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To Glimpse a Ghost
Federal and state wildlife agencies estimate there are around 300 wolverines living in the Lower Forty-Eight, with strongholds and stable populations in Alaska and Canada, several hundred of which reside in Montana.
Benjamin Alva Polley
Mist rises off the river, wetting our faces as we ford, with chunks of slush bouncing off our waders. Stabbing the riverbed with ski poles, Mike and I struggle through the swift current, trying to find purchase on the slimy terrain. Our packs are weighed down by skis, dangling boots, three days’ worth of supplies and a deer’s hindquarter.
We’re in Glacier National Park as citizen-scientist volunteers for an ongoing, multi-year, park-wide wolverine study. Wolverines are the largest member of the weasel family. Their Latin name, gulo-gulo, means glutton, appropriate for the large quantities of food they can eat. Biologists are gathering data in hopes of estimating how many of these creatures reside within the boundaries of this protected area. The deer’s leg strapped to my pack is used to lure wolverines to a feeding post where steel wool brushes snag the animal’s fur, which will later be collected and used for DNA analysis.
Once across the river, we ski the undulating terrain through a forest mosaic forest of burnt black lodgepole pines, Douglas firs and needle-less larch trees. A fire raged through here 19 years ago, charring most of the land. Many of the old larches survived, their thick bark and high branches resistant to the fire. Deer, moose and wolf tracks punctuate the snow. A pine marten, a smaller member of the weasel family, scampers out from behind a tree. Its curiosity outweighs its elusive nature for only a moment before it darts back into a dark hole at the base of an upturned root wad. Behind every tree I imagine a 35-pound wolverine hiding in the shadows, watching us pass and
smelling the bait we carry. I can almost see this medium-sized, dark-chocolate-colored creature with tannish-blond streaks flanking its sides, the same color as the forest mosaic, phantoming through the woods and lunging across mountains as if the landscape were flat. Ferociously compact and stocky, they somewhat resemble an elongated grizzly cub with shortened legs.
Douglas Chadwick, author of The Wolverine Way, relates a Native American story where a grizzly sow gave birth to four cubs. One was a runt and the other three picked on it all the time. When it grew up, it ran off to become the wolverine, wily and full of piss and vinegar, fierce and fearless. After skiing several miles to the foot of a frozen lake, we pull out binoculars to glass for megafauna. Nothing stirs. Winter hushes the surrounding landscape, but animal signatures and stories plot the snow in riddles. Two weeks prior, researchers erected a 10- foot post to the boat dock on the rocky lake shore. A partly gnawed-on mangled deer leg is attached to the top as bait. It hangs eerily against the gray sky like a frigid flag. The DNA sampling brushes have snagged eagle and raven feathers but no wolverine hair.
Mike discovers a few brushes that actually have hair, most likely belonging to pine martens, and gently places the strands with his latex-gloved hands into a small, clear tube. The tubes will be mailed to a genetics laboratory in Missoula, Montana. Geneticists there will confirm the species and identify individual wolverines, biologists will then extrapolate how many reside within the park boundaries — one element of building a more complete picture of these elusive creatures. After lag-bolting the leg and new brushes where needed, we retighten wires to secure the post, then wipe animal lure along it. Our gag reflexes kick in at the pungent smell of the beaver castor oil and skunk glands — a gourmet offering to the world’s largest mustelid.
Years previously, researchers lured wolverines into live traps using dead beavers. Gulo crawled into the trap attempting to steal the carcass while a trap door slammed shut and locked, remotely notifying biologists. Researchers attached a tranquilizer to the end of a ski pole and jabbed the snarling wolverine. After the animal was sedated, a veterinarian surgically implanted a GPS unit into its abdominal cavity. The small device, which doesn’t hinder the animal and decomposes over time, was found to be more reliable than radio collars that had a habit of slipping over the wolverines’ narrow heads.
Federal and state wildlife agencies estimate there are around 300 wolverines living in the Lower Forty-Eight, with strongholds and stable populations in Alaska and Canada, several hundred of which reside in Montana. A few populations are distributed in protected biological island mountain ranges, particularly protected national parks and wilderness areas throughout the Mountain West. Glacier National Park is estimated to have a wolverine population of around 40. Jeffrey P. Copeland of the Wolverine Foundation, who has studied wolverines for over 20 years, says wolverines have always been seen as elusive, but their elusiveness is more in how rare they are on the landscape.
For decades, wildlife advocates and environmental groups have tried placing wolverines on the Endangered Species List to no avail. But in May 2022, a federal court judge in Missoula granted this species ESA candidate protections while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) conducted more research to decide whether the wolverine should be listed as “threatened” or “endangered.” If considered “endangered,” it will merit more representation in court and the highest level of protections available to prevent possible extinction. Their decision is based upon wolverine numbers and their looming plight against a warming planet. Wolverines are regarded as a species critically impacted by climate change. They prefer denning at high elevations and need an average annual temperature around 72 degrees. If their habitat warms even a few degrees, subalpine firs may encroach into the alpine. Mountain goats, their preferred prey, will likely be affected as rock lichens —the goats’ primary food source — diminish. A dangerous recipe for an elusive creature.
The snow depth at the foot of the lake rapidly diminishes and becomes un-skiable.
“Do you think the lake is frozen enough to hold our weight?” I ask, intimidated by the expanse of the unknown. “Previous researchers said it was ice-free two weeks ago. How frozen could it be in that amount of time?”
“I hope so,” Mike responds. The lake has a thin veneer of snow hiding the questionable stability of the ice. The ice makes sci-fi sounds, ricocheting and pinging inward and outward in a language older than words and beyond human comprehension.
Wolf tracks deviate off shore across the ice, guiding us on a short diagonal over the frozen cove. We go the way of the wolf, summoning more faith with each kick and glide.
The snow records lion tracks in front of the cabin. Upon arrival, we unbuckle our packs and step out of our skis. We light a fire in the wood stove and head back outside to watch the sunset. Glacier-gray clouds are stacked low against the Continental Divide as they have been all day, but in the last cusp of light, a pocket of blue appears, revealing the mile-high mountain nearby with its icy-white, rime-covered summit. More mountain peaks loom high above, with their snow-crested winter gowns offering an alluring intrigue of the unknown. A raven’s coal-black wings beat the still winter air as a bald eagle whirls above. My mind recalls a story in Chadwick’s book about researchers who were flying just below a 9,000-foot mountain following pings from a wolverine’s radio transmitter. They couldn’t find the wolverine until they looked up and saw it standing on the summit above them. Wolverines are renowned for their climbing ability and have been known to follow the scent of carcasses buried in avalanches miles away and 20 feet below the snow.
We wake to a gray bird sky. Slipping on our hiking boots, we place our ski boots, shovels, probes, and beacons inside our packs and set out.
Scads of whitetail deer bound away from our approach. Three bull elk stand next to giant, dun-colored boulders, steadily browsing on red-osier dogwood. Before long, they have melded into the unknown.
As we continue on, a conspiracy of ravens shatters the winter’s cold, quiet air. Wolf tracks veer off the trail. A primal sensitivity arises as we follow to investigate. We bushwhack into the thick tangle of alder, birch and fir trees as the same unkindness of ravens scatters off the ground by the dozens, wheeling above and scolding us for trespassing. We pass by hair, bones and gut piles coppering the snow. The putrescent odor of rotting flesh fills the air. In front of us, a whitetail deer lays exposed with its rib cavity open and organs missing. The deer’s eye sockets are pecked clean, leaving a vacuous stare where consciousness once stirred. We linger amidst trees that once stood straight but now splinter off several feet above the ground. Others are broken at the base, while some are entirely uprooted by heavy snow. A hundred-yard swath of trees is mowed over. After inspecting the dead deer, we see another one. Like a flashlight beam, our attention goes to another deer — then another and another. Dozens of carcasses lay scattered under broken trees. Even with senses more alert than our own, the deer couldn’t escape an avalanche of this magnitude.
“Why are we carrying deer legs as bait? There is an all-you-can-eat buffet right here.” Mike chuckles. Who knows what else could be buried here — elk, moose, mountain goats or even wolverines. Scavengers will be eating this eviscerated smorgasbord for weeks.
Wolves, coyotes, foxes and birds have all scavenged here, and even the wily wolverine could be on the shadowed periphery. Mountain lions also investigated the mayhem. Scavengers devour the organs first and, over time, will return to eat the surplus. Hiking beyond the destruction of slain trees and bludgeoned deer, we come over a deposited wall of snow two stories high and studded with debris.
The avalanche volleyed off the sawtooth mountain above, plowing over trees like a derailed train, clubbing dozens of unlucky herbivores. Trudging over a wall of snow, I spot movement; figures flee. Five grayish-tan wolves and one black wolf scurry into standing conifers. The animals are content with full bellies.
Judging by the size of trees plowed over, this chute hasn’t released a big avalanche in decades. This winter was strange, with snow in the alpine coming early, followed by freezing rain and sub-zero temperatures, and again more snow. The typical January thaw caused a heavy snow melt, which then froze and created hoarfrost. More snow layers loaded on those weak layers, releasing the mountain’s white freight train, creating a killing field.
After investigating, we hike back silently, overwhelmed by the death and destruction. The two of us harbor unsettled emotions and thoughts.
We wonder whether or not a wolverine or a family group has feasted here? Though we came into this drainage to set up bait stations, the avalanche and all this death still leave us wanting the certainty of a sighting. If only we had more time to set up cameras and audio equipment behind blinds near the destruction. The wolverine, the phantom of the forest, is bound to show. Timing is everything. Perhaps they already came out of the darkness and fought for what could be theirs among the carnage while manifesting their bravado. Knowing they’re here, loping and rambling over the hills and through the valleys, leaves me filled with wildness.
That night we raise whisky glasses to life and death and everything that comes in between, and to the phantom of the Rockies — the fearless wolverine. Long may you roam.
Co-Directed by Colin Arisman (@colin_arisman) and Tyler Wilkinson-Ray (@tylerwilkinsonray)
To watch Finding Gulo visit the website: CascadesWolverineProject.org/film/
Fire & Fear on the Middle Fork