F3, our female wolverine in the Absarokas, is in one of the log-box traps! She went in sometime between 8:30 am and 1:00 pm today, and is apparently displaying a bit more of the wolverine spirit than calm M57 did when he was in the trap a couple of weeks ago.
The big question, the question around which everything pivots, is whether or not she’s lactating or – less likely but possible – still pregnant. In either case, she will be released immediately. The challenge of the field crew is to get her to stand up on her hind legs, in the trap, so that they can assess whether she’s been nursing. If it seems even remotely likely, they’ll open the trap and let her go.
In the follow-up to the M57 capture, the photos from the motion-sensitive camera rigged near the trap showed that F3 was actually with M57 when he went into the trap. While he languished inside, she sat on top of the trap and gave us a clear enough view of her chest patch that the field crew was able to positively ID her (wolverine chest patches, like human fingerprints or a tiger’s stripes, are unique to each animal.) This may help explain why M57 apparently followed F3’s precise travel route to the trap. The two were observed close to each other a few days prior to M57’s capture, and were also in proximity over the summer breeding season.
F3 is a tricky girl; she approached the traps on a number of occasions last year, and even went inside, but managed to elude us nevertheless. The year before that, she was in a trap and the roads closed through Idaho and Montana because of a blizzard, and Jason was unable to reach her within a safe time. They opened the trap and let her go. There’s something endearingly devilish about her luck, not to mention something impressively devilish about the way she moves across terrain. I’ve tracked her on foot, following the points off her first GPS collar, through tangles of downfall and across scree fields and up cliffs, and as a reward, have seen the remains of two of her meals: a single elk vertebra, the cracked jawbones of a mountain goat. I’ve crawled under a tangle of downfall that we suspected might be the den where she was born, pulling pieces of hair off of logs with a pair of tweezers. On another trip we tried to reach another set of points where she might have been feeding, but ran out of time. On two of these trips, we had third-party participants, both of whom were unable to complete the treks, defeated by the demands of the route (on the third, the one through the downfall – ironically, the shortest distance – I nearly gave up after a mile of climbing over, under, up, and around the havoc-ridden trail of a micro-burst; I counted 57 cuts, scrapes, and bruises on my legs and another 20 or so on my arms the next day.) Jason’s quote in the PBS Nature preview – “Basically, you have to be beyond human to follow these animals” – was made while tracking F3. I like this animal in a way that is personal; she’s been both an inspiration and an exasperation, and once a creature has both inspired and annoyed you, you can’t help but feel a continuing sense of interest.
So that’s the news from the project, as we approach the final days of research trapping season. The grizzlies are already emerging from their dens, and the last thing one wants is to be responsible for a bunch of bait in a landscape crawling with ravenous bears. At the first sign of a bear within scenting distance of a trap, the traps close.