TRUCKEE, Calif. — Back in January, the Sagehen Creek Field Station sent the California Department of Fish and Wildlife a photo of peculiar-looking animal tracks imprinted in the snow in the Tahoe National Forest.
Chris Stermer, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, instantly recognized the rarely seen paw prints.
“They were definitely wolverine tracks,” said Stermer, whose assurance was later confirmed when remote cameras he placed in the area captured the small predator on film.
Indeed, it appears the male wolverine first spotted north of Truckee in 2008 is alive and well.
The wolverine detected eight years ago (by graduate student Katie Moriarty in the Sagehen Creek Field Station) sent shockwaves through the scientific world, as it was the first such sighting in the state since the early 1920s.
Simply put, prior to 2008, the wolverine’s existence in California had not been documented for 82 years, as fur trapping in the early 1900s wiped the species from the state.
The 2008 wolverine — nicknamed “Buddy” — migrated to California’s Sierra Nevada from Sawtooth Range in Idaho, Stermer said in a recent interview with the Sierra Sun.
Since the initial sighting, “Buddy” has been detected more than 20 times over a range of at least 297 square miles. Prior to this year’s detections, the wolverine was last spotted in November of 2014.
“I’m pretty certain — 95 percent — that it’s the same animal,” said Stermer, who noted the department is waiting on DNA analysis results of saliva samples collected from a bait station. “I’m expecting the results any day now.”
‘A PRETTY EXCITING SPECIES’
If the DNA samples match the 2008 wolverine, the male carnivore is estimated to be at least 9 years old, said Stermer, adding that the life expectancy of a wild wolverine ranges from six to 10 years.
In late June, the CDFW released two videos of the wolverine in Tahoe National Forest on its Facebook page.
The first video, recorded the night of Feb. 19, shows a brief peek of the wolverine before it scurries out of frame.
The second video, meanwhile, offers much more action. Captured during the day on Feb. 27, the video shows the animal scale up a tree before chewing and tugging at a baited sock tied to the tree.
Combined, the two videos have been viewed more than 350,000 times on Facebook — encapsulating the excitement stirred up by a rare wolverine sighting in California.
“When you see them on video, a wolverine is a pretty exciting species to have in California,” Stermer said. “With the population we have in California, thinking that we can have a wild wolverine amongst us is pretty amazing. It really begins to restore our larger carnivores back in California.”
While wolverines are known for their ferocity and strength, flexing the ability to kill prey many times larger than itself, Stermer said wolverines “typically avoid people wherever they’re found.”
The typical habitats of the species, he added, are high alpine regions where there’s snow-cover year round, as “snow cover is imperative for denning habitats.” In other words, wolverines rely on a heavy snowpack to burrow dens where they raise their young, which are called kits.
There have been talks and research efforts between state and federal agencies on the feasibility of reintroducing wolverines to the state, Stermer said.
The biggest hurdle is the fact that wolverines do not have federal protection as an endangered species.
In August of 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list wolverines as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
However, scientists and environmental groups swiftly sued the agency. This led to a U.S. District judge, in February of this year, ordering the USFWS to reevaluate its decision to not list the wolverine as an endangered species.
“We are now waiting on a new decision by the (fish and wildlife) service,” Stermer said. “The department (CDFW) is very interested in having at least the discussion to come up with a reintroduction plan.”
However, until the USFWS decides the wolverines’ status, discussions regarding a reintroduction plan have been tabled.