren’t a lot of things that people do in wolverine habitat that affect wolverines.” That could change, however, as climate alters. Global warming is an increasingly unpredictable wild card for people who study and manage wildlife. According to current climate models, major ecosystems are slated to undergo range shifts in the coming years, and the animals in those habitats will have no choice but to move, seeking suitable places to live, or perish. “The potential for these types of movements occurring are going to increase with the effects of climate change,” says Gonzales.

So what will state wildlife managers do in the coming days of habitat reshuffling? “Animals showing up in their historic range will not be considered invasive but do have the potential to disrupt the status quo of the ecosystem that has evolved since the animals’ disappearance,” Gonzales points out. “We are working on a climate change adaptation strategy that will address some of the range shifts that may likely occur. We hope to identify and conserve key reserves that possess high potential for resiliency and biodiversity. Then we can plan linkages between them, including linking habitats at higher elevations and altitudes.”

Although the wolverine is listed as an endangered species in California, it still receives no protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. In fact, says Moriarty, “Ironically, wolverines were denied federal protection the very same day that the wolverine was photographed in California.” In part, the federal Fish & Wildlife Service decided that such protections were not warranted because the species isn’t “geographically discrete”—in other words, the population within the continental United States is not totally separated from populations in Alaska and Canada.

While Moriarty’s finding excited biologists, Sartorius points out that it isn’t likely to have much of an impact on future decisions about federal protection. “This wolverine wasn’t a native of the historic [California] population, and it was a male,” he explains. “They are the kind of individuals that are of least conservation value because you can’t establish a population with an individual male. It would have been of much more conservation interest had it been a female.”

Prior to nixing federal protection for the wolverine, the Bush administration also dodged conservation responsibilities for several species that are distributed across North America under the rationale that our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, will protect them. Unfortunately, Canada has been late to the conservation table, implementing its Species At Risk Act in 2003, and the only protective action to speak of in Mexico is largely due to prodding from US organizations.

The nonprofit conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, along with other groups, filed a lawsuit on September 30 challenging the denial of federal protection for wolverines. As Jamie Clark, the group’s executive vice president and the former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Clinton administration, wrote in a press release reacting to the federal government’s decision to deny federal protection to the species, “The future of the wolverine depends upon the US Fish & Wildlife Service doing the job that it was entrusted to do: protect and recover imperiled wildlife within our borders.”

But even if the wolverine were to be listed as a federally endangered species, many believe the Endangered Species Act’s teeth are being systematically knocked out by the Bush administration in its final days. Currently, any project undertaken by a federal agency must include consultation with experts at the Forestry and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service, which independently decide whether a project is likely to threaten a protected species or its habitat. However, under the leadership of Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, the Department of the Interior—the agency that enforces the Endangered Species Act—has decided that these consultations are no longer necessary, and that federal agencies have the expertise to review their own construction and development projects.

These legislative changes will put an end to some environmental reviews that developers and other federal agencies blame for delays and cost increases on many projects. In other words, the Endangered Species Act will be weakened in the name of finishing a job under budget and on time. “Kempthorne is attempting to accomplish anti-ESA legislation through regulation that he couldn’t get passed through Congress back in 2005,” says Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s an attempt at a parting shot by the Bush administration before the November election.”

As the climate changes and snowpacks in northern latitudes shrink, Moriarty believes that government protection and habitat preservation will be key for the wellbeing of the wolverines who depend on alpine environments. “When studying animals with such an expansive geographic range and ability to move beyond international boundaries, it’s very important for us to continue research while preserving critical habitat such that we can sustain biodiversity,” she says.

Unfortunately, the wolverine she caught on camera didn’t stick around long enough to be a part of much research; despite our search, he disappeared. Some researchers lament that more efforts weren’t made to capture, radio-collar, and track the wandering wolverine to find out where he came from and what he was doing here. “To me, this highlights the need for much better understanding not only of where wolverines live but how they navigate between these areas. We know almost nothing about wolverine dispersal routes,” says McKelvey.

“This was such a rare event,” agrees Jeff Copeland, McKelvey’s coworker at the Rocky Mountain Research Station. “My guess is that this individual came there with the primary goal of finding other wolverines. At some point it will fail to do so and will probably attempt to return to its area of origin. How interesting it might have been to be able to track that movement.”

Scientists hoping that wolverines are indeed staging a return to the Sierras can do no more than hope that my friend’s mysterious visitor will wander back… and this time bring a pal.

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