Extremely rare wolverine spotted in California mountains

Extremely rare wolverine spotted in California mountains
An image from a camera on private timber land capture what appeared to scientists to be a happy, healthy wolverine.

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A year after becoming the first documented member of its species spotted in the Sierra Nevada since the 1920s, a wolverine has been caught on research cameras again — only 15 miles away.

Pictures showing the wolverine in apparent good health have revived talk that the predator known for its ferocity could be reintroduced in California.

On the Net:

The Wolverine Foundation: http://www.wolverinefoundation.org

California Department of Fish and Game: http://www.dfg.ca.gov

U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station: http://www.fs.fed.us/rmrs

Sierra Pacific Industries: http://www.spi-ind.com

The wolverine has been sighted in recent weeks on private timber land north of Truckee, Calif., in the northern part of the mountain range, said Richard Callas, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game.

The wolverine's discovery on nearby national forest land a year ago surprised scientists, who feared the elusive animal was driven out of the Sierra long ago by human activity.

Scientists confirmed it was the same animal through DNA from hair samples collected at camera stations used for wildlife surveys on Sierra Pacific Industries land.

"Although we had hopes this wolverine might be a different individual, indicating more than one might exist in California, it is encouraging to discover that it has survived for at least a year in the wild," Callas said.

Scientists are unsure whether the wolverine remained in the area or returned to the area after making a long trek away. Wolverines can range over areas as large as 750 square miles.

Researchers also are still unsure of its origins. They think it could either be an immigrant from Idaho, 600 miles away, or a captive wolverine that had been released into the wild.

It appears the male wolverine can survive in the area for an extended period of time, said Jeffrey Copeland, wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont.

"The photos show it to be a big, fat, healthy animal," Copeland said. "It doesn't seem to be in any distress. He's made it a year and he's finding food."

While the California fish and game agency has no plans to reintroduce wolverines to the state, it could again discuss the concept, Callas said.

"There would be many factors to consider prior to reintroducing wolverine, including the presence of suitable habitat, competition with other species, disease and the source population," he said.

The wolverine would do well in California because of its ample habitat, said Copeland, also a founding director of the Wolverine Foundation based in Kuna, Idaho.

"If you were going to reintroduce them to some state, California would probably be as good as any," he said. "I'm sure there's ample food sources for them."

Copeland estimates there are only 250 to 300 wolverines in the lower 48 states, with most in the northern Rockies.

Past attempts by conservation groups to have the animal listed as an endangered species have failed. The Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management classify the wolverine as a sensitive species.

California's wolverine was found by accident. A graduate student at Oregon State University, Katie Moriarty, got a picture of it during a research project aimed at martens, another member of the weasel family.

DNA has linked the wolverine to a group in the Rocky Mountains, not a genetically distinct group in California.

If the wolverine wandered from Idaho, Copeland said, it probably was looking for a female as a mate.

"If it came from Idaho, it would be unusual for the wolverine to stay in the area because there's no reason to believe other wolverines are there," Copeland said. "The longer it stays there alone, the more I think it's a captive animal that was released or escaped."

It's uncertain whether the wolverine will remain in the area, Callas said.

"If it does leave the area, it may be detected" by camera stations being used throughout the Sierra to study carnivores, he said.

The wolverine has been spotted numerous times on the timber land since January and as recently as last week, Callas added.

"Our biologist says he has a tremendous prey base because of the varying age of the timber," Mark Pawlicki, spokesman for Sierra Pacific Industries, told Truckee's Sierra Sun newspaper.

(Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.)