A chance of a lifetime arose last week for wildlife biologists to track the West’s most rare and elusive predators when a wolverine was captured after attacking sheep in northern Utah.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, DWR, released the 4-year-old male, only the eighth confirmed wolverine sighting in Utah since 1979, after equipping it with a GPS collar, which will enable officials to track its movements.
“It’s amazing to get a chance to see a wolverine in the wild, let alone catch one,” DWR northern region wildlife manager Jim Christensen said. “Having a collar on this wolverine will teach us things about wolverines in Utah that would be impossible to learn any other way.”
Last year, wolverines were seen at least four times in Utah.
“Were we seeing the same animal or different animals?” Christensen said. “Having a collar on this animal will help us solve that riddle.”
Wolverines are the largest land-dwelling member of the weasel family, famous for taking down much larger animals for prey and scaring larger predators off their kills. With their huge paws, they evolved are for over-snow travel and are known to cover vast distances.
Although wolverines have been pushed off much of their native range in the United States because of historic trapping and ongoing habitat loss, these rare animals have never been listed for protection under the endangered species act.
Declining snow cover from climate change and motorized recreation are now leading threats to wolverine’s survival, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The group says only 300 known wolverines remain in the lower 48 states.
The opportunity to track a Utah wolverine arose around March 10 when a rancher discovered an animal killing sheep six miles west of Randolph, according to DWR. The animal fled and the rancher counted 18 sheep dead or injured in the attack.
Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that eliminates wild animals that threaten livestock, searched for the animal by plane. After spotting a wolverine running through the snow, the searchers contacted DWR rather than shoot the rare predator.
State biologists immediately responded to try and capture the alleged culprit alive using barrel traps.
“There was so much activity in the area that morning,” Christensen said, “I thought the wolverine would be long gone and we wouldn’t be able to catch it.”
All the deceased sheep were removed from the area, while the traps were deployed and rigged, each containing part of a sheep carcasses.
The next day, the sheepherder checked the traps to discover one containing the first wolverine ever captured in Utah.
DWR officials brought the animal to the Ogden office, where they sedated it, drew blood samples and examined it. The wolverine weighed 28 pounds and measured 41 inches in length.
“The animal had good, sharp teeth,” Christensen said. “It was in really good condition.”
They finally placed a GPS-equipped collar around its next and transported it to the north slope of the Uinta Mountains where it was released into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on March 11.
According to DWR, the GPS data derived from the wolverine’s collar will show when and where the animal travels, the extent of its home range and the type of habitats it uses at different times of the year. Such information will be helpful for learning about the wolverine’s behavior and for managing the species in Utah, which is the southern edge of the wolverine’s range.