MAZAMA, Wash. - The U.S. Forest Service has trapped the first wolverine ever captured and fitted with a radio collar in the Pacific Northwest. Biologists are hoping to learn more about the habits and range of the elusive creatures known for their ferocious nature.
"No one's ever studied them in the Pacific states before," said Keith Aubry, who's heading the pilot study through the Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station.
Biologists caught their first one just over a week ago in a subalpine forest northwest of Mazama in north-central Washington. It was a 19-pound female, who measured nearly 3 feet from her nose to the tip of her 7-inch tail. She looked much like a small bear cub, only with long ivory-colored claws.
They named her Melanie, after wolverine expert Jeff Copeland's granddaughter, because he missed the child's birthday party to lend his expertise to the wolverine expedition.
While she was tranquilized, biologists weighed Melanie and punched in an ear-tag, keeping part of the skin for a DNA sample. They fitted her with a radio collar that will emit a signal so she can be tracked through July 2007. They'll find out how far she travels and what elevation she covers.
The biologists were particularly excited to catch a young female. That means she's probably part of a resident family, and not just wandering through, they said. They're hoping to catch two more wolverines this winter.
John Rohrer, a Forest Service biologist at the Winthrop Ranger Station, and Winthrop's state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin, built three traps all together, all in the high elevations above the Methow Valley, and opened their lids in mid-January.
The largest land-based member of the weasel family, wolverines sport a thick, brown coat with a light stripe down their backs. Some Native American tribes used to call them "skunk bear."
A candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, wolverines have already disappeared from parts of their historical range, which once dipped down to the Sierra Nevadas in California, Aubry said.
Some thought they also had died out in the North Cascades during the 1960s, '70s and '80s, but they either recolonized this region, spreading down from British Columbia, or became more populous, Aubry said.
There have been several confirmed sightings over the past 10 years in the mountains above the Methow Valley, in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and in other areas above Leavenworth, Aubry said.
The first year of the study will cost about $50,000, Aubry said. Half of the money will come from a Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management program for sensitive species. The rest will come from other state and federal sources.