Friday, August 7, 2009

Rare wolverine spotted in the Pioneers

Hikers see solitary member of the weasel family on east side of range


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

The little spot on this snowfield high in the Pioneer Mountains is a rare wolverine, an animal that can survive in the harshest of alpine environments. Photo by Craig Barry.

A chance encounter in an eastside basin of the Pioneer Mountains has added to the very short list of wolverine reports that have filtered out of the rugged range over the years.

The rare sighting occurred last Sunday in the upper end of Broad Canyon near an unnamed lake above Betty Lake, one of the highest alpine lakes in the state. The terrain in the above-timberline area is composed of broken rock mixed with green tundra meadows.

Towering over the scene to the west are the steep flanks of 11,878-foot Standhope Peak.

It was in the midst of a several-day backpacking trip into this remote landscape that valley resident Craig Barry, executive director of the Ketchum-based Environmental Resource Center, spotted the critter. At first, Barry and his girlfriend weren't sure what they were looking at.

They had just rounded a knoll to check out the unnamed lake, he said, when the two of them spotted an animal just 30 yards away that "ran like a dog" and had the color of an "old mangy fox." The encounter occurred at the height of the day around 2 p.m.

"I saw this thing running across the meadow beside the lake," he said. "I realized it could only be a wolverine."

Barry said he was surprised to spot the animal so high up in the mountains. He said the area where they saw the wolverine is around 10,500 feet.

Stranger still, the wolverine was carrying what looked like a fish in its mouth. Spotting the two intruders on its midday meal, the animal raced for the safety of the boulder-strewn hillside next to the lake.

"He was just in a dead gallop," Barry said.

Reaching the toe of the slope, the wolverine began moving through the rocks with the adeptness only surefooted animals display. Reaching the second of two steep snowfields, the animal began feeding on the fish, Barry said. But that didn't last long.

"He got skittish even there," he said.

Barry snapped several photos of the wolverine as it headed even higher into the rocks, where the two hikers eventually lost sight of the animal. Excited by the encounter, they walked to the first snowbank the wolverine crossed and found its footprints.

Based on the photographs Barry took of the animal, Sawtooth National Recreation Area wildlife biologist Robin Garwood confirmed it was indeed a wolverine. Despite the many hours she's spent traipsing around in the backcountry of the SNRA in her 18 years as a biologist there, Garwood has yet to spot a wolverine, except when caught as part of a study.

"It's really rare to see," she said. "I'm really envious."

The largest member of the weasel family at about 30 pounds, wolverines are dark brown and have light stripes on their sides from head to tail. The animal's Latin name, Gulo gulo, means glutton. Their preference for remote forests and high-mountain cirques makes the Smoky, Sawtooth, Boulder and White Cloud mountains some of the best wolverine habitat in the state. Garwood said they receive far fewer wolverine reports from the Pioneers.

Compared with the wolverine, other weasel species like the pine marten and fisher—which are not known to fish incidentally—prefer lower elevation forested habitats. The wolverines' preference for higher elevation landscapes means wildlife biologists know less about these rare creatures.

"They're definitely hard to study because of where they live," Garwood said.

Conservationists have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the animal under the Endangered Species Act. They say as few as 550 wolverines still survive in the lower 48 states. The agency hasn't made a decision yet.

To view all of the photos taken by Barry, go to www.ercsv.org.

Jason Kauffman: jkauffman@mtexpress.com




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