LOST TRAIL – It seemed like the perfect spot for a wolverine to visit.
A couple of miles back from the nearest road and surrounded by the kind of thick timber that offers a wary critter a good bit of security, the little nook selected by a crew of Bitterroot National Forest researchers to set their first long-term photographic monitoring site had all the makings a good place to rendezvous with wolverines.
“After awhile, you just kind of know what to look for,” said Chris Fillingham. “You go with your gut and what you’ve seen works before.”
Over the past two winters, Bitterroot Forest technicians Fillingham and Tanya Neidhardt have become the local experts on finding the places where a wolverine might venture.
Using carrion scavenged from roadkill that’s tied to a tree and then monitored with motion-sensor cameras, the pair has worked closely with Bitterroot Forest biologist Andrea Shortsleeve to begin unraveling some of the secrets of one of the Northern Rockies' most reclusive creatures.
On this day, the three hiked a couple of miles to check a new type of bait station that they hope will help them speed up the process of identifying wolverines that venture in close enough to get their photograph taken.
The new setup was adapted from one developed by biologist Audrey Magoun in Alaska.
Instead of simply tying a piece of meat to a tree with a trail camera pointed in the general direction, the new bait platform requires a wolverine to climb up a tree, across the short length of two-by-four and through a box that’s lined with two rows of alligator clips ready to snap shut on its fur.
Once through that obstacle, the wolverine then has to rise up to reach the carrion that’s hanging just overhead.
All the time it’s doing that, the motion-sensor camera is taking photographs of the fur pattern on its chin and underside.
“The pattern of that fur is basically like our fingerprints,” Shortsleeve said. “Every one is unique.”
In the past, the researchers have depended on DNA collected from hair wolverines left deposited on brushes stuck in the tree to help them determine how many individual animals they had captured with their cameras.
That’s a time-consuming process.
“We’ve been waiting over a year to get back our results on DNA,” Shortsleeve said. “With this method, we’ll be able to indentify individual animals as soon as we look at the picture.”
The photos will also tell them if they’re looking at a male or female. Toward spring, the researchers will be able to see if the females are nursing offspring.
Before the winter is over, they plan to set up a total of 12 new bait platforms in both the Bitterroot and Sapphire ranges. The hope is they’ll return every winter to same spot for the next decade.
A volunteer group from Missoula has stepped forward to help this winter.
That group will set out about 25 bait stations in the northern end of the Bitterroot Valley in both mountain ranges.
“We should have most of the major drainages monitored this winter,” Shortsleeve said. “I don’t know of any other national forests that will have this kind of data that we’re collecting through this effort.”
The information gathered in the study could be helpful in future decisions on how wolverines and their habitat should be managed in the future.
In August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to apply Endangered Species Act safeguards for the reclusive member of the weasel family. Eight conservation groups filed suit in October in Montana seeking to reverse that decision.
Resembling a small bear with a bushy tail, wolverines once ranged from New York to as far south as Arizona. Biologists estimate that about 300 remain in the lower 48 states, mostly in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Shortsleeve said she doesn’t know how many wolverines call the Bitterroot home.
A wolverine’s home range is considered somewhere between 40 and 350 square miles. The males tend to travel greater distances. One wolverine made a trek from Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains all the way to Berkeley, California.
“They definitely can cover some ground,” Shortsleeve said.
The research team’s cameras have found that wolverines move through a lot of different kinds of countryside on their continual search for food. They’ve found them in areas burned bare by recent wildfires and down in the lowlands.
“They don’t just sit on the top of the mountains at the highest points,” Fillingham said. “They use it all. From the highest peaks to the valley floor, they are everywhere.”