STANLEY, Idaho - Snow machines finally silent, four researchers walked toward a trap for elusive wolverines. All was still in the thick timber of the Sawtooth Wilderness until a growl made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Pacing inside the log-house trap was a
wolverine about as big as a bear cub. "Ferocious-sounding beasts,
aren't they?" whispered research team leader Jeff
The crew quickly set up a camp table
which would serve as the operating table. David Hunter, the state
veterinarian, arrived to cut open the wolverine's stomach cavity
and implant a radio transmitter. But first they had to anesthetize
the animal. Copeland shined a light inside, ready with his jab
stick. The animal let out an even nastier bloodthirsty
Copeland jabbed for the animal's shoulder
and connected. Five minutes later, he reached in and lifted the
limp wolverine out of the trap and onto the
Another five minutes and Hunter had
implanted the new transmitter - a 1-inch diameter tube about the
size of a large shotgun shell - and had sewn up the animal's belly.
Forty-five minutes later, the wolverine woke up, climbed out of the
trap and scampered off in the snow on its big snowshoe-like
The researchers named this mature male
"Sox" for the patch of white fur on his left foot. Sox is one of a
dozen wolverines researchers have trapped in central Idaho over the
past three years - more wolverines than anyone knew lived in the
region. A quick view of Copeland's radio-tracking map reveals over
800 sightings of 10 to 12 different wolverines in a 300-square-mile
This indicates that though they have lost
ground throughout much of their traditional range, wolverines are
probably not endangered in the Sawtooths. But just as the most
extensive wolverine research study ever conducted in the contiguous
United States has started to yield fruit, it has hit a giant snag.
About $350,000 in research support from government agencies such as
the Forest Service and from private foundations has dried
"It's a shame because there's still so much
to learn," says Copeland, who is working on a master's thesis at
the University of Idaho. "There's still a lot of basic, baseline
stuff where we don't have any idea what's going on."
As Copeland searches for funds, biologists in
Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon and California continue to
look for wolverines in the Cascades, central Rockies and Sierras.
So far, they haven't turned up many. Dave Kenvin, a wildlife
biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, has looked for
wolverines all over the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado.
They covered 800 miles of trail, and found
The only confirmed wolverine populations in
the United States are in Montana, Idaho and Alaska. And there may
be wolverines in Wyoming.
That's why Jasper
Carlton, director of the Boulder-based Biodiversity Legal
Foundation, filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service to list wolverines as a threatened or endangered species in
the lower 48 states.
The agency rejected the
petition last April, concluding that there was insufficient
scientific information to protect wolverines under the Endangered
Species Act. Earthlaw, a public-interest law firm based in Denver,
filed notice it intends to sue the
Copeland's research in central Idaho,
along with Maurice Hornocker's studies in the Bob Marshall
Wilderness in Montana, indicate that wolverines prefer the highest,
most remote and most rugged mountain
"The only places you find them are in
places where you don't find many of us," Copeland says. His aerial
tracking shows wolverines travel immense distances over a short
amount of time - sometimes as much as 50 miles a
"The hallmark of the wolverine is its almost
insatiable need to be on the move," Copeland says. "They cross a
topo map like we cross the street."
To make a
living in the highest reaches of the mountains, particularly in the
dead of winter, wolverines have to be extremely adaptable. Copeland
says wolverines dig through 6 to 8 feet of snow to feed on rodents
in hibernation. They cache winter-killed deer beneath the snow in
strategic locations, and feed on them later.
they come onto a fawn or a calf elk, they'll kill it if the
opportunity is there," Copeland says, "but they don't seem to
follow the ungulates (deer and elk) on the winter range because
they're not as good (as a mountain lion or bear) at taking them
How wolverines react to human pressures
is another question the Idaho research team hopes to answer.
Scientists speculate that logging, mining, road-building,
heli-skiing, backcountry skiing and snowmobiling all affect
wolverines. In the late spring, wolverines raise newborns, called
"kits," in high-mountain dens among big boulders on talus slopes.
During this time, it's possible that a skier or snowmobiler could
cause wolverines to flee and abandon the kits, Copeland says. The
Biodiversity Legal Foundation's Carlton also cites research in his
petition that shows wolverines avoid
Montana still allows trapping of
wolverines, which kills up to 18 animals per year. Hornocker's
study in Montana discovered that wolverines caught in live traps
often had missing toes and broken teeth, the likely result of
getting caught and escaping a leg-hold
Carlton wants trapping stopped in Montana,
but, without federal protection, that's
In the spring of 1994, Copeland and his
research team caught two juvenile wolverines and implanted them
with radio transmitters to better understand their behavior. How
long do they stay with their mother? How do they learn to eat? When
does a young male establish its home range?
far, the results have been "pretty darn fascinating," Copeland
In the literature, he says, wolverines are
described as solitary carnivores. "What we're seeing is a lot of
Late in the summer,
Copeland spotted Sox traveling for 30 miles with a young male,
apparently "showing him the ropes' - finding food, eluding other
predators, and staying out of trouble. He also saw a 3-year-old
male wolverine playing in a meadow with a juvenile
Copeland suspects that Sox might be a
polygamist, siring multiple litters in one season. "The old man is
kind of the patriarch of the whole clan. He seems to know where
everyone is, and he comes back to visit the adult females."
As of fall 1995, eight wolverines, including the
two kits, were transmitting radio waves. Some of the animals will
transmit for another two years, allowing Copeland to continue to
"It never ceases to amaze me when I'm
flying in the winter and I see a set of wolverine tracks crossing a
9,000- or 10,000-foot peak," he says. "I mean, what in the world is
he doing up there?"
For more information,
contact Jeff Copeland at 208/885-5868 or
reports from Boise, Idaho.