Wolverines are among the West’s most elusive mammals, rarely seen in Utah and almost never photographed outside of captivity.
But on Tuesday, visitors to Antelope Island State Park shot photos and video of a furry black critter running, stopping, and running again across the dry bed of the Great Salt Lake. This might be the last place a wolverine would hang out in Utah, but state wildlife officials have confirmed that the animal in these images is a wolverine.
“Wolverines are very rare to see because they are largely nocturnal, and they travel quickly, typically not staying in one area long enough to be found or seen,” said Adam Brewerton, a biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). “We believe this wolverine sighted on Antelope Island is just passing through, since Antelope Island does not have suitable habitat. It is always exciting to hear of wolverine sightings in the state, especially when we have video evidence.”
The photos offer evidence that wolverines, once a candidate for listing as a threatened species, could be returning to Utah, which is within the animals’ native range. Today in the lower 48 states, they are mostly found only in the northern parts of the Cascade and Rocky mountains, although they have made appearances in Colorado and California. Confirmed wolverine sightings in Utah, usually in the form of a roadkill, over the past four decades can be counted on one hand, literally, according to DWR.
Over the past century, trapping and habitat loss, and now a warming climate, have reduced wolverine numbers. Biologists believe just 250 to 300 inhabit the Northern Rockies. While they are not federally listed, wolverines are protected under Utah law, even though it is not known whether any populations exist in the Beehive State.
DWR receives several reported sightings of wolverines every year, mostly in the Uinta Mountains’ higher elevations, but biologists are unable to confirm most of these reports. Motion-triggered cameras are rigged in potential habitat areas, but they have recorded a wolverine only once.
Wolverines are the largest member of the Mustelidae family, which includes weasels, minks and otters, weighing up to 26 pounds. Wolverines typically scavenge carcasses and hunt birds and small mammals. Wolverines roam vast distances and a single animal can occupy a territory reaching 350 square miles.