Among the mountains and high alpine of the Cascade Mountains a carnivore, highly adapted to the snow pack and rugged terrain, roams the tree line. This creature’s savage reputation is more tall-tale than fact, preferring to scavenge and feed on small mammals, and it would rather run as soon as human eyes get a rare glance.
The wolverine is more than elusive, and not just because of its demanding abode. Wiped out from Washington in the 1920s as aggressive trapping engulfed the Pacific Northwest, only one lone male was known to call the south Cascades home for years.
After a decade of monitoring the singular male who would wander around Mount Adams and the surrounding area, a female by the name of Pepper was found, and then another in late 2019.
This individual would be named Joni, and in 2020 she would be the first female to produce in the Cascades in about 100 years.
Now, Joni has introduced another pair of kits found by Cascades Carnivore Project within Mount Rainier National Park.
Cascades Carnivore Project is a nonprofit, conservation science program that works with local communities and public participation to research high elevation carnivores in the high alpine ecosystems they call home, such as the Cascade Red Fox, Canada Lynx, fishers and of course, the wolverine.
Using “monitoring stations” fitted with bait and scent lures Cascades Carnivore Project is able to research the evasive, low-density wolverine. Only about 40 to 50 wolverines are believed to live in Washington.
They are primarily studied in the winter when there is peak interest, snowmobiles, skis or snowshoes are used to access the deep, snow-covered mountains. There are 20 of these stations south of I-90 to capture as many wolverines as possible, and this system is how Joni was first detected in 2019.
Joni’s origin isn’t exactly known, but she does have the same genetic signature that all wolverines from Washington share, this same signature being found in some parts of British Columbia as well. Her age is also up for debate, but she is relatively small and may be as young as three years old.
The monitoring stations also found Joni’s second pair of kits.
“We have wolverine monitoring stations throughout the park and there’s this one area that we thought she might have denned in last year, so we visited it as soon as we could get there when the road opened with a super long ski in,” said Jocelyn Akins, founder of Cascades Carnivore Project. “We set some cameras and put out some bait and she brought her kits to them in June of this year.”
Although the kits were first detected fairly recently, the wolverine goes through an interesting process en route to birth.
“Wolverines have something called delayed implantation where the parents breed and the egg is fertilized but it doesn’t implant until the fall, so in the early winter is when gestation starts,” Akins said.
They then identify the perfect spot to give birth, such as a boulder complex under a tree, and dig a den to the ground once snow arrives for opportune shelter.
Valentine’s Day is held as the “official birthday” of the wolverine as they are born January through March, Feb. 14 just happening to be the average date of birth.
The kits will stay in the den until they are more mobile and able to wander with their mother as Joni’s kits have, said kits having a wolverine paradise to explore with protection within Mount Rainier National Park, untouched peaks, wide spaces away from people, plenty of sub-alpine marmots, pika and the occasional mountain goat carcass.
“It’s been really great to do research in the park and what I have really noticed with Joni, because I’ve seen her once and the crew have seen her a couple of times, is that Mount Rainier and the high Cascades feel really protected and like a real refuge for wolverines, a place where they can survive and hopefully thrive,” Akins said.
Among obstacles such as difficulty finding a nonrelated mate, habitat loss, travel struggles and climate change altering the snow pack wolverines use to cash food into more rain than snow, Joni and her offspring are a light in the dark.
“It’s really great to see females reproducing in the Cascades, there are some other known females in the north Cascades as well, but there’s just so few of them that and when we do field work in the summer and seeing the glaciers just shrinking, it gives me pause for their future, it seems like it’s definitely going to be a rocky road,” Akins said. “But I’m hopeful.”
Editor’s note: This report was changed on Aug. 29, 2021 to remove a section listing the number of employees working for the Cascades Carnivore Project, replacing it with the estimated wolverines in wolverines in the state.
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