Forest Feature: Wolverines
What is a wolverine? It’s not surprising if you don’t know, you’ve probably never seen one in the wild! Our February Forest Feature, the wolverine (scientific name: gulo gulo), is only very rarely seen in Oregon and has only recently returned to Washington State.
If you are looking for a wolverine, the first thing you need to know is that a wolverine is not a wolf – but they can be fierce fighters, especially if you’re an animal the wolverine thinks might make a good snack! Wolverines usually eat leftovers from what other animals have killed, or catch small mammals to eat. But they can hunt much bigger animals, such as deer and even elk.
Despite their similar names, wolves and wolverines don’t get along very well. Wolverines will usually move out of an area if a pack of wolves moves in.
Wolverines are a member of the mustelidae – or weasel – family. They’re related to badgers, ferrets, and otters. They lived in the North Cascades and Wallowa Mountains, but many were killed by trappers who didn’t want to compete with them for the smaller animals that trappers caught to sell. The wolverine’s fur wasn’t very valuable – in fact, one of the animal’s nicknames is “skunk bear” because of its rough fur and musky smell.
In the 1950s, the wolverines had nearly disappeared from the Pacific Northwest. But in the 1990s, wolverines from Canada began to move south, into the north Cascade mountains in Washington State. The species remains listed as threatened in Oregon, where it once lived in the Wallowa mountains
Today, scientists are using remote cameras, radio collars and satellites to track individual wolverines, and learn about where they live, roam, and hunt. Biologists have learned that wolverines really like cold weather, like that found in the mountains. Female wolverines raise baby wolverines, or kits, in dens they create by tunneling through snow.
Citizen scientists in Utah are helping professional researchers by volunteering to check the cameras while they walk or run on trails. In Idaho, high school students helped a Microsoft engineer and state biologists build electronic pumps that spray a scent that attracts wolverines to the cameras. And here in the Pacific Northwest, grizzly bears at Woodland Park Zoo in Portland, Ore. helped test the boxes that house those lures and cameras to make sure they are bear-proof!
Did you know?
- Wolverines are just returning the the Pacific Northwest, but they are also found in many other parts of the world. The largest numbers of wolverines are found in Canada, northern Europe, western Russia, and Siberia.
- Wolverines sense of smell is so strong, they can sniff out carrion, their typical winter food, through up to 6 feet of snow!
- A single wolverine’s range (the territory they roam) can extend up to 600 square miles.
- During a 10-year study, researchers from the Forest Service and Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife tracked 14 wolverines using radio telemetry collars. They named the wolverines: Melanie, Mattie, Mallory, Chewbacca, Chance, Dasher, Hobbes, Xena, Sasha, Rocky, Eowyn, Kendyl, Special K, and… can you guess the last one? It’s Logan, of course!
This American Land (PBS science series, produced in partnership with the National Science Foundation)
Ring of Darhad: Mongolian Wolverine Expedition (National Geographic)
Forest Features highlight a new Pacific Northwest species (or sometimes, an order or genus) each month as part of our regional youth engagement strategy. If you’re an educator who would like more information about incorporating Pacific Northwest environmental and forest science in your classroom, email us at R6Update@fs.fed.us.