HELENA - The first wolverine confirmed in North Dakota in nearly 150 years may be the same animal seen near Havre in March, a state wildlife biologist said.
The 30-pound adult male wolverine was shot and killed near Alexander, North Dakota, a town located about 33 miles east of Sidney, Montana, and about 100 miles northwest of Dickinson, North Dakota. A ranch hand, Jared Hatter, posted photos to Facebook in late April of the wolverine, saying it was harassing livestock when he shot it.
Hatter did not respond to an interview request.
North Dakota lists wolverines, the largest member of the weasel family, as furbearers with a closed season. But an overriding state law allows ranchers to kill furbearers considered a direct threat to livestock, said state furbearer biologist Stephanie Tucker.
“(Hatter) came out to a calving pasture and the cows had surrounded the wolverine and he felt it was a threat,” she said.
North Dakota has no breeding population of wolverines, which in the lower 48 typically occupy remote mountainous regions of the Northern Rockies and Cascades. Because wolverines are known to travel long distances and with populations in Montana and Canada, North Dakota maintains the furbearer status and closed season, Tucker said.
Tucker speculated that the wolverine may have come from Montana, and noted a March report from a Hingham-area rancher of a wolverine traveling across a stubble field.
“It could be the same individual – it’s not often for these things to take off across the prairie. The fact one was seen in north east Montana before one turned up here, the odds are greater it’s the same individual than two individuals at the same time,” Tucker said.
If it is the same animal, it traveled more than 350 miles in a little less than two months, but wolverines are no stranger to long-distance journeys.
Researchers tracked a lone male in 2009 as it traveled more than 500 miles from northwest Wyoming to Colorado, making it the first wolverine documented in that state in nearly a century.
In another well publicized case, a wolverine detected in 2008 on a motion activated camera in California was the first documented since 1922. DNA analysis linked the animal to a source population in Idaho, about 500 miles away.
Biologists plan to take a DNA sample from the North Dakota wolverine with the goal of determining its source population, but no DNA was gathered from the Havre-area animal to compare.
If the pelt is of taxidermy quality, the state will mount the wolverine for educational purposes, Tucker said.
Although the state receives sporadic reports of wolverine sightings, the last verified North Dakota wolverine dates back to fur trading records circa 1870. The wolverine’s smaller cousin the fisher, which has expanded its range in recent years, may account for some false identifications, Tucker said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined in 2014 to list wolverines under the Endangered Species Act, citing a lack of data on how predicted climate-driven loss of spring snowpack will impact the animal. A federal judge recently ruled in favor of environmental groups who sued, ordering the agency to reevaluate its decision.