LONG BEACH PENINSULA — One of the Pacific Northwest’s most secretive and seldom-seen animals escaped to the beach during the Memorial Day weekend.
A wolverine was photographed in south Pacific County last week at two locations 40 miles apart. Only about 300 inhabit the lower 48 states, with fewer than 50 in Washington. The bear-like members of the weasel family are legendary fighters with what a state biologist calls a “tough as nails” attitude.
To catch even a glimpse of one is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“On the spectrum of enigmatic beasts, it’s only slightly less mysterious than a Sasquatch,” the Oregon Zoo said in a 2012 article.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed the authenticity of two photos of what is thought to be a young female wolverine — one that made its way between the Naselle hills and the Pacific Ocean south of Leadbetter Point in just three days.
‘Aren’t you different’The first sighting was at about 12:15 p.m. May 20, in Naselle. Jacob Eaton, 19, took several photos of the creature running along a logging road.
The second sighting was at about 4:45 p.m. Saturday, May 23 north of Surfside on the Long Beach Peninsula. Jennifer Henry, 48, saw the animal while bicycling from her Surfside home to Leadbetter Point.
It was feeding on the carcass of a dead marine mammal where she’d seen turkey vultures feasting earlier.
“I get up to it, and I was like, ‘Oh, there is something moving over there,’ and all of a sudden this head pops up and I was like, ‘Oh, hi there, aren’t you different,’ ” Henry said. She snapped a photo of a furry critter.
Henry at first thought she saw a badger — a weasel family member common in Eastern Washington — but when she went home and showed the photos to her husband, he identified it as a wolverine. So she reported the sighting the next day to a WDFW officer on the beach.
“I asked, ‘Is it common to see wolverines here on the peninsula?’ and he was like, ‘You didn’t see a wolverine,’ “ Henry said.
She showed him the picture to prove it.
Traveling far and wideFemale wolverine weigh about 18 to 27 pounds; males weigh 26 to 44 pounds. They are stocky with short, rounded ears, small eyes, a bushy tail, and large feet useful for traveling through snow.
Their fur is dark brown, with tawny bands that run down both sides of its body to its tail. They’ve been described as looking something like a cross between a dog, a bear and a skunk.
Jeff Lewis — a conservation biologist at WDFW who studies small carnivores such as wolverines — confirmed the animals Eaton and Henry saw were wolverines. It likely was a female and likely the same animal, Lewis said, reporting that wolverines can travel enormous distances in a short time.
Eaton said he was driving with a buddy near Salmon Creek in Naselle. He wasn’t sure what it was at first and just started taking pictures.
“It wasn’t too happy, though. It turned around and started showing its teeth and stuff,” Eaton said.
Washington’s wolverine population is largely restricted to the North Cascades, according to the WDFW. They have also been documented near Chinook Pass, Goat Rocks and Mount Adams in Washington’s South Cascades, and in the Selkirk Mountains of Northeast Washington, according to Conservation Northwest.
Charting their travels It is rare to see a wolverine, especially somewhere other than high-altitude, cold mountain areas, Lewis said. It’s hard to even get an accurate estimate of how many are living in Washington, because they are so elusive. However, confirmed sightings are becoming more common because so many people are now walking around with smartphone cameras, Lewis said.
Still, capturing two photos of the animal is really exciting, he said.
“This is one of those examples where we are actually able to document one of these long movements of wolverines away from their typical habitat,” Lewis said.
Wolverines making these kinds of journeys can explain how wolverines can recolonize areas they’ve long been vacant from — such as in California and Colorado — where wolverines are now reestablishing a presence, Lewis said.
He is hopeful the department might get a DNA sample of the one exploring the peninsula. That would help biologists understand if it came from the Cascades or somewhere farther away.
Perhaps never abundant, wolverines disappeared from much of their former range by the early 1900s, and face new threats from climate change and ongoing loss of habitat, the wildlife advocates argue. On March 18, Earthjustice sued the U.S. Department of the Interior to force the federal government to protect them under the Endangered Species Act.
“The wolverine is an icon of our remaining wilderness,” Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso said in a press release. “We are taking action to ensure that the wolverine gets a fighting chance for survival.”
Climate change impacts
WDFW and the Woodland Park Zoo monitor wolverine distribution in the Cascades to evaluate the population’s response to climate change as part of the Washington Wolverine Project.
One of the wolverine’s cooler characteristics is the possibility they deliberately refrigerate meat by burying it in the snow, Lewis said. They can kill something in the summer and keep it buried to retrieve when game is scarce.
“They are really good at exploiting the patchy food that is available to them in the wintertime,” he said. Other scientists consider ample high-elevation snowpack — something at risk as precipitation patterns change in our warming region — vital for protecting wolverine young from predators.