Ferocious loners

By Dick Mason, The Observer March 09, 2012 12:43 pm

Forest Service biologist shares insight about wolverines in Eagle Cap Wilderness

A wolverine reaches up to eat part of a deer carcass at a trail camera station in the Eagle Cap Wilderness last winter. Wolverines may have been living in Wallowa County for years but had not been detected until recently.
A wolverine reaches up to eat part of a deer carcass at a trail camera station in the Eagle Cap Wilderness last winter. Wolverines may have been living in Wallowa County for years but had not been detected until recently.

The connection is both intriguing and illuminating. 

Wolverines and mountain goats appear to be linked. The connection is drawing increased interest from   Northeast Oregon residents since it recently has been established that  wolverines are living in Wallowa County.

“There appears to be a correlation in some areas between mountain goats and wolverines,” said Mark Penninger of La Grande, a U.S. Forest Service biologist who gave a presentation on wolverines March 1 at Cook Memorial Library.

Penninger said studies indicate that the distribution ranges of mountain goats almost always fall within those shared by wolverines. The biologist also stressed that wolverines are found in a wide variety of habitat. 

“There are a lot of places where there are wolverines but not mountain goats,” Penninger said. 

The wolverine-mountain goat link holds true in the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area. Mountain goats were introduced in the Eagle Caps years ago, and wolverines have been found to exist there over the past 14 months. In this span three wolverines have been documented in the Eagle Caps.

They are the only wolverines known to exist in Oregon.

One wolverine was caught and released from a bobcat trap in late December and also photographed by a trail cam in the winter of 2010-11. Two other wolverines were also photographed by trail cams last winter.

 The odds are that all three have or will feed on mountain goats. This does not mean anyone can expect to see a wolverine soon attacking a mountain goat in the Eagle Caps. Wolverines do not hunt mountain goats, but they eat the carcasses of the many that die in falls or in avalanches. Wolverines are adept at finding mountain goats buried under many feet of snow and burrowing to reach them, Penninger said. 

Wolverines face no competition for mountain goat carcasses in the winter since few if any other predators live at the high elevations. Wolverines do encounter competition for food in the spring and summer and are famous for ferociously defending the carcasses. They will fight off even wolves, black bears and grizzlies to keep a carcass. Documented cases of this happening are one of many reasons people view wolverines as fascinating. .

“They are charismatic in the minds of people. They are loners who cover huge amounts of territory and eke out a living in a hostile environment in the winter,” said Penninger. Biologists have learned a great deal about wolverines in Wallowa County in recent years thanks to a study funded by the U.S. Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Wolverine Foundation and the Oregon Natural Heritage Foundation. 

Biologists helping conduct the study include Penninger and Pat Valkenberg and his wife, Audrey Magoun. Valkenberg and Magoun live in both Alaska and Wallowa County and have studied wolverines for years. Penninger said they are widely recognized wolverine experts whom he has learned a tremendous amount from. 

 The couple first came to Wallowa County several years ago and soon suspected wolverines were in the Eagle Caps, Penninger said. They did so because of the terrain and habitat and their proximity to Idaho, which has an established wolverine population. 

Valkenberg and Magoun then helped start a study to determine if wolverines were present. Working with Penninger and others, they set up stations with trail cameras and road-kill deer carcasses.

To date, the deer carcasses have drawn in a number of animals plus three wolverines. The wolverines were each photographed at the trail cam stations in the Eagle Caps. At the stations the wolverines left small hair samples for which DNA tests were conducted.

The tests indicate that the wolverines in Wallowa County are related to ones in Idaho. It appears that wolverines are able to move between Northeast Oregon and Idaho despite the Snake River barrier, Penninger said. 

Wolverines may have been living in Wallowa County for years but had not been detected until recently. Penninger said wolverines have low population densities in many areas.

The three wolverines were documented in Wallowa County over the past 14 months are part of a short list in Oregon documented in the past 76 years. Following are the only other wolverines documented in Oregon since 1936, according the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife:

 • In 1965, a male was killed on Three Fingered Jack in Linn County. 

• In 1973, a wolverine was trapped and released on Steens Mountain in Harney County. 

• In 1986, a wolverine was trapped in Wheeler County.

• In 1990, a dead wolverine was picked up on Interstate 84 in Hood River County.

• In 1992, a partial wolverine skeleton was recovered in Grant County. 

Penninger said he believes wolverines may have also been in the Eagle Caps many years ago before having their numbers cut back by concerted efforts to wipe out wolves, cougars, coyotes and other predators via poisoning, trapping and other means. The biologist said wolverines might have been unintended victims of poisoning and trapping during this campaign, which continued into the 1960s. 

Penninger spoke at a meeting of the Union/Wallowa County chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association. He said that the wolverine study, which started in 2010, is set to run through 2013. Tracking information being monitored as part of the study indicates that the wolverines in the Eagle Caps are traveling throughout the wilderness area.