Photo: Sierra Pacific Industries
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When rescuers set off to find the Donner Party in the winter of 1847, they took care to leave behind food for the return journey. At regular intervals, the men would climb up into the evergreen trees around what is today Donner Lake, hiding packages of jerky and flour in the boughs.
On the way back, accompanied by two dozen starving settlers, they were devastated to discover the food packets had been vandalized. Something had gone into the trees, ripped open the bags and eaten every morsel. The most likely candidate for this opportunistic snack, modern historians believe, was a wolverine.
California wolverines now sound like the stuff of legend, but they once roamed the Sierra Nevada. Their quiet, scavenging days, as for so many other species, were brought to an end by humans. Settlers arriving in California in the second half of the 19th century began trapping them. And the predators they relied on for carrion leftovers, like wolves and bears, were also hunted.
The wolverine population rapidly dwindled until 1922, when the last wolverine was seen in California. Nearly nine decades went by without another sighting.
Then, a furry loner waddled into the Tahoe National Forest.
Called Buddy, the male wolverine was first spotted by wildlife cams in 2008. After bagging his DNA by setting up “hair snares” on trees baited with raw chicken, scientists determined he’d likely come from the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, 600 miles away.
“He’s kind of a transient,” said Chris Stermer, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife senior environmental scientist. “He’s a lone wolverine looking for a female he’s likely never to find.”
Guided by his biological imperative (or misguided romanticism, if you’d like to anthropomorphize Buddy), the wolverine ended up claiming a 300-square-mile territory in the mountains near Truckee.
For a few years, Buddy showed up on wildlife cams with some regularity. Once, he was spotted with a coyote, a scene straight out of a Disney movie. But there were never any other wolverines, and it didn’t look like Buddy’s bachelor days had come to an end. Now, it’s been a full year since anyone has seen him, and biologists are beginning to wonder if their rare visitor is gone for good.
“He’s almost nine years old or 10 years old,” Stermer said. “That’s an old wolverine in wolverine age.”
If Buddy has died, he has died a trailblazer — there may soon be wolverines in the Sierra again.
According to Stermer, a coalition of scientists in the western U.S. have formed a working group to explore the possibility of reintroducing wolverines into California. The effort requires support and collaboration from the western states that currently have wolverines (Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Idaho) and two that did historically (California and Colorado). The group is working to establish a reintroduction proposal which can be presented to and, they hope, approved by state authorities and local land-owners.
In comparison to reintroduction candidates like the grey wolf, wolverines are less controversial. Livestock owners have fought wolf reintroduction, citing threats to their animals. But wolverines are largely scavengers, munching on scraps left by predators like mountain lions.
“They’re not known to be aggressive at all toward humans,” Stermer said. “They’re not known to break into cabins and raid your home. They’re not known to bother livestock.”
There’s another logistical advantage. Unlike the reintroduction project with California condors, nearly driven extinct by human-linked causes, there’s an existing wolverine population to draw on. They still have healthy numbers in British Columbia and some could be relocated to the Sierra Nevada. A small group would be introduced first to test the wolverines’ ability to grow and sustain their population independently.
Before you start planning your wolverine sightseeing trip, though, know that you’re unlikely to see these alpine recluses. Because of their habitat — they prefer terrain above 9,000 feet — they’re rarely encountered. Which is just fine for Buddy and his ilk.
“The biggest problem with wolverines is you’ll probably never see them,” said Stermer, “which is not a bad thing for a population trying to avoid humans.”
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/first-wolverine-in-94-years-sierra-nevada-13578269.php.