Standing near the top of a 10,000-foot mountain in south- west Montana, I found an elk calf carcass, decapitated with a leg ripped from the hip socket. It was June, the snow was covered in blood, strange oval tracks, and wet, sticky hair. Those detached body parts were AWOL.
Suddenly, I felt a long way from anywhere and the outlandish stories I’d heard about a small northwoods creature chasing 1000-pound grizzly bears away from their prey, seemed a lot more believable.
lifted the elk’s intact rear leg and let it flop. Rigor mortis hadn’t set in. The elk was killed minutes earlier, I guessed. Somewhere near, I was sure, and perhaps just a few yards away with eyes focused firmly upon me, a wolverine, a.k.a. the devil bear, was hiding. Standing next to its freshly acquired meat supply, I figured this animal to be just a little pissed-off.
I slipped away from the kill and summoned the expert, Robert Inman. Inman studies wolverines from his base in the quaint cowboy and trout-bum laden town of Ennis, Mont. Bob and his wife, Kris, work for the Wildlife Conservation Society, a non-profit established in 1895 as the New York Zoological Society.
The Inmans are on a mission to determine the status of wolverines in the Yellowstone ecosystem and learn how man’s burgeoning presence here, especially at altitudes exceeding 7,000 feet, may or may not influence the wolverine’s ability to travel, find mates, breed, raise young and, ultimately, survive. It’s information that may or may not be imperative to the survival of wolverines, and it’s data that could influence those who make decisions on matters of threatened and endangered species. Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under judges’ orders, is conducting a 12-month review of all available data, including new information, regarding the wolverine’s status. A decision to list wolverines could influence outdoor recreation, including that of trappers who continue to legally target wolverines.
That’s where the Inmans come into the picture. That review makes their research more timely and pertinent than ever. Certainly, their findings will influence the future of the wolverine, including whether it is eventually listed or not.
“Without knowledge of habitat use, causes of mortality, and reproductive rates, you can’t really develop and implement an effective management plan,” Inman said. “Moving wolverine management forward, listed or not, depends on obtaining data from the field, and that is what we are focused on. Once we put good information into the hands of managers, I am confident that appropriate conservation strategies will be implemented.”
And data they’ll have: The five-year study has yielded more than 3,000 telemetry locations, several reproductive den sites, and one of the largest datasets on wolverine survival rates ever put together in North America. That information will be summarized and a report will be presented to a variety of state and federal agencies this spring.
Inman isn’t ready to say whether wolverine populations are increasing or declining in the Yellowstone ecosystem, but this he knows: While gathering information, he and his cohorts are engaging on a wild ride, traveling—on foot, on snowshoes, on cross-country skis and, when necessary, on the seats of snowmachines—across some of the most rugged and spectacular turf on the continent – the knife-edged, wild spine of the Rocky Mountains.
It was during a pickup hoops game at Ennis High School that Wolverine Bob, as he’s known around Ennis, invited me to join him on a half-day tracking foray, an attempt to locate a young wolverine (a cub) and implant a radio telemetrdevice in its body. Doing so would allow Inman to track that cub’s travels from youth through its life.
“How bad-ass are these things?” I asked, not knowing what I might be getting into. Inman offered a coy smile, paused and said, “Put it this way: If wolverines weighed 300, 400, 500 pounds … nobody would go into the woods.”
The following morning, at 4:20 a.m., I met Inman and his research assistants, Tony McCue and Mark Packila, at the Town Pump in Ennis. We fueled-up on rot-got coffee and headed up a private road and into some remote alpine country.
At a trailhead we cut northwest and hiked into the snow- covered alpine landscape. Inman occasionally checked his radio telemetry equipment attempting to gain a report from Wolverine # F (female) 105, a 4-year-old that the team placed a radio transmitter in during 2002. It was expected that she had produced offspring and, as mentioned, that was the goal of the trip: to locate #105, count her cubs, place a telemetry implant into a pup and track its survival and possible dispersal to new areas. Little did I know what kind of adventure that task would lead to; least of all that just hours later I would be dangling in a wolverine den, with two assistants holding onto my ankles, my face not 5 feet away from #105 and her sharp teeth.
Early on that day it seemed like the expedition would fail and I would be home by early afternoon. We checked a couple mountain basins and failed to get a signal from #105. Then, around 10 a.m., a Cessna flew overhead and made a few circles. Inman dug in his pack, pulled out a satellite phone, peered up at the plane and said, “Anything?”
The pilot, Doug Chapman, who often flies for Inman, told us the news: Wolverine #105 had moved from the area and was now located in an adjacent drainage.
After eating lunch, Inman peered at a rock wall and a labyrinth of cliffs that formed a remote, high ridge and separated us from the next basin. Then he turned and said, “Well, we still have half a day. Do you guys want to try it?” His suggestion implied that we would be out of the mountains before dark. We nodded heads like a pack of lemmings preparing for the big leap.
The next basin was filled with tracks, some from a herd of elk, others larger and likely from a bear fresh out of its den and looking for a late-spring meal. Another set of tracks, smaller than the bear’s, held promise. We dropped into the bottom of the basin looking for an answer.
A half-hour later, after following those tracks, I found that dismembered elk calf. And that’s when things shifted into overdrive. Inman asked a research assistant to examine the area to determine whether the wolverine killed the calf or scavenged it. In the meantime, Inman, McCue and Packila returned to the carcass and photographed the site. Shortly after taking photos, movement caught Inman’s eye and the biologists retreated to the brush. That’s when #105 made her appearance.
Wolverines live a harsh existence in demanding terrain and, by virtue of their size (most wolverines weigh just 20 or 30 pounds, they are not effective predators. Mostly they scavenge; and to scavenge means they must move constantly, searching for the fruits of a fellow predator’s labor or chance upon an elk, deer, goat, or a sheep on that animal’s worst day. Once they locate a meal, they defend it with their lives and, likely, that is where all the folklore surrounding the wolverine comes from. Wolverines are not capable of killing a bear in a dispute over a meal, but they are at least willing to put up a fight. Inman and his crew found a wolverine in Montana’s Gravelly Mountains that fought a black bear for an elk carcass and lost the battle.
When asked what about a wolverine most impresses him Inman said, “The movements we’ve seen during a single week are pretty much just jaw-dropping amazing.
“We followed one individual that traveled from Grand Teton National Park down to the Pocatello [Idaho] area and back in three weeks,” Inman added. “Then, a week later, that individual went from Jackson Hole to Gardiner, Montana, and back in a week.
“They eke out an existence at timberline where resources are limited. Everyone has a perception that wolverines are tough and ferocious; and as individuals, they can be,” Inman acknowledged. “But, as populations they are vulnerable because they live in such low densities and reproduce so slowly. Wolverines can live to 12 years old, but they don’t reproduce until they are 3 or 4 years old. They only have one or two cubs at a time and they don’t do it every year. They skip litters. When you compare that to other species—even carnivores such as grizzly bears—their capacity for reproduction is really low.
“It makes perfect sense,” Inman explained. “With their large feet that act as snowshoes and thick fur, they gain a competitive advantage over all other carnivores at high elevation where the environment is relatively harsh and unproductive. They occupy this environment successfully by existing in low numbers, by defending their territory from other wolverines, and by moving throughout it in a ceaseless search for food.”
The tenacity of wolverine #105 was clear that June day. The biologists watched #105 as she struggled to drag the elk calf carcass, 15 feet at a time, up a snow-covered hill to a site where her cub was stashed. Eventually, the carcass slid downhill and #105 decided to cache it under a large boulder. The biologists decided to wait her out and pulled binoculars from their packs. After an hour or more, Inman realized that #105 had given them the slip. She had sneaked out of the rockslide and made a charge to the top of the ridge; a ridge, of course, in the opposite direction of the trailhead. The biologists packed their gear and legged it to the top of another mountain. This put them, and me it should be noted, two ridges away from our trail home, dropping into another deep basin. It was mid- afternoon and I was feeling more lemmingesque than ever.
We descended from that ridge and followed wolverine tracks into another major rockslide; this one located on the north side of the mountain, in the shade. From 70 yards away I watched Inman climb onto a rock that matched the dimensions of a small car. He held a telemetry rod in one hand and a receiver in the other, pressed to his ear. He turned toward me and pointed at his feet, indicating that the wolverine, good old #105, and likely her cub, were just under his feet. Later, I asked Inman if his telemetry equipment gave #105’s location away. He coughed, “No, as I walked by that boulder I heard a major growl right beside my feet.” Immediately, the biologists plugged exits to the wolverine’s lair, leaving one open, but guarded. Inman phoned a vet who would drive to the trailhead and then hike in to our remote location. He would administer tranquilizer doses and monitor the wolverine’s vital signs if a procedure was required. Inman figured the vet would reach our position within a couple hours. Five hours later he arrived, just as full light faded. By then, after sitting on a cold rock for about 300 minutes on the cold, shady side of a mountain, at 10,000 feet with snow falling, I felt slightly hypothermic. As for Inman, he just giggled and said, “Yea, you look really cold.” And then the lemming jumped.
The team needed photographs of the inside of a den, so I volunteered. I told the biologists to yank on my feet when I said “pull.” I made eye contact with them when I said it.
The inside of that wolverine’s den was spacious and this one came complete with a freshly severed elk head and a half- dozen marmot skulls as decoration. It was pungent inside, but not unbearable. It was warm, out of the wind, with a soft dirt floor and numerous side tunnels. With my head just a few feet away from that peculiar elk head, I detected motion, pointed my camera that direction and fired the trigger. The inside of the den lit up for an instant and then turned deathly dark again. For the briefest moment, I saw the image of a wolverine crouched next to the elk head, looking my direction as if to say, “Enough!” I heard a growl and screamed, “Pull!”
Once the vet arrived, the procedure moved fast. Inman darted #105 and then gently removed her from the den when the tranquilizers took affect. Quickly, that beautiful black-and- tan wolverine was moved to an insulated bag where the vet kept check. Inman returned to the den, this time with a catch- pole (a pole with a plastic, padded noose on one end), ready to extract #105’s cub.
Unfortunately, Inman was not able to get the loop around the neck and a leg and the cub braced itself with all four legs. Because the noose was only around the neck, Inman released the cub, which quickly disappeared around a corner and could not be enticed again. The vet brought #105 out of her sleep, and one of the assistants returned her to the den. And we started our trek out of the mountains on a no-moon, mid- night-dark night.
I could go on about that trek home, but there are two moments that stand out. One occurred when we were scaling a steep section and I shined my headlamp to the right. That produced no visuals and I was sure that the rock ledge I was on dropped at least a couple hundred feet, and maybe 1000 or more feet, into nothingness. I felt dizzy, sat down with the rest of the crew and said, “I can guarantee that my mother doesn’t like where I’m at right now.”
The second moment arrived when the vet, who was negotiating all of this on a severely bum knee, stopped, tilted his head to the sky and said, “Aliens! If you’re going to abduct me, do it now. I don’t care if you want to probe every orifice on my body. Just get me off this damned mountain!”
Eventually, we did gain the trail, with everyone mostly intact, and we arrived at our vehicles an hour later. The vet was suggesting knee surgery and he wasn’t smiling. We piled into our rigs only to find the locked gate to the private road home just that – locked, the keycode disabled. So we traveled the long way home and arrived in Ennis, sleep-deprived and sore muscled, at 4:30 a.m.
These days, when I sit on my glassed-in front porch, sip- ping on a tonic and studying the mountains to the east, I can’t help but recall that day and consider the presence of wolverine #105. Somewhere out there, she’s skirting a high ridge, nose to the ground searching for scent, eyes occasionally glancing for danger, a fierce wind waving the thick chocolate hair on her back. There’s something in that image that each of us aspires to be, a certain independence, a proper confidence, and a devoted will to survive no matter how difficult the circumstance might be.