Normally, the presence of this elusive predator would go unnoticed. But last spring, at this wild spot in the Northern Rockies, where the Absaroka and Owl Creek Mountains meet, a camera caught the whole affair.
The vast reservation is home to big horn sheep, moose, and wintering elk, besides a host of other creatures large and small. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, on a mission to determine if wolverines also live there, placed a deer carcass in a tree as bait, which, as it turned out, worked wonders.
Wolverines will scavenge on such carrion, but also eat plants and berries, and hunt small prey like rabbits and rodents. They have been known to go after larger animals, even the size of caribou, especially if they’re weak or injured.
After tearing into the deer, the wolverine descends to investigate the camera, which it sniffs and snuffles. Then, with a seeming air of confidence, rotates it ever so slightly to the right.
“It’s hard not to anthropomorphize,” says acting project lead and USFWS biologist Pat Hnilicka, who says the animal was likely a breeding-age male. “As a biologist, you try not to do that. But when you watch the video of him adjusting the camera, it’s like ‘holy cow’ what is this guy doing?’ It was so striking."
The moment caught on video is “as unique and rare” as the wolverine itself, says Hnilicka. It’s the first time a wolverine has been captured on camera on the reservation. And such moments aren’t exactly common anywhere in the continental U.S., where there are only about 300 wolverines left, according to the most recent estimate. (The estimate includes a range, however, so the true number could be anwhere from 249 to 626 animals.)
It’s not an endangered species, but lives in very low densities in remote, desolate areas.
“Wolverines are like ghosts out there,” Hnilicka says. “To catch one on camera—even just a still photo, would have been very, very exciting. To capture that behavior on video was really spectacular.” (Related: These volunteers search for wolverines while running through the woods)
The sighting has inspired the addition of more cameras in support of the study, which is part of a larger, ongoing collaboration to help the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes manage the area’s fish and wildlife.
The same curiosity and drive that led the wolverine to investigate the camera likely also helps it survive its harsh environment, says National Geographic Explorer Gregg Treinish, who tracked wolverines across the northern Rockies and in Mongolia while working as a field biologist. He says, “it’s kind of like curiosity by necessity.”
Wolverines, also known as skunk bears, are the largest member of the Mustelidae family, which includes weasels and badgers. They’re known to be strong, tenacious and tough, live in a brutal environment and will do anything to get to food, says Treinish, founder of the conservation group Adventure Scientists.
“They are the consummate explorer. They’ll climb straight up an ice face, go over the top of a mountain in a storm or traverse any wild and rugged landscape in order to eat.”
“When it was investigating the camera,” he adds, “it was probably looking for a food source, using one of the evolutionary traits that it was gifted, which is curiosity.”
This wolverine was also gifted with a bit of stage presence. The final clip shows him returning to the carcass later in the day for another meal.
He tears through the deer’s frozen hide with ease then drops to the ground to eat. He makes a few trips back up and down with help from his impressive semi-retractile claws. After glancing up at the frozen feast one last time, he rolls like a snowball and exits stage left.
“Perhaps,” Hnilicka says, “he was just feeling good because he had a belly full of meat.”