A fuzzy photo snapped in the dead of night last summer has solved a mystery that’s had Utah wildlife biologists scratching their heads for decades. The snapshot, taken in a remote area of the Uinta Mountains east of Park City, revealed an adult wolverine.
The extremely secretive animal was lured to a road-killed deer, set as bait by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and US Forest Service. A tree-mounted, motion-sensitive camera captured the dramatic moment.
The news stunned skeptical wildlife biologists. Despite persistent anecdotal reports and sightings over the years, the last confirmed evidence of a live wolverine in Utah occurred almost half a century ago.
Wolverines represent the largest member of the North American mustelid family of mammals, which includes otters, weasels, badgers, and ferrets. An adult male can weigh up to 70 pounds. Looking more like small black bears, these fearless carnivores have a well-earned reputation for strength and ferocity, often taking down prey much larger than they. Wolverines wander widely, mostly at night, with home ranges up to 1,000 square miles.
Wolverines are found throughout northern boreal forests in Alaska, Canada, and, until about 50 years ago, the lower 48 states. Biologists estimate only 250 to 300 remain in the contiguous US, largely due to trapping and loss of habitat. In Utah, the glacially carved, subalpine Uintas offer the best potential home to wolverines.
In 2013, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed federal protection for wolverines under the Endangered Species Act, a move that likely precipitated the DWR’s photo trap last summer. But then in August—soon after the Uinta Mountains sighting—the agency abruptly changed course and denied the wolverines protection status, citing healthy populations far to the north of here in Alaska.
But don’t form that wolverine-hunting posse just yet. Last October, a group of conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service for disregarding evidence that a warming climate is eliminating denning areas for the wolverine. Also, there is currently no open harvest season for wolverines in Utah.
The Utah DWR plans to return to the Uintas this winter, setting a camera trap this time on the north side of this east-west–running mountain chain where reports since last summer’s camera sighting suggest a mating pair of wolverines may live. Good news for this resilient carnivore, which after a long hiatus is once again part of Utah’s diverse wildlife picture.