Wolverines and Recreationists

A wolverine walks away from a trap with a hunk of meat in its mouth.

The Payette national forest, in central Idaho, is perfect country to get lost in, with more than two million acres of mountains and lakes and forest. And it offers some of the best snowmobiling and backcountry skiing in the nation.

It is also home to a curious animal that most of us have never seen in the wild: the wolverine, North America’s biggest and most ferocious weasel.

Wolverines are not on the endangered species list, but they are candidates for protection. Habitat fragmentation and changes in weather patterns have helped reduce their numbers to several hundred in the continental United States.

In neighboring states like Oregon, where the wolverine is a state-threatened species, it’s rare to see one, even with special cameras set up in remote areas.

But things are a little different here in Idaho, where the North American wolverine is classified as a protected non-game species.

Log structures in the Payette, the Boise, and the Sawtooth national forests are used to track wolverines as part of an intriguing multi-year research study. It’s a study that tracks not only wolverines, but also snowmobiles, and asks the question: can the two co-exist?

Ben Rooney is a volunteer with Round River Conservation Studies. It’s his job to convince snowmobilers to attach a GPS data logger to their machines, as part of the study.

A wolverine exits a monitored log trap.

“I’ve had a few rejections right off the bat. It’s kind of rough. You blame yourself,” he says. “They mention other closures in Washington and Oregon. You tell them, actually, this study’s keeping snowmobiling going around here. Sometimes that works.”

Rooney remembers the first time he got close to a wolverine. “You can hear this growling; it’s super deep, doesn’t sound like an animal. You can just tell it’s something pretty fierce. I’ve loved wolverines for such a long time. My first actual research paper in third grade was about wolverines, back when people used to use libraries, not the internet. I’ve always had a fascination with wolverines.”

It’s hard not to be fascinated by one of the most elusive and fierce creatures on earth. They weigh only about 30 pounds, but wolverines have been known to back down a wolf and even a bear.

They don’t hibernate. They can easily travel 20 miles a day through snow. And they eat almost anything. In fact, their Latin name, “gulo,” means glutton.

The Idaho State Snowmobile Association has actually helped fund this study, along with the Central Idaho Recreation Coalition, and Brundage Mountain Resort. Even the local business establishments in McCall are helping out, providing places for recreationists to return those dataloggers. It seems everyone will have a stake in the research and the outcome.

Videographer Hank Nystrom and lead technician Tony Folsom hold a trapped wolverine.

“We’re hoping we can come up with some good science that will actually know what kind of an impact winter recreation has on wolverines,” says Sandra Mitchell of the Snowmobile Association. “And this isn’t just about snowmobiling. This is about motorized and non-motorized, because if there is an impact, they’ll both have that impact on wolverines. So if we do have closures, we respect those and accept those because it will be based on good science. We truly don’t want to impact the wolverine.”

Tony Folsom is a trapper by trade and the lead technician on the wolverine study. He understands that the superhuman nose of a wolverine is also its weakness. “We’ve got a bunch of road kill. We put bait in the back of those little log homes. They can smell it a long ways away.”

Folsom had seen wolverines in the woods before joining the study, but now he can identify individual wolverines. “We have little pet names for each one. One female can be a pest; it’s hard to keep her out of traps. One male, he just eats my traps. Some of the younger ones will just sit there and almost curl up and look at you. Other ones will rush you and bite your flash light. They’ll snarl. Certain ones are definitely meaner than the others.”

Kim Heinemeyer is the lead scientist for the Central Idaho Wolverine project. New technology allows her to check traps on her computer without having to visit the traps. “There are actually satellite band boxes that sit at the traps, and they know when the lid has closed. They instantaneously send me an email. So I know, for example, this lower Lick Creek trap went off at 10:20 last night and this other trap, at Pear Creek, went off at 1:12 a.m.”

For part of the year Heinemeyer shares a rental house in McCall with the rest of her team, and each morning they gather to plan the day’s activities. Some of them will check the traps that have been sprung. Others, like volunteer Drew Chambers, will gather the data from all those snowmobile GPS units, allowing him to create a recreation map of the entire area.

Six-foot-tall intern, Drew Chambers, stands at the lid of a wolverine trap under about 10 feet of snow.

“We can combine that map with our wolverine data, to make a multi layered file that helps us compare where the wolverines go and where the snowmobiles go,” says Chambers. “And we can even compare that by date, because they’re all dated files. So we can see where snowmobiles are at any certain time and where the wolverines are at on certain times.”

Turns out wolverines do share one thing with winter recreationists: a love of deep snow. Diane Evans Mack, a regional wildlife biologist with Idaho Fish & Game Department, explains. “They’re built for snow, so they can handle the snow, and a lot of other animals can’t. The females are going to make their dens under a lot of snow for thermo regulation, but also protection. For females to den, they need snow cover that’s going to persist into the spring, even into May.”

Like so many other scientists, Diane Evans Mack became intrigued by this secretive creature and started tracking it with motion sensitive cameras. “It works great if you can keep the bait hanging in the tree. But you’ve got everything after it. You just don’t know what’s out there in the woods in the middle of winter. Martens and fox are after it, and of course a few wolverines showing up on the cameras."

What's her take on this fierce creature? “Wolverines are kind of bigger than life, and they might not back down," she says, "but it doesn’t mean they’re vicious and ferocious and would tear you apart.”

One of the problems with the live traps is that you never really know what triggers them. Was it a marten, a fox, a wolverine? Only a long snowmobile ride can tell you that.

A marten peers out of a wolverine trap.

“We drive in; most of our traps are set off of groomed snowmobile routes for snowmobile recreation, so we’re right in the middle of it and so are the wolverines,” explains Kim Heinemeyer. “It’s a lot of hard work, with long days in the field, seven days a week. You don’t get a break for the whole field season. Every day you’re out here checking traps. We don’t ever shut the traps down for a weekend or a holiday.”

Unfortunately, the day we were there, a small, agile marten had triggered the trap and escaped. “Caught a marten again,” Kim says. “Darn it. The good thing is they’re out being wolverines; they’re not hanging around our traps. They’re out doing what they’re supposed to be doing, wearing our GPS collars and basically working for us. You've got to be happy about that.”

Our luck did change a week later, when we ventured back up to the McCall area to finish the story. In the trap was a young male. And he was not happy. “Hey, sweetheart, how you doing?” whispers Kim Heinemeyer to the angry wolverine. The animal responds with a low growl.

One goal of the study is to radio collar wolverines, which means they have to anesthetize it with the drug Ketamine, putting a jab stick into its shoulder or flank. As the drug takes effect, the researchers -- with lowered voices -- quickly get to work, preparing a warm bed for the drowsy animal.

“Here’s our sweet boy,” says Heinemeyer, as she takes the animal from the log structure. They will weigh and measure the wolverine, protect its eyes, and keep this ball of potential fury warm and safe during this critical time.

Lead scientist Kim Heinemeyer and lead technician Tony Folsom stand next to a wolverine trap.

“All wolverines have an attitude, so he was a little challenging. He made us work," says Heinemeyer. "His teeth looked in really good shape. Nice weight, really nice coat. Now we have a collar on him, and we’ll be able to follow his movements and see if he’s a resident animal here.”

Heinemeyer likes talking about wolverines. “We hear about the tenacity and ferociousness of wolverines, and I maybe don’t buy into the ferociousness, but the tenacity I do. These animals are tough. Their little legs are like ten inches long, and they’re moving through this country on an average of 20 miles a day. Wolverines aren’t physically as big as a lot of people think. But their little personalities are enormous.”

This particular Lick Creek drainage has yielded five wolverines this season. Interestingly, it’s also a favorite area for snowmobilers and backcountry skiers. Even though there's one more season to this particular study, Heinemeyer takes a moment to assess just what her research seems to be suggesting.

“When we started this project, we didn’t know if we would ever find wolverines in a landscape that’s recreated. Do we have wolverines overlapping where there’s recreation? We’re starting to get those answers. Yes we do. Wolverines are here all year round. We have females that have dens and have babies in these landscapes.”

It’s early in the study, but that does seem like good news, for both wolverines and recreationists.