Wolverines, one of the most secretive and elusive predators in North America, were recently photographed in Wallowa County, Oregon, proving this species still exists in the state. National wolverine expert Audrey Magoun downloaded digital photographs of two wolverines captured on camera while feeding at a bait station set up by researchers. The presence of wolverines in Oregon could be good news for species that has declined dramatically in the US over the last two centuries.
A larger, more powerful relative of weasels and skunks, wolverines can weigh up to forty pounds and scavenge large animal carcasses in addition to hunting smaller mammals for prey. Though once found throughout forested areas of the country, during the 1800s wolverines were largely eliminated from most of the US as a result of hunting, trapping, and habitat destruction. Today less than 500 wolverines live in the contiguous 48 Unites States, mostly in remote mountain areas in the West. Prior to this month wolverines had been recorded in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington, but were believed to have gone extinct in Oregon decades ago.
Even so, some conservationists held out hope wolverines might still exist in Oregon. Like many large predators, wolverines are wide-ranging, mostly solitary, and tend to stay away from people. This made it possible that they could still be living in remote parts of eastern Oregon and simply have avoided detection. In January of this year Dr. Magoun, and her research assistant Pat Valkenburg, launched an effort to survey for the animals in the northeastern part of the state. On April 17th Dr. Magoun discovered wolverine tracks in the snow in Northeast Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, the first tangible evidence of the species in that area.
The subsequent capture of two wolverines on camera proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a small population still lives in Oregon. Magoun hopes to photograph them again and eventually determine the sexes of the two individuals. This information could help researchers determine whether a breeding population might exist.
Of course now that wolverines have been found in Oregon, the next step is to determine the health of the population and ensure wolverines in the state are protected. Wolverines receive no enforced protections at the federal level. In 2010 the US Fish and Wildlife Service recognized that the species warrants threatened status, but the agency placed it on a waiting list because of a backlog of species awaiting new protections and inadequate funds for enforcing the Endangered Species Act. However Oregon state law classifies wolverines as threatened, giving state agencies an imperative to protect the species.
Conserving wolverines in Oregon and elsewhere is not a simple job; the future of the species is now complicated by climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Wolverines depend on heavy winter snowfall, partly because mother wolverines raise their young in dens deep under springtime snow. As many parts of North America warm due to climate change, snowmelt will occur earlier in the year and leave unprotected wolverine kits more vulnerable to predators. Rising summertime temperatures might also become too warm for wolverines to tolerate.
Fortunately there is still time to prevent wolverines from becoming extinct in the contiguous United States. A study conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research suggest that if global carbon emissions continue to increase unabated, the species will indeed be wiped out. But in projected scenarios where global emissions stabilize over the next several years and then rapidly decline, researchers predict wolverines could be relatively unscathed.
The discovery of wolverines in Oregon is good news for a species long subjected to pressure from hunting and habitat loss. Now the fate of wolverines, like that of thousands of other species around the world, depends on whether the US and other countries can dramatically curb the burning of fossil fuels. If so, these fascinating and mysterious creatures could continue to survive in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains for many years to come.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/fiskfisk/2672927708/