(part 1 of this narrative is here)
The log box trap, nestled into the snow beneath the towering pines, sat like a gift waiting to be opened. M57 was inside, quiet. The field crew had determined that he wasn’t wearing a collar. They’d also, while waiting, dug an outdoor operating theater into the snow. And a couch. The couch faced the trap, and the entire setup could have been a piece of installation art, a wry and clever commentary on the fact that Americans spend too much time indoors, glued to the television or the computer.
We carefully raised the lid of the trap, and there, dark against the dark of the trap except for glowing eyes in the beam of the flashlight, was M57. A gnawed bone was visible beside him, the remains of the roadkilled animal that had been used as bait. Log box traps were first used in a wolverine study by wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland in Idaho; he needed something made of native materials with which a wolverine would be familiar, solid enough to hold the animal without harming it. The trap functions like this: a carcass of something (preferably a beaver; Jason is fond of saying that beavers are like candy to a wolverine, their favorite snack) is attached to a wire that, when pulled, releases the trap lid and closes the wolverine inside. The traps attract dozens of other, smaller carnivores – martens, fox, coyotes, ermine, bobcats – so the trigger is calibrated to the strength of a wolverine. The wire is attached to a radio transmitter, whose signal changes when the trap is triggered. This allows the field crew to monitor the traps remotely and to check on the traps in person when a lid is down. Although the trap is specialized for wolverines, tenacious small carnivores have been known to trip the mechanism, and the release of a marten or a fox is the more frequent beginning of the day than the capture of an actual wolverine.
M57 wasn’t happy about his imprisonment, but by wolverine standards, he wasn’t overly irate, either. He employed minimal ferocity as he ventured towards the front of the trap, the low, spine-tingling gulo growl that seemed like the misbegotten offspring of a housecat’s purr and an approaching thunderstorm. Jason held the flashlight and M57 paced and growled, clearly wanting out of the trap, but not venturing too close to the humans. On other captures, Jason said, the flashlights emerged covered in wolverine spit as the animals charged and attacked. Wolverines have also been known to chew their way out of log box traps if they are left for long enough. This was one of the reasons the field crew had sat on their couch and kept watch throughout the day. M57 hadn’t chewed much, but if he had, they might have placed a radio on top of the trap to keep him away from the walls. Wolverines may have an overly-inflated reputation for berserker insanity, but they are definitely capable of impressive tenacity and a high degree of havoc when necessary.
We left M57 to his meditations in the trap, and prepped the theater for the collaring, laying out all the necessary equipment on the broad snow table – lights, wool blanket, hot water bottles, a thermometer, the collar itself and a leather punch and wrench for fastening it, ties for the wolverine’s legs, a wide sock to slip over his eyes to help keep him calm. Mark and Bob, of WCS, had brought an oxygen tank and a pulse oxymeter, which was fortunate because ours wasn’t working. The pulse oxymeter, by way of a clip that attached to the tongue, would measure pulse, heart rate, and blood oxygenation levels while the wolverine was under. One of the field crew would take the temperature manually; these vitals had to be recorded every five minutes. With the drug combination used in wolverine captures, there is a risk of hypothermia (the drugs that biologists use with wolves, on the other hand, create a risk of overheating) and if the animal’s temperature began to drop, we would reverse the drug and put him back in the trap to recover. We were fortunate that it was a warm night, but we still prepared the water bottles and several packets of hand-warmers, which could be tucked into the wolverine’s joints if necessary.
Jason had delegated the job of injecting the wolverine to the chief of the field crew, a big moment since this is a tricky maneuver and, according to Jason, the highlight of the whole capture. To effectively sedate a wolverine, you have to distract the animal so that it doesn’t see the person preparing to give it the shot; otherwise it will face that person directly and make it impossible to get a good angle. You have to deliver the drugs quickly, which means that they have to be highly concentrated. And of course, you can’t get too close – who wants to stick their torso head-first into an enclosed space with a thirty-pound weasel? – so the entire procedure is mediated by a meter-long stick, to which the syringe is attached. The jab requires force and conviction and you only get one chance.
While Jason distracted the wolverine with the flashlight, playing with the light and attempting to turn M57 the way a bullfighter might turn a bull, the head of the field crew stood at the opposite corner of the trap with the jabstick poised, waiting for a clear shot at a flank. M57 paced and growled and I watched from a safe distance as the light caught specific features – the lowset ears with their line of white fur, the small, intelligent eyes, a dark cheek framed by a faint mask, the broad, low forehead. Then a flurry of movement, the jabstick flashing forward, the wolverine flinching back, so fast that I didn’t think it could possibly have been a hit, but the head of the field crew was saying, “I got him. I got him. The full dose,” as the lid was lowered. Jason and the head of the field crew examined the empty syringe, and then Jason said, “Seven minutes.” I had the watch; it was 8:43 pm. We had exactly 40 minutes before M57 would wake up.