Rare wolverine spotted at Mt. Adams

Surprised wildlife biologists are working to understand why and how a wolverine was on Mount Adams recently.

The wolverine, one of the rarest and least-known mammals in North America, was captured on camera on the remote, snowy flanks of the mountain.

Photographed by a remote camera at 6,100 feet on the northwest slope of the mountain, the location of the animal that far south in Washington state was a surprise to wildlife biologists.

The very few wolverines known to exist in Washington -- only about 20 -- have been sighted almost exclusively in the North Cascades.

Gulo gulo, dubbed "skunk bear" for its striped and pungent coat, was thought to be extinct that far south. It took 15 months of rugged field work just to get a picture of the animal.

Solitary, secretive, they furtively avoid humans and keep to remote, wild places. Females come into mating season only about once every two years at best, and the animals stay away even from each other the rest of the time.

Young males in particular are known to travel spectacular distances, going on long solo walks for hundreds of miles to stake out new territory or search out a mate. The animal photographed on Mount Adams may have been on just such a walkabout. But no one knows for sure.

Wolverines are the largest land-based animal in the weasel family -- sea otters beat them in size. They grow to about 3 feet in length and weigh up to 40 pounds.

They mostly scavenge carcasses, which they can smell from great distances. They have powerful jaws, enabling them to snap through frozen bones and carrion. They can dig, claw and bite, even through dirt and wood, to get at a dead or hibernating animal under many feet of snow.

Rare as they are, wolverines are not federally listed for protection. But that may change as a result of a lawsuit that has sent the feds back for a nationwide review to determine if challenges to the animal's survival, including climate change, merit listing it as threatened or endangered.

"We want to understand where these carnivores are coming from, how long they have been there, to understand what is going on in the South Cascades, to determine if these populations need some conservation protection," said Jocelyn Akins, a wildlife biologist who started the Cascades Carnivore Project in February 2008, using remote cameras to document the presence of elusive animals.

She has 11 cameras on Mount Adams above 3,000 feet, and routinely skis 12 miles at a clip to check on them.

Reached by cellphone on the south slopes of Mount Adams, she was checking photos on a motion-sensor camera -- 1,700 images in all from just one week -- that captured an entire catalog of species, from bear to short-tailed weasels, elk, deer, porcupine and birds, with a few hikers, forest fire fighters and a skier thrown in for good measure. Not to mention a yellow Labrador.

"I've got the best job out there," she said.

She uses bait to draw the animals. "Chicken is nice; it doesn't have any hair that interferes with the hair samples we collect," Akins said.

The hair samples are collected from a wire brush on a belt around the tree, and used to log the DNA of animals checking out the camera station.

Keith Aubry, research biologist at the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station in Olympia specializing in rare forest carnivores, called the wolverine sighting "exciting and potentially important. It's likely an animal that came from somewhere else and is wandering, and we don't know what it may lead to. It may expand their current range."