‘Skunk bear’ data collection begins soon

By: 
LORRAINE MARIE
Special to the S-E

No, it doesn’t spray like a skunk or have the mass of a bear. Rather, the rarely seen wolverine, aka skunk bear, aka carcajou, earned its nickname due to stripes extending down its side from shoulders to the base of the tail. It is further identified as looking like a small bear…with noticeably big claws.

The National Park Service says they are one of North America’s rarest mammals, but a few do live in Northeast Washington.

Regarded as eradicated from the lower 48 by the 1930s, in recent years the wolverine, the largest land member of the weasel family, has made some rare appearances in Washington State.

There are about 300 spread across Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, where their habitat is “fragmented.” In Washington their population is estimated at 36, most of them thought to live in the North Cascades.

Data collection

This winter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, along with the non-profit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, will set out cameras and copper brushes to help collect data about the upper elevation denizen. The brushes serve to collect DNA. (The Foundation, a non-profit, has created grant funds for 15,000 projects since they were founded in 1984. Some funds are federal, but the bulk of the rest are contributions. The Foundation is dedicated to restoring and enhancing fish, wildlife, plants and habitats.)

In Northeast Washington, there are plans for a remote camera site in Pend Oreille County, on the Idaho border. The Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game will be responsible for the site, says Madonna Luers, spokesperson for Fish and Wildlife.

Luers said the survey project is expected to span a year; Okanogan County Fish and Wildlife staff is already working with the Forest Service there.

Remote sites in the four-state area will see camera placement before snow cover, with more cameras to be set up, via snowmobile, in late winter.

Wildlife biologists hope to capture images that show a shaggy weasel with small rounded ears, which can weigh anywhere from 20 to 55 pounds. Shoulder height from the ground is 12 to 18 inches.

Habitat

Wolverine favor alpine and subalpine habitat, and are listed as residents of the Colville National Forest, especially the west slope of the Selkirk Mountains. They are unique in that they require snow for their dens, where they give birth to two or three kits in February. They typically create an eight-foot long snow tunnel for their familial chores.

The Forest Service has found that wolverine do not appreciate motorized traffic, but are not “particularly affected” by non-motorized recreationists.

While the skunk bear has a ferocious reputation, members of the Wolverine Foundation experienced an encounter where one curiously circled their outdoor camp, and never displayed aggression.

But you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of one: they are capable of taking down an animal five times their size, given the right snow conditions. While they are scavengers of carrion from deer, elk, caribou and moose, they also enjoy porcupine, beaver, squirrels, rabbits, voles skunk, martens, mink, fox coyote, wolf pups, bird eggs, roots, seeds, insect larvae and berries.

New territory

Often their carrion is frozen, and ripping into that kind of meal takes full advantage of back molars that are uniquely angled for the job.

And what can eat the wolverine? Their primary predator is the wolf, although at one time it was humans with traps and poison.

The creature has been exploring new territory: one was seen in Colorado in 2009. Another showed up in Utah in 2014, the first to be seen there in 30 years. And in 2016, after a 150-year absence, a wolverine was found mingling with cattle in North Dakota. A pair has also been seen in northeast Oregon.

Radio collaring has led to the discovery that a wolverine can travel hundreds of miles in just a few months. DNA from a pair in the North Cascades showed they had traveled to their new location from the coastal mountains of B.C.

Originally, the skunk bear ranged from Maine to Washington, and found refuge in the Rockies’ snowy alpine heights, as far south as New Mexico. Former range also included California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Many still reside in Alaska and northern Canada and northern Europe.

‘Hanging out’

While they tend to be solitary, male wolverines have been observed visiting their offspring until they are weaned. Siblings will “hang out” together, and some may travel with dad after they are six months old.

One goal of the upcoming survey is to map wolverine habitat; the map will assist land trust organizations that create conservation easements when working with private landowners. The wolverine needs remote and largely undisturbed habitat. And snow.

In the past, Fish and Wildlife had refused to give the wolverine protection under the Endangered Species Act, but in April, a U.S. District Court judge overturned that 2014 decision. The judge said that due to their very small population, climate change and genetic isolation, protection was warranted.

The USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station notes that the wolverines’ range, which includes deep snow until mid-May, may change if warming continues. The skunk bear is expected to seek higher elevations. During the next century, their habitat is expected to become smaller and more isolated, resulting in a decrease in geographic range and loss of connectivity.

Sources include The Seattle Times, 5-7-2016; High Country News, 3-2-2015; wolverinefoundation.org; Colville National Forest website; Science News, 10-31-2010; Alaska Dept. of Fish and Wildlife; National Park Service; USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station.

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