HELENA – It’s rare to see a wolverine in Montana, even in the reclusive animal’s remote and mountainous strongholds.
So the tenacious carnivore certainly wasn’t what Havre-area farmer Dave Chinadle expected to see in the middle of a stubble field last week.
Chinadle was driving one mile north of Hingham, about 35 miles west of Havre, when he saw what he thought was a neighbor’s dog running across a stubble field. As he got closer and slowed down, the animal saw him, stopped and took off in the opposite direction.
“I thought that was kind of weird, so I got out my field glasses and realized, that’s no dog,” he said. “It bounced away just a little bit and I got a heck of a profile. There’s no doubt it was a wolverine.”
After seeing a high-resolution photo, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks furbearer coordinator Bob Inman called it “very convincing,” citing the bushy tail and brown striping as distinguishing wolverines from other likely animals.
"Everything looks like a wolverine as opposed to anything else to me," he said.
Chinadle watched the animal for about 10 minutes, describing the encounter in detail. It was twice as big as a badger and stood twice as high at the shoulder as the 12-inch stubble. It ran with a slight hump in its back and brown striping outlined its back and rump.
A truck traveling down another road spooked the animal, and it came closer to Chinadle again.
“I couldn’t believe how fast he moved, and what surprised me was he went right by some trees to the north of him and ran right by a rock pile he could’ve buried himself in,” he said. “I thought he was going to hide, but he just kept going cross-country.”
The animal seemed to be coming from the Sweet Grass Hills to the northwest and traveling across the prairie toward the Bears Paw Mountains to the southeast.
Chinadle started snapping photos with his cellphone before it crossed the road about a quarter mile in front of him.
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“I just thought, this is crazy, but I was really regretting not having a better camera with me,” he said. “He was flat-out running, too – I actually don’t think I ever seen him walk.”
After the animal went out of sight, Chinadle continued about his business, but as he drove across the point where it had crossed the road, his old dog riding in the cab growled at the unfamiliar smell.
A photo went up on Facebook and Chinadle only heard from one man who reported another Hill County wolverine sighting near Kremlin in the 1970s.
“It was really something cool,” Chinadle said.
Wolverines, the largest members of the weasel family, typically occupy the snowy peaks of places such as Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, although they have been known to travel long distances. 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.
Sightings such as Chinadle’s far away from classic habitat are rare, but do happen occasionally, Inman said. He noted a 2013 study that estimated populations as well as potential range for dispersing individuals. The dispersal range extends from the core habitat and fairly close to Chinadle’s sighting.
It is unlikely that the nearby Bears Paws hold any sort of resident wolverine population, Inman said, although there have been sporadic historical reports. The nearest resident populations and likely source of the animal seen last week is the Bob Marshall Wilderness or Little Belt Mountains, he added.
State wildlife agencies in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington along with their partners began a multistate wolverine study last year that will fully launch this winter.
The study aims to establish a baseline of occupied areas and linkages between habitat as well as a population estimate. The current population estimate of about 300 animals in the lower 48 is based on known habitat and typical home range size per animal.
Wolverines were considered but denied listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2014. Several environmental groups have challenged that decision in federal court.