Biologists study the shy wolverine in the North Cascades

An animal so ferocious that it is said to chase bears and kill elk by hopping on their backs and severing their throats lives in Snohomish County.

But don’t believe everything you hear about wolverines, experts say.

“Wolverines have a longstanding reputation of being particularly fierce and dangerous,” said Keith Aubry, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station. “They’re sort of a mythological creature because they are so often not seen.”

But in reality, they may be more shy than tough, Aubry said.

“They can be dangerous, but in general they keep to themselves,” he said. “If you encounter them, they’re likely to go on their way.”

More often than not, wolverines don’t chase grizzlies, he said. Instead, large bears are more likely to turn them into a meal. And while there have been reports of wolverines killing elk trapped in snow, it’s not likely that they run after them, hop on their backs and hold on to them until they die, Aubry said.

New research shows there is a widely dispersed population of wolverines that live at high elevation in the north Cascade Mountains, including in some remote, rugged sections of Snohomish County. Wolverines have been spotted in the mountains as far south as Mount Adams. The regular range of the 20 or so wolverines known to live in Washington state is in the Cascades from the Canadian border to the Glacier Peak Wilderness in north Snohomish County, Aubry said.

Little was known about wolverines in Washington and the rest of the nation for decades. As recently as 15 years ago, some experts believed they had vanished from the lower 48 states.

Reported sightings in the Cascades and in the northern Rocky Mountains debunked that position, but little was known about wolverines because they are so hard to spot and so widely dispersed.

Petitions to have them listed as a federally endangered species in the late 1990s and early this decade were turned down for a lack of information. Those denials spurred research on the whereabouts of the wolverine in Washington, as well as the northern Rocky Mountain areas of Idaho and Montana.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — acting under the order of a federal judge — is finishing a year-long assessment of the animal that could lead it to be proposed for listing. A decision likely will be made at the end of February, said Diane Katzenberger, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“The wolverine is an icon of the American wild landscape,” said Jasmine Minbashian, a spokeswoman for Conservation Northwest, a Bellingham-based wildlife conservation group. “Their habitat is definitely shrinking dramatically across the West. The North Cascades is one of the few places in the U.S. where you can still find wolverines. We have a responsibility that they don’t disappear under our watch.”

Research by Aubry and others will go a long way toward figuring out whether special protections are needed, she said.

For two years, Aubry has live-trapped and collared wolverines in the North Cascades. He caught and released two in 2006 and three in 2007. He said he’s almost ready to start trapping again this winter.

Aubry is drawn to the animal because so little is know about it.

“We’re still learning some of the basic aspects of their habitat relations and their ecology,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to do old-fashioned species natural history.”

Wolverines resemble small bears, but they are members of the weasel family. They are predators and scavengers, known for jaws strong enough to bite into frozen carcasses. Their noses are strong enough to sniff out an animal buried under 6 feet of snow.

In the summer months, wolverines hunt small mammals. They often dig up ground squirrels and hunt marmots and other high-elevation animals.

Now that a viable breeding population has been verified in Washington state, the animals could be a barometer for the impact of climate change, Aubry said. Wolverines need snowpack that lasts into spring because they raise their young in snow caves.

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or lvelush@heraldnet.com.

Learn about wolverines

Keith Aubry, research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, is scheduled to make a presentation on Washington state’s secretive wolverine population.

The session is scheduled for 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Adopt-a-Stream Foundation’s Northwest Stream Center, 600 128th St. SE, Everett. Call 425-316-8592 for more information.

The session costs $5 for members of the foundation and $7 for nonmembers.

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