Despite their reputation as the fiercest carnivore in the Montana mountains, wolverines have mommies too.
Patience and luck caught some remarkable video footage of a wolverine family in the Sapphire Mountains last month. The volunteer organization Wolverine Watchers has two-dozen bait stations with remote cameras deployed around the Bitterroot National Forest. They’re looking for evidence of wolverine, fisher and marten activity. Most of their data comes from winter visits to the deposits of roadkill, which the volunteers haul in by snowshoe or snowmobile.
After a winter volunteer brought back images of an obviously female wolverine, that camera got repositioned for a possible spring visit. Wolverine mothers build dens in deep snowbanks where they give birth in February. The litter of kits typically stay with Mom through the following summer or early fall.
“A volunteer went up in early June to check on the station, and when I saw the footage I screamed,” said Kylie Paul, who coordinates the Wolverine Watchers citizen-science program for MPG Ranch, a research institution on the east side of the Bitterroot Valley.
“The Bitterroot Range is a vastly well-connected landscape to a huge region of fairly intact forest in the Frank Church and Selway wilderness areas. You’d hope like heck that wolverines are in there. But the Sapphires are harder for wolverines to get to. There are big valleys in between that are full of people. It’s really important to show a connective linkage region for them into smaller mountain ranges.”
The camera caught 10 minutes of the mother and three kits roving around the bait station, sniffing the scaffold where the Wolverine Watchers hang their bait, and wrestling with a picked-clean deer carcass. It includes sound of the wolverines vocalizing, which is a scientific way of saying they sound like horror-movie monkeys having a casual growl. At one point, they all try to make a snack out of a rib cage, with Mom hip-checking a kit hard enough to roll it on its back.
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“They’re a species that can consume bones and get nutrients,” Paul said of the seemingly fruitless foraging. “It’s really unique to have this high-quality footage, where you can see interaction between Mom and the kits, like how they spend time with old bones.”
Wolverines eat a lot of carrion, although they’ve been caught on video attacking live caribou 10 times their size. They’re also willing to fight grizzly bears for rights to winter kill.
Unlike bears, they do not hibernate over winter. Instead, they cruise territories encompassing several hundred square miles looking for their next meal. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to list them as a threatened or endangered species in part because they’re so elusive; no certain population figures exist for their numbers.
“Our mesocarnivore survey partnership with the Wolverine Watchers project has significantly increased our knowledge of the distribution of wolverines, fishers, martens and other carnivores on the Bitterroot National Forest,” said Dave Lockman, Forest Service wildlife biologist for the Stevensville and Darby ranger districts. “The volunteers are a really dedicated bunch of folks who battle difficult winter conditions to collect this data, and we are grateful for all their hard work and enthusiasm.”
In the four years the Wolverine Watchers have been monitoring bait stations, they’ve documented at least 10 separate wolverines in the mountains around the Bitterroot Valley. They know because wolverines have distinctive fur markings. The mother caught in this video was known as “Lefty White Toes” for an obvious paw sock.
None of the animals in the study is collared, although their movements can be tracked by checking hair samples collected at each site.
“There are only small pockets of high-quality wolverine habitat in the Sapphires,” Paul said. “This shows how valuable those secure pockets are for these critters.”