Elusive, incredibly strong, and able to travel long distances across rugged terrain, the wolverine can seem like a mythical creature until you’ve seen one with your own eyes. This iconic species, which is currently a candidate species for protections under the Endangered Species Act, calls Idaho and other mountainous states home. Wolverines are highly snow-dependent, requiring sufficient snow depths to den and reproduce. Due to impacts from climate change, winter recreation, and overall habitat loss, less than 300 wolverines are estimated to remain in the lower 48.
Because of their candidate species status and overall low population numbers across the West, wolverine population monitoring is quite important. Wolverine populations in Idaho are monitored by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG), primarily using camera traps where the wolverines are lured to the camera with bait and/or lure. These stations can also collect hair samples which can be analyzed to collect genetic information. By stationing these cameras throughout the state in suitable wolverine habitat, IDFG biologists track the status and distribution of wolverines.
This summer, IDFG reached out to ICL to see if anyone on our staff and/or volunteers in our Wilderness Stewards program would be interested in helping the department collect some of these wolverine cameras in central Idaho as part of a larger regional study. These cameras are typically located in remote areas that require significant hiking in rugged terrain and/or long trips on dirt roads. Being an avid hiker and wolverine enthusiast myself, I jumped at the chance to spend a day hiking in the name of science!
The wolverine camera I volunteered to collect was located on a high ridge on the west side of the Sawtooths near Grandjean. Prepped up by the IDFG biologist, I set out on a bluebird July morning to hike roughly seven miles to the camera site. Upon reaching the site, I set about removing the game camera from one tree and the scent pump from the nearby facing tree. This is easier said than done – the camera and scent pump were attached to the trees 10-15 feet above the ground (to account for sizable snow depths in the winter) and required screwing metal steps into the tree to climb up and retrieve the items. Once I carefully retrieved the camera, it was time to hike the seven miles back to the car, where I returned tired but successful in my mission.
Low and behold, three different wolverines were captured on this camera this past winter/spring, including one particularly photogenic wolverine who visited the site during a late spring snowstorm. These incredible, close-up photos show just how well-adapted wolverines are to the snow, with their thick fur coats and very large paws.
Since wolverines are a species that utilize large areas for their home range and occur at low densities, IDFG partners with counterpart agencies in other Western states to survey wolverines across their range within the Lower 48. The first multi-state survey was conducted in 2016 and demonstrated that wolverines in Idaho are present in most of what is presumed to be historically occupied habitat, and that males and females are found throughout their range, which is promising news for Idaho’s wolverine population. During the winter of 2021/2022, this survey effort was repeated to track changes in population status (the final results of this most recent effort are pending).
Wolverines are an iconic species of the West, but a threatened one as well. Population surveys like these help wildlife managers assess how to best protect wolverines and their habitat going forward.
If you would like to stay in the loop on this and other projects, please sign up here, or text IDAHO WILDLIFE to 52886 for regular updates on ICL’s wildlife work.