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Monday, March 4, 2013

The King of Weasels

The Wolverine is More to Michigan Than Football

This is the sixth and last in a series of articles on the weasels of Michigan. 

In February of 2004, many newspapers and magazines ran a story and photo of what they called the first live wolverine (Gulo gulo) documented in Michigan, “the wolverine state.”  Hunters with hounds had chased the animal near Ubly, along the border of Huron and Sanilac Counties.  The hunters eventually called in a DNR biologist, Arnie Karr, who was taken by snowmobile to a field where he photographed the wolverine in a tree.

There was much speculation regarding the wolverine’s origin.  Some thought it must be an escaped or released pet.  Others said it likely came from the James Bay Region of Canada, having crossed Lake Huron on ice.  The DNR Endangered Species Specialist at the time even suggested that it rode in from Canada on a garbage truck.  (Michigan landfills accept trash from Canada.)  Wildlife officials assumed the wolverine was a wanderer, just passing through rather than living in an established range.  The implication was that one sighting of this big member of the weasel family should not change the conventional wisdom that Michigan has no wolverines—and maybe never did.

An Ubly-area resident and high school science teacher, Jeff Ford, conducted research that proved the animal was a resident, not a transient.  Ford, working with fellow sportsman Jason Rosser, and later with Steve Noble, released photographs taken with a trail camera in the same area one year after the photo was snapped by the DNR employee.  Mr. Ford also found tracks of the wolverine periodically. 

For the next six years, the three men spent a lot of time and effort monitoring the wolverine, which spent most of its days in dense swamps in the Minden City State Game Area and periodically visited the Verona State Game Area.  They gradually obtained more information, and shared it with wolverine researchers in the northwestern U.S. and Canada.  The trio sent the experts hair samples from barbed wire wrapped around a tree where baits were hung.  Genetic analyses revealed that the animal’s DNA was consistent with that of wolverines in Ontario and Quebec.

Part of the story ended in mid-March of 2010 when hikers found the animal’s carcass, which was fairly fresh, in the water along a trail by a beaver dam in the Minden City State Game Area.  The wolverine was then likely about nine years old, “grandma” aged, according to Ford.

No research on the wolverine was conducted by the DNR in the six years it was confirmed in Michigan, even though the animal stayed mostly on state-managed land.  All wildlife officials continued to agree that the wolverine, although interesting, was of no real importance--coming from who knows where and why.  Ford, thought the wolverine came from Canada, but acknowledged some things just don’t add up.  “We know wolverines aren’t supposed to set up territories where there is no potential mate,” he said.

A book has since been written about the wolverine and the citizen science conducted by Ford, Rosser, and Noble.  The now mounted wolverine is being displayed around Michigan.  But the status of the wolverine in Michigan is not being reconsidered.  The DNR still classifies the wolverine as “extirpated” (gone), contends there has been no other evidence of a wolverine in Michigan, and states that the closest ones are at least 400 miles to the northeast near James Bay.  However, a wolverine was photographed in 2010 in the Manitoulin Islands just a few dozen miles from the border of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and over the past 100 years many Michigan citizens have reported seeing wolverines.  The sightings have traditionally been treated like those of cougars – wildlife officials have scoffed, claiming the citizens must have seen bear cubs, raccoons, or badgers.  Yet, a wolverine was killed, near Portland in the Lansing area in 1932.  The incident was documented in a 1936 article by A.M. Stebler in “Michigan Conservation,” the official publication of the Michigan Department of Conservation (later to become the DNR).

Stebler reported that biologist Harry Ruhl (later to become chief of the Wildlife Division of the Department) investigated the shooting and took the skull and one foot.  He subsequently gave the skull to the Zoology Department at Michigan State University for use in teaching.  The significance of the wolverine itself was blown off by the Department of Conservation which concluded “the animal likely escaped from a Detroit zoo five months previously.”

The Department of Zoology at MSU cannot find the skull.  The Detroit Zoo (established in 1928) did have wolverines at that time.  However, according to the Registrar at the Detroit Zoological Institute, the Zoo kept very detailed records that indicate no wolverine ever escaped from the facility.  “The escaped animal story used to explain the wolverine shot in Portland was likely just made up by the Conservation Department,” says Larry Massie, one of Michigan’s foremost historians who has written about the incident.  “They no doubt felt they needed an explanation that would get rid of the matter.”

History aside, the six-year occupation of the Ubly area by the wolverine Ford, Rosser, and Noble had been studying shows that wolverines can live in Michigan and that the species does not necessarily require “huge expanses of wilderness” as many biologists have assumed.  The DNR actually explored the idea of a reintroduction 25 years ago (although it’s unclear how seriously).  That’s unlikely to ever occur.  “The DNR is adamant that it will not allow any wolverines to be brought into Michigan,” said Ford during a presentation in Saginaw.  “We asked the DNR about a project to bring in a mate for the wolverine in the Thumb, but they said ‘no way.’”

The DNR’s view of the Ubly area wolverine contrasts sharply with the response of state and federal officials to the discovery of a wolverine in February of 2008 in California’s Tahoe National Forest.  An unexpected photo of a wolverine was taken by Katie Moriarty, a graduate student at Oregon State University, who was hoping to document pine martens and certain bird species. 

Within a week of the initial photograph, researchers, biologists and volunteers intensified the search for more wolverine evidence in the same general area.  A large grid (approximately 150 square miles) with remote cameras and hair snares was established and monitored.  Ground searches were made looking for wolverine tracks.  Flights were conducted to detect possible radio telemetry signals from wolverines previously fitted with radio transmitters in studies in Montana.  Approximately 50 scat and hair samples were found and sent to the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Genetic Laboratory for analysis. 

An interagency wolverine team was initiated to include the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) in consultation with wolverine experts from Idaho, Montana, and Washington.  Through regular conference calls and meetings, this group developed a coordinated strategy to search for additional wolverine evidence.  Funding was obtained for monitoring and data gathering by the Forest Service and DFG.  Groundwork was laid for a long term wolverine survey by DFG.

Then the animal started showing up on trail camera photos taken by Sierra Pacific Industries on the company’s timber lands.  Sierra Pacific was conducting carnivore studies and documented the wolverine “by accident” in three consecutive years.  Like the wolverine in Michigan, it clearly took up residency.  “A wolverine with no potential mate should keep on going,” says Ed Murphy, an inventory forester with Sierra Pacific.  “But this animal has a home range.  Either our surveys are missing other wolverines, or there are obstacles to movement, such as highways, we don’t understand.”

In a 2009 paper published in Northwest Science, Moriarty and nine co-authors stated: “This current observation provides hope that the dispersal to, and even recolonization of, long-vacant portions of a species’ range is possible.”  Their implication that habitation of part of California by wolverines would be a good thing is in stark contrast to the attitude of Michigan’s DNR which clearly wants nothing to do with wolverines.  The Ubly wolverine was ignored, or treated by the DNR as a public relations problem.  Now it seems to be just a curiosity.  There is no hope expressed for the future. 

Perhaps our state government’s peculiar attitude about wolverines stems from a long and strange controversy over whether the species ever existed in Michigan.  Historian Massie notes the view that Michigan was never part of the wolverine’s range was expressed in Michigan History For Kids in spring of 2001.  This seems puzzling as a host of writings by naturalists and historians have provided evidence of wolverines in at least 16 counties in both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas until the 1800s. Massie suggests the notion of no wolverines started with “hedging” by early mammalogists because no preserved Michigan wolverine specimens were in museums.  Then in 1943, according to Massie, “Fielding Yost was named head football coach at the University of Michigan and soon launched the golden era of the gridiron for Ann Arbor… but he was no naturalist or historian.  Nevertheless, he collaborated with R. Ray Baker, a juvenile fiction author, to write an article published in Michigan History Magazine in 1943, “The Wolverine.”  For twenty years Yost had been searching for a live Michigan Wolverine to serve as mascot for his teams.  Based on his lack of success in finding one he concluded in his article, “there ain’t no such animal” and “the animal which gave the state its nick-name never made the region its home.”

In 1980, one of the state’s leading historians, George May, undertook a revision of Willis Dunbar’s classic Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State.  For some reason May found the coach’s article compelling and he cited it as the source for his statement, “none of the latter (wolverine pelts), strangely enough, came from the future Wolverine State because the natural habitat of this contentious animal was much farther north in Canada.”

In 2003, the U.S. Forest Service launched a study to “shed light on whether wolverines lived in the Great Lakes region.”  Before the project could be completed, DNR biologist, Karr, snapped his picture near Ubly.

Dr. Patrick Rusz
Director of Wildlife Programs

Wolverine Fast Facts
  • The wolverine is also called “glutton,” “skunk bear,” or “carcajou.”  The latter name was spread by French trappers.

  • Its current range is Canada south into the northern part of the Rocky Mountains and (perhaps) the Great Lakes Region.

  • Wolverines are typically 30-40 inches long and weigh 18-42 pounds.  Males are larger than females.

  • The wolverine does not hibernate and can cover great distances in all seasons.  Wolverines are great climbers.

  • Wolverines are versatile predators eating about anything.  They can kill prey much larger than themselves, and are notorious scavengers capable of driving all other animals – including bears, wolves, or mountain lions – from a carcass. 

  • Wolverines mark their territories and food catches with a foul-smelling musk. 

  • Like other weasels, wolverines tend to be solitary and can delay true pregnancy until long after mating.  Litters of 2-5 are typically born in spring in protected dens. 

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