Seeking wolverines in Central Ore.

20 cameras in wilderness areas in the Cascades, but so far no wolverines

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

The combination of ready-to-eat deer meat and motion-activated cameras has lured any number of interesting animals into view in the Central Oregon Cascades, as researchers trying to find a wolverine there had hoped. It just hasn’t yet attracted a wolverine.

Checks of 19 out of the 20 cameras spread around the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson and Mount Washington wilderness areas have produced more than 5,000 photos, including snapshots of a variety of animals, according to an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife progress report on the study. They range from flying squirrels to martens to bears — but no wolverines. The reclusive carnivore hasn’t been seen here for more than 40 years.

The study by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife aims to discover whether wolverines live in the mountains near Bend and Sisters. Halfway through the first of two planned field seasons, researchers aren’t discouraged that they haven’t found a wolverine, said Tim Hiller, ODFW carnivore-furbearer program coordinator in Salem.

“If there is one, I’m pretty confident we’ll find it,” he said.

Hiller and his wife, Jamie McFadden, who works for the Portland-based Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation, are leading the study in the Cascades. The foundation has funded wildlife projects in the state since 1981, according to its website.

Wolverines were thought to be gone from Oregon until just a couple of years ago. Having studied wolverines in Alaska, Audrey Magoun, a wildlife biologist and expert on the animal, was convinced there must be wolverines in the Wallowa Mountains in the state’s northeast corner.

She and her husband bought a house near the mountains, in Flora, about five years ago and spent part of the year there and part in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Wallowas looked just like where she’d found wolverines in Alaska.

So she set out to find them. Using deer meat as bait she planned to lure wolverines onto a platform where their movement triggered a camera and clips plucked tufts of their fur for later DNA analysis. In a study for the Wolverine Foundation, an international nonprofit advocating for the animal, Magoun set up 16 stations around the Wallowas.

She found them in 2011, three wolverines in all.

Hiller and McFadden are using the same setup, built around a 15- to 20-pound hunk of road-killed deer meat, in their Central Oregon Cascades study. The last wolverine known to be in Central Oregon was killed by a hunter in 1969 near Broken Top.

The camera stations are in high country, from 3,326 feet to 7,340 feet, in wilderness areas away from where people typically roam. This snowy, rugged terrain is where Hiller said a wolverine would likely be living.

The photos so far show there are many martens in the Central Oregon Cascades — they’ve been photographed at 15 of the stations so far — and there are likely montane red foxes here, a rare species of mountain-dwelling fox. Hiller said he plans to soon put out a half-dozen extra camera stations with a different design, lower to the ground, to collect fox fur. Next field season as many as 18 fox stations may be erected, along with the 20 for wolverines.

The first field season started in October and ends in May, according to the report. The next field season will go from October 2013 to May 2014.

The study is costing $100,000 for the first field season and will likely cost about $75,000 for the second, supporters of the project have said. The ODFW, Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Wolverine Foundation and the Oregon Zoo are among the funding contributors for the project.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in early February that it’s considering listing wolverines as threatened throughout the Lower 48 states. Hiller said if the agency does list the wolverine, he would only have to apply for a new permit to go with those he already has for the fieldwork.

Although the camera stations in the Central Oregon Cascades have so far captured no wolverine images, Hiller and McFadden shouldn’t give up hope, Magoun advised. She’s maintained stations in the Wallowas in the field seasons since her big find to see where the wolverines frequent. She said she doesn’t usually capture photos of the animals until spring, when young males are looking for new territory.

“Last year I had cameras up for three months before I got the wolverine on them,” she said.

Where they’re watching for wolverines

Researchers with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have set up 20 bait-and-camera stations around wilderness areas in the Central Oregon Cascades, with the hope of capturing an image of a wolverine. The cameras have been up since October and have made more than 5,000 images, but none of the wolverine. The map shows the location of the 20 cameras.

Source: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Andy Zeigert / The Bulletin

What’s taking the bait instead

From last October to February, cameras captured images of a menagerie of animals — but no wolverines as of yet. Of the 20 bait-and-camera stations, researchers have checked 19, and these species have been detected at the following number of sites:

American marten 15

Birds 9

Northern flying squirrel 3

Black bear 2

Bobcat 2

Red fox 1

Coyote 1