ENTERPRISE — A track found in the northwest corner of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is the latest evidence biologists have of wolverines in Oregon.
Audrey Magoun, who is starting her third winter researching wolverines in the Wallowa Mountains, said she doesn't know whether it is any of the three she has seen on game cameras, but because they travel such great distances, it's a possibility it could even be Stormy, the animal that she has seen the most.
Stormy has been photographed frequently on cameras Magoun set up in the Eagle Cap Wilderness the past two winters. The first year, three different animals were photographed at bait stations she has set up to lure wolverines.
"Everyone, including me, was surprised to find three," said Magoun.
Last winter, only Stormy was seen in the photos. Of the 26 bait stations, Stormy visited 10 of them, Magoun said.
Researching the small predator-scavenger for nearly 35 years, Magoun said they can be very difficult to find.
"It's pretty unusual to see one; usually you only get a glimpse," said Magoun.
Most of her research has been in Alaska, but she is familiar with wolverine activity throughout the West. Enthralled with Wallowa County, she and her husband, Pat, have set up shop, at least for part of the year, in northeast Oregon.
"The Wallowas are perfect wolverine habitat, but we didn't think there were any residents," said Magoun.
Though Stormy has been captured on camera many times over the last two years, that doesn't necessarily mean he's calling Wallowa County home. That would require a female.
Wolverines are in the same family as weasels, martins and fishers, said Magoun, but have such vast territory their numbers don't ever get to be large in any one region. Territories depend on sex and age. Resident females have the smallest territory of 100 to 400 square kilometers, and a resident male can have a range up to 1,000 square kilometers.
Immature wolverines, on the other hand, can travel thousands of miles. A collared wolverine from Montana was tracked in several states, while another tagged in Wyoming went all the way to southwestern Colorado before heading to Rocky Mountain National Park, home of several 14,000-foot peaks — prime wolverine country.
This summer, Magoun expanded her territory by installing cameras in the very high country of the Wallowas, but the cameras didn't capture any wolverines, not even Stormy.
Wolverines, especially breeding females, like the high country where they can cache meat under boulders that stay cool or in snow fields that remain most or all of the year.
Snow is also helpful to denning mothers because it acts as an insulator for her young family. Kits are born in February, but are extremely vulnerable until their eyes open at five weeks. They nurse until early summer, and by fall they are agile hunters targeting small game such as mice and squirrels.
Magoun said males disperse at around 8 months to a year old, but female young often stay in the same territory as their mothers until they are 2 or 3 years old. If the mother dies during that time, a daughter may take over her range.
Another advantage of cold, snowy, steep country is that wolverines love dining on carrion such as mountain goats killed in avalanches. Though wolverines typically feed on small mammals and large dead ones, under the right conditions they can take down caribou and moose.
Tracking an animal's movement is important in any wildlife research. Magoun uses bait stations with cameras aimed at them to look for wolverines. She aligns them so that if a wolverine decides to crawl up and feast on the bait, the camera will capture its distinct markings and genitalia, and if it's a female it will determine whether it's lactating.
"I devised this other method as opposed to catching, drugging and collaring, because it's tricky to hang a collar on them because their neck and head are the same size, and to get the collar off, you have to recapture."
Whether Stormy is still around is yet to be determined. He may be setting up a territory and waiting for a female to wander through, said Magoun.
She said wolverines were wiped out in the lower 48 states in the first half of the 1900s and are slowly coming back, reoccupying former range.
"Stormy may be the vanguard of an increasing population. If this is just the start of the reoccupation, we need to keep an eye on it," said Magoun.
Mark Penninger, wildlife biologist for the Wallowa-Whitman, will be checking game cameras on the other side of the Wallowas this year with funding from the Forest Service. The research is supported also by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wolverine Foundation. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has provided logistical support from snowmobiles to storage space in the Enterprise District office's freezer.
As the funding and interest continues, so will the research. Magoun said, "We're going to keep it going for an unknown number of years."