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At Least One Wolverine Hangs On In Sierra Nevada

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Wolverine in a zoo in Washington State | Photo: Bethany Weeks/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Well, here's some good news for wildlife lovers: officials report there've been more than two dozen wolverine sightings in the Tahoe Sierra since 2008.

The sightings are suspected to involve a single wolverine who was first seen in March 2008, when it became the first wild wolverine confirmed in California since 1922. But that's just a suspicion, and biologists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) have their fingers crossed that the snowy slopes north of Lake Tahoe may in fact be home to more than one of the fearsome weasels.

"Based on our history it's most likely going to be the same individual, but our hope is it's not," CDFW biologist Chris Stermer told the Associated Press. "Our hope is we have a pair here so they can mate ... We're hoping that one animal turns into a population."

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Stermer says that CDFW has considered reintroducing the reclusive predators to California, as they tend to avoid both people and livestock and thus pose little of the controversy that other predators such as wolves can engender.

Wiped out from much of their North American range by trapping and poisoning in the 20th Century, wolverines (species Gulo gulo) have made somewhat of a comeback in places like the Northern Rockies, but the dog-sized animals have been slower to repopulate other parts of their former habitat. DNA samples retrieved from the wolverine spotted in the Tahoe area in March 2008 suggest that the animal is related to wolverines in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, but biologists can't tell whether it got to Tahoe on its own or with human help.

Wolverine sightings obtained since then from camera traps and other means suggest the animal has claimed about 300 square miles of territory in the rugged landscape between Interstate 80 and State Route 49 south of the Sierra Buttes.

The March 2008 wolverine is male, and in fine health according to Stermer. Though it's irrelevant if a female wolverine isn't around, the Tahoe National Forest north of Truckee offers a lot of the winter breeding habitat necessary to sustain populations of the species, with deep snows that persist most years well into May.

The wolverine's dependence on those deep and persistent snows has become news in the last year, as upper echelones of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered agency staff to abandon plans to protect the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act. That directive was based on the contention that we don't know for certain whether global warming will reduce snowpack.

Given that California's snowpack has been significantly smaller of late than in years past, those female wolverines might want to hurry up and get here while the Tahoe Sierra is still suitable for wolverine romance. That bit of gloom aside, it's nice to know that at least one big, very wild animal is finding enough room in the Sierra to go about its business without us bothering it.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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