The End of a Journey: Colorado Wolverine Killed in North Dakota

A couple of weeks ago, a wolverine was killed in North Dakota by a ranch hand who came across it, surrounded by cattle. He believed that the animal was a threat to his calves, even though he wasn’t sure what it was, and shot it. The North Dakota Department of Game and Fish confirmed the ID and took possession of the body for a necropsy and DNA testing. Articles about the incident, and the animal’s possible origins, have popped up over the past week, and I was in the process of writing a post about this incident, and how interested I was in the results of the DNA testing and the origins of this wolverine, when NDG&F released an update containing surprising news: the wolverine was carrying a radio transmitter. That transmitter belonged to an animal instrumented in Wyoming in 2008, and whose “last known location was Colorado in 2012.”

This leaves little doubt that the animal was M56, the wolverine who gained fame in 2009 when he traveled 500 miles from northern Wyoming to Colorado. He became the first verified wolverine in Colorado in 90 years. Colorado Parks and Wildlife tracked him until his instruments died, as he traveled up and down the length of the Colorado Rockies. He was spotted and photographed by hikers on several occasions, and prompted widespread interest in the idea of reintroducing wolverines to Colorado. I cannot enumerate the emails I’ve gotten from elementary school classes across the country wanting to know more about M56, where he is now, and what he’s doing. In fact, I answered such an email this morning, to a third grade class in Ohio, sending along cheerful speculations about how he was probably still alive and wandering around the Rockies. He was a genuinely famous wolverine, people were inspired by his story, and I’m caught between astonishment that he had gone all the way to North Dakota – North Dakota! – and sadness at his end.

I tracked this guy shortly after he was caught and instrumented, off Togwotee Pass in Wyoming, in early 2009. Once I took my sister, who was in town for a visit, and once I went by myself. I didn’t find his tracks, and the days were still too short for extensive trips, but I could hear him on the telemetry receiver, the slow, steady, tick….tick of the transmitter both soothing and exhilarating in the snowbound forest. I had no idea what he would go on to do, but I loved him even then simply for being out there, for his presence on the landscape, which, even before his tremendous journeys, seemed huge.

We lost track of him for a while, and then he was picked up traveling south down the spine of the Wind River Range in central Wyoming. We thought he’d stick there, but then he disappeared again. At that point, we began speculating – what if he kept going south, to Colorado? The speculation was half-joking, half hopeful. It picked up steam and tipped towards hopeful when he was spotted outside of Laramie by a rancher who saw him and called Game and Fish to report it. A flight ID-ed him. I remember thinking that I sort of loved that rancher, too, for calling the animal in, for being an ally of science and understanding and coexistence. His decision kept the story alive.

M56 crossed into Colorado in May of 2009. His journey coincided with the start of my work in Mongolia, and those two events catalyzed the founding of this blog. He made it clear that these animals had stories unlike the stories of other animals, at a scale that corresponded to my own interests. M56 made me realize that there was something to write about here, a compelling narrative, and his was the first story that I told.

I have an aversion to letting my emotions get the better of me, but it’s hard not to admit to grief over M56’s end. It’s extraordinary that he went from Wyoming to Colorado to (probably, since he was so close to the border) Montana to North Dakota – and who knows where else in between? Unknown animals die unmourned all the time, so it shouldn’t matter. But storied wolverines…they are rare, and they hint to us of all the wild and unseen and amazing lives that go on beyond our awareness. That’s something worth thinking about. So take a moment to remember M56, to consider his life, and those unknown lives, and what it means to have them out there. It means more than I can express, probably more than any of us can express – but let us keep trying.

 

 

 

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37 thoughts on “The End of a Journey: Colorado Wolverine Killed in North Dakota

      • I’ve never been to your blog before and I confess my ignorance – I didn’t even know one existed about wolverines. I have been fascinated by them since I was a child – did an extensive report on them as a class project – and ever since then have felt a kindred spirit of sorts – solitary, nomadic & and mysterious that they are – such incredible creatures that I’ve found not many have ever even heard of. This news saddens me terribly and only reinforces my generally pessimistic view of humankind, how we regard other creatures and what our role is on this planet. Whether is is the elusive snow leopard being hunted for its pelt, elephants for their tusks, sharks for their fins or even the coral dying in our oceans – it is clear that humans – for the most part – have no idea of the bigger picture.

        Thank you for blog – you have enlarged my world a little more today.

        RIP M56.

  1. Great report…. What a traveler ! The true spirit of gulo gulo! I am also saddened that he died such an unnecessary death – as cattle will surround a garter snake or a marmot. maybe it is raw with me as three times this last week I was called by ranchers wife’s to take on orphaned raccoons because the rancher was moving hay bales and shot the mother coon … Then found the babies. But to shoot an animal you cannot identify makes M56’s death especially mournful! Thankfully he contributed some amazing data about his species – even in his departure .

    • I know. It’s hard not to just be angry. I’m struck by the contrast in the responses of the two ranch folks involved in this story – one at the beginning, one at the end. Not to heap blame on the guy who shot him, I’m not interested in generating some story about how he shot M56 just for fun, I’m sure he genuinely thought he could be a threat. But it’s just interesting to consider what makes one person think, “There’s a weird animal among my cows and I should call Game and Fish because I want to know more” vs. “There’s a weird animal among my cows and I’m going to shoot it because it’s a threat.” Disappointing indeed.

      I also wonder what sent M56 north. Was he bored with Colorado? Had he figured that there was no mate for him there? Certainly the habitat must have been better in Colorado than in ND – unless this is some indication that CO can’t support wolverines over the long term? Was he booted out by a younger wolverine? Or did he just like touring around? So many questions.

  2. Since his arrival in Colorado, I’ve hiked many a mile on the divide, always scanning the tundra with a hopeful eye. The moutains are a little less wild today with the knowledge that he is gone. Thanks for eulogizing him here.

    • I hope you get to see a wolverine in Colorado sometime – it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility. M56 happened to have a transmitter, but I’m sure other wolverines have made it in the past and will in the future, too. Keep looking!

  3. Beautifully written, Rebecca, and an apt tribute. May M56’s story continue to inspire our wild souls and our drive to conserve wild places and wildlife.

    • Thank you, Renee. I should add that it is down to WCS that we know anything at all about this animal – I should have contextualized that a bit more, but as I was writing, I was so shocked that pieces escaped me. He was your research animal, we just had his frequencies, which was how I was able to track him.

  4. It’s very simple: Profit rules. Ranchers make a living by selling lifestock for burgers. The first wolverine showing up 100 years after being eradicated by fur hunters is telling the sad story of our society: Anything for a buck.

    • I appreciate the sentiment, but don’t want this to turn into a diatribe against ranching. The guy genuinely did not seem to know what it was he shot (his facebook post asked people to help him ID it….) and so it wasn’t a conscious choice between livestock and wolverines. It was a bad decision, there were other options available, but it can’t be taken as a categorical valuing of livestock over wildlife, or a condemnation of all ranchers everywhere. I think it does suggest that we need to do some education in lowland ranching areas where wolverines might be seen, to help people ID the species and to point out that there’s a very, very low risk to livestock from wolverines, and to please not shoot or harm them. But I know ranchers who love the idea of having wolverines around, and it was a rancher in Wyoming who helped WCS find M56 when he went missing.

  5. Of course it matters! When I first moved up here in 2014, I took hundreds of pictures of the rocks hoping to get a picture of a Colorado black bear cub. I got a picture of what I thought was a fisher cat. Then I found footprints in the snow, and I ran across pictures and articles about your wolverine. We have always wondered “what if he was still here? What if that not-so-great picture was him?” I was so happy to read about the wolverine-liking judge in the NYTIMES a couple of weeks ago. Tonight my boyfriend told me about the wolverine, and we are so sad that it was him. At least now he can rest what must be four very tired feet after so many years of hiking in the mountains. And you know that he was alive all this time, too. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment. I know it matters, it’s just the different way that we perceive a known vs. an unknown animal that strikes me at this time. I feel so overwhelmed by sadness for M56, while other unknown animals die all the time. In any case, I’m glad that you guys might have had a sighting – do you still have those photos? Did you take photos of the tracks? I’d love to see them if so.

      • I will send you the picture of what I think may have been him. I haven’t been on here in a while (obviously), so apologies there. Let me find it–I have it on a hard drive full of pictures–and I will send it on by the end of this week. I think the sadness happens any time we hear a story about any animals: 2 baby bears up here–the baby bison in one of the parks–coyotes by the roadside. It is a lot to process, though, this Nature thing. 🙂

      • ok, I finally found the picture. I don’t have your email, so I am going to put it on my instagram for a few days, labelled “M56?” just for you to see. I am not trying to get a follower — I just can’t think of another way to get you the pic. I think that whatever it is, he is a lot darker mahogany than your animal.

        When I look at the picture, zooming in and then out, I see that the animal is walking down the rock towards the left hand corner of the picture. (On first glance, I always think the head is its back legs.)

        Still, we hiked up there on Sunday, and there were a lot of little spaces for an animal to live. Bears, too. I hope you are well. 🙂
        Vikki

        My instagram is tigerbettyarts, and I tagged you @rjwatters.

      • Thanks for posting the photo! That was actually my first foray into instagram, though the Wolverine Foundation should probably have an account.

        I took a look and it’s hard to tell, but to me it looks more like a marten or maybe even a mink. It looks smaller and more delicate than a wolverine, and if that’s the face – and not the back legs and tail, as I first assumed; thanks for clarifying – then we should be able to see the facial markings and the side stripe. The feet are also very small – wolverines have gigantic feet. So although this is probably a weasel, I’m afraid it’s probably not M56. Thanks for sharing, and for taking the time to find the photo, though, and hope you get to see a wolverine in the wild in the future.

  6. If you will place a photo of a wolverine at the beginning of this post, it will be picked up by Facebook when people share this story. And then more people will know what a wolverine looks like. Thank you for the lovely eulogy.

  7. First I was angry, then sad….then I thought, if he hadn’t been shot, with the transmitter long dead, we would never have known the last chapter of his wanderings.
    I could swear I saw a wolverine, under the bright lights by a dumpster in Golden, CO at ~6000′.
    Impossible, maybe. Did he find a mate, friends, progeny?
    Who knows? (It wasn’t the only report/gossip, either!)

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  15. So very sad to hear of this wolverine’s demise! I saw my first wolverine ‘in the wild’ a couple of weeks ago. I live 7 miles south of Talkeetna (AK) and was out walking a back road when I happened to catch site of a squat dark brown shape with a lighter colored blaze under its head walking at the edge of some muskeg. It looked to be in good shape and while I believe it did scent me it wasn’t particularly concerned and continued walking the line between the muskeg and boreal forest. Sadly, I didn’t have my camera with me but now that I know there is at least one such gorgeous creature in the area I will make sure I always have my camera with me.

  16. I went to Jared Hatters Facebook page and read the comments from his friends on killing the wolverine. Personally, I would take a single living wolverine over every single one of those people. This is a sad end to an obviously lonely life for that animal. Now to read that there may only be 200 left in the US just makes it more sad.

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree with you in terms of the responses of the shooter and his friends, but I don’t see the point of exacerbating cultural divides over wildlife by focusing on them. I think we should be giving attention to the question of wolverine conservation at a broader scale. You’re not going to convert everyone to placing a value on wildlife. Some people just don’t care. I tend to think that these people are missing some piece of their soul, but that’s not something I can fix. So let’s talk about wolverine science and conservation, and focus on what we *can* do at the research and policy and outreach levels.

      Thanks again for the comment and for your interest in wolverines!

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  18. Dear Rebecca, I’ve just discovered your fantastic blog. You are that rare combination of reasoned scientist and lyrical writer. I’m writing a personal essay about a wolverine sighting I experienced in Feb 2016 in Lake Tahoe. I’ve been in contact with a wildlife biologist in the area who confirmed that it could have been “Buddy,” the famed wolverine who has been traced by DNA testing to an original home in the Sawtooth Mountains. Regrettably, I have no evidence. I’m not a scientist and a writer like you–I’m just a writer and a Zen student and an avid nordic skier.

    I was cross-country skate skiing and moving quickly down the trail, and it happened so fast, but I’m confident that what I saw was a wolverine. I wish I had evidence because I know that hard data supports science and conservation efforts better than a story can. Next time I would catch my breath and know what to do. But what I’m also concluding as I write this essay is that there’s still value in the encounter. As you say: “storied wolverines…hint to us of all the wild and unseen and amazing lives that go on beyond our awareness.” This sighting has made me aware of the plight of wolverines, and the connection of that plight to ours as humans, in a warming world.

    I’d love to be in touch once my piece is finished to make sure that I’m characterizing wolverines accurately and not spreading any myth, if that’s OK with you. Thanks again for your inspiring work!

    Colleen

    • Colleen, thank you for the kind words, and I’m excited to hear of your potential sighting. Sometimes it’s about the proof, sometimes it’s about the experience. I’d be happy to take a look at your piece when it’s done, and I look forward to reading it. Thanks again!

      • Hi Rebecca,
        I’d love to ask you some questions for my article. Could you send me an email address so that I can communicate with you privately? Thanks so much! My email is:
        colleen AT colleenmortonbusch DOT com.
        Colleen

  19. I was familiar with the story of this animal for the last few years, living on Colorado’s front range. I did not know until this morning that he had been shot and killed. In the spirit of that rancher that called in his sighting, I may have some information you would be interested in. Feel free to reach me by email.

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