Studying wolverines in the Rockies can be almost unbearably frustrating. Gaining a picture of what is actually happening in a meta-population that is scattered across far-flung mountain ranges in at least four states is a mind boggling challenge. One of my enduring regrets is the lack of impetus for a state-wide study of Wyoming’s wolverine population. Our knowledge remains fragmentary, mostly centered on the two National Parks. We suspect that there are relatively few wolverines in Yellowstone National Park and the mountains to the east. The Wildlife Conservation Society monitored the population in Grand Teton National Park for several years, recording the southernmost known reproduction in the Rockies in 2005, and following one of the two female kits all the way to the Wind River Range, several hundred miles to the southeast. The WCS study stopped monitoring the Teton wolverines shortly thereafter, and since then there have been no formal studies of wolverines in Wyoming. We rely on anecdotal reports and, if we’re lucky, verified sightings by backcountry travelers. For the past several years, the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative has engaged in an on-going educational blitz to try to make skiers and hikers more aware of wolverine sign and the best way to record and report sightings. One of the centerpieces of this campaign was a laminated, pocket-sized card that adventurers could carry with them (a .pdf of that card is available from this page.) We distributed hundreds of these cards, but measuring their efficacy was tricky.
In late May, Brigid Mander, a professional ski writer (and friend) from Jackson who had been deluged with wolverine chatter from the NRCC crowd, headed into the Wind River Range for a ski trip. She and her companions became the first to document a wolverine in the range since 2006 (as far as I know.) This is pretty exciting. Hopefully we can find some way of conducting a more formal study in that range soon.
Here is Brigid’s account of the sighting:
We went into the Winds for a six-day couloir skiing mission at the end of May… It was more wintery than we expected, snow on the access road and the approach was easily skinnable form the parking lot, lakes were all still frozen. We didn’t really expect to see any wildlife, because it was so frozen and snowy.
Things were going smoothly; and on our third day in there, we headed from our camp… over to ski some lines in a nearby basin. Just after we entered the basin itself, we saw tracks running along the lake – big tracks, with claws! I suggested they were wolverine tracks to the crew, based on the ones I saw in BC in the McGregor range – these ones seemed quite a bit larger, but clearly had the chevron shape pad and giant claws (thanks to my handy NRCC card, which I didn’t have with me but had looked at quite a bit). However, no one believed me, and the general consensus was that it was a bear.
Wolverine tracks in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. Photo by Brigid Mander.
Wolverine print with ski for scale. Photo by Brigid Mander.
Next, we saw a bunch of little tracks along with it, they didn’t look quite the same, but it looked like three more small animals I thought some looked distinctly canine – but it was hard to tell. They looked similar but we just weren’t sure. The crew decided now it was a mother bear with babies. Of course, there was no vegetation showing yet in the basin (or for miles in any direction, really!), and the lakes were quite frozen, so a bear heading higher and farther into a frozen wasteland seemed unlikely (but, no one had come around to my wolverine opinion…yet!).
The tracks continued along the side of the lake, for over three miles to the end of the basin. Here, the little tracks were gone but the big ones headed from the lake, and up around the back of the basin under a pass. They were going in and out the holes in the snow, next to huge boulders, checking out the deep windrifts created in the snow. It was very busy creature, and we saw its tracks everywhere – even up at the base of the couloir we went to ski.
The weather, however, which had started out questionable in the morning, had turned hellacious, very cold, and extremely windy, and we were blowing over in our skintrack. The snow in the couloirs didn’t look great anyway. So we turned around after some discussion, and three of us were ahead of the others.
We were still up high on the flank under the ski lines, and then down below us near lake levels we saw this creature running at top speed, looking like a frantic black bear – I felt bad for it, as it was fleeing and looked scared. But then I noticed a big tail, and could make out the wolverine stripe around its haunches – Simon skied after it to get a picture, and it sped away over the snow and then up into the rocks, where it stopped and turned around and looked at us from a distance. By the time we got under where it had run up to, it had disappeared somewhere. We were stoked! We had to admit that the sighting kind of made up for getting shut down on the skiing for the day.
Wolverine in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. The animal is just visible at the center of the picture. Photo by Simon Peterson.
The next day we were back up, and we saw some more very similar, if a little older, tracks, all up there, high in the basin under the cliffs that the couloirs come out of. We didn’t see the wolverine again, for the rest of the trip, or any other wildlife for that matter. That is the story!
Wolverine tracks showing the gait and scale. Photo by Simon Peterson.