Wyoming’s estimated 15 or so wolverines are so elusive, even one of the state wildlife biologists charged with keeping track of them has never actually seen one in in the flesh.
Zack Walker, the nongame wildlife supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, told Cowboy State Daily that he’s seen only photographs of the fierce critters in Wyoming, taken by trail cameras at the agency’s monitoring sites.
The last time Game and Fish did a survey of wolverines was during the winter of 2021-2022. Using a grid system across prime habitat in western Wyoming’s remote and rugged mountain ranges, they placed monitoring sites with cameras in 51 “cells.”
Photos of wolverines were captured at 15 of those, Walker said.
That means Wyoming’s known wolverine population is “likely slightly more than 15,” Walker said. “In some cases, we determined that there was more than one individual animal that came into the same monitoring station.”
The good news is, that’s more wolverine activity than was detected in the previous monitoring session during the winter of 2016-2017.
Federal Ruling Won’t Change Wyoming Policy
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently listed wolverines in the Lower 48 as a “threatened species” under the Endangered Species Act, citing habitat loss as one of the primary reasons. The USFWS also issued an interim rule exempting wolverines killed through “take incidental to lawful trapping,” according to the agency.
That ruling won’t really change things for wolverine management and conservation in Wyoming, Walker said. The state already listed wolverines as a “protected species,” meaning that hunting or trapping them was already illegal here.
He added that to his knowledge, Game and Fish hasn’t had any reports of wolverines accidentally getting caught in traps set for other species that are legal to trap in Wyoming.
John Eckman of Greybull, who is vice president of the Wyoming State Trappers Association, told Cowboy State Daily that he’s concerned about the USFWS listing wolverines as a threatened species at the federal level. He and other trappers worry that could play into a larger anti-trapping agenda.
“Yes, I knew it was coming. The NTA (National Trappers Association) and other groups plan to fight it. It’s another B.S. ploy by the antis to use the ESA to shut down trapping,” he said.
“As far as I know, no wolverines have been caught (in traps set for other species) in Wyoming. I’m not sure about the other Western states,” he added.
However, opposition to trapping seems to be gaining traction, Eckman said, pointing to Montana’s decision to shorten its 2024 wolf trapping season to Jan. 1-Feb. 15 as an example. Montana officials cited concerns over grizzly bears getting caught in snares set for wolves.
“Only one grizzly (in Montana) was caught and released unharmed, that I know about,” he said.
In Wyoming, there are seasonal wolf hunts in the “trophy game management zone” in the northwestern part of the state, but trapping and snaring wolves isn’t allowed there, Game and Fish Large Carnivore Specialist Dan Thompson told Cowboy State Daily.
Those longing to see a wolverine in the wild face steep odds, because even having a lot of wolverines doesn’t mean, well, a lot of wolverines.
They are naturally a thinly dispersed species, intelligent and elusive, Walker said.
They typically favor rugged and remote alpine areas, but will occasionally wander great distances across just about any kind of country, he said. And they’re skilled opportunists. They can be predators, scavengers or foragers as circumstances demand.
As the largest member of the weasel family, wolverines are tenaciously tough and are rumored to have incredibly bad attitudes.
Walker said that like any other wild animal, wolverines would rather just be left alone to go about their business than fight. But, if another animal threatens a food source they have claimed, for example, wolverines can be brawlers.
Wildlife Photographer Holds Out Hope
Wyoming wildlife photographer Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven has spent countless hours in some of Wyoming’s best wolverine habitat, tracking and catching photos of grizzlies, moose and various other magnificent creatures.
But when asked by Cowboy State Daily if he’s ever caught a glimpse or photo of a wolverine, his answer was simple.
“Unfortunately not,” he said.
Given that even some of the most experienced researchers and backcountry trekkers have never seen a wolverine, a wild tale that came out of the far-flung reaches of Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness in the summer of 2022 is intriguing indeed.
Wilderness guide Dough MacCartney and some others in his party claimed to have seen at least 12, and possibly even 13 wolverines on a steep, rocky mountain slope. At one point the wolverines even chased off a female grizzly with two cubs, they claimed.
MacCartney shared photos of the wolverines as proof of the encounter, and some wildlife biologists told Cowboy State Daily that the images seemed legitimate.
The experts speculated that such a nearly unheard of gathering of wolverines might have been the result of a nearby food source, such as a big game carcass.
So, the “Wyoming wolverine 12-pack” encounter would truly be a once-in-many-lifetimes experience.
Mark Heinz can be reached at email@example.com.