Wolverines elude researchers

Video: Wallowa wolverine drawn in by bait

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin

The wolverine just may be the sasquatch of Central Oregon — rumored to be here, but no evidence to prove it.

A pair of wildlife researchers are three-quarters of the way done with a two-year project aimed at capturing a photo and snagging a fur sample from carnivores in the Cascades from the Three Sisters to Mount Jefferson. Their main targets are foxes, martens and wolverines.

Among the more than 62,000 photos collected by motion-triggered trail cameras so far they’ve seen foxes and martens, among more than a dozen meat-eating species of mammals, but still no wolverines. Their field season goes until May and Jamie McFadden-Hiller, a research assistant at Mississippi State University, said she hasn’t yet given up hope of finding wolverine evidence.

Even if the project doesn’t yield photo or fur from a wolverine, McFadden-Hiller said it wouldn’t rule out that wolverines are lurking in the high Cascades.

“Just because we haven’t detected one doesn’t mean they are not here,” she said.

The last known wolverine in Central Oregon was killed by a hunter near Broken Top in 1969. Each year there are about four or five reports of people seeing a wolverine in the Central Oregon Cascades, said Corey Heath, Deschutes district wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend. But no one has yet to turn in a photo, a tuft of fur or other evidence of the animal.

It’s hard to prove there are wolverines here without a photo, he said.

“And that is what (the researchers) are trying to get,” Heath said.

McFadden-Hiller and her husband, Tim Hiller, a research scientist at Mississippi State, set up 32 cameras for their first field season — which started in October 2012 and ended last May — and 25 cameras this season. With the help of volunteers they’ve checked the cameras regularly to see the resulting photos.

There are two types of camera stations: an elevated station and a ground station. Both stations have bait, often meat from road-kill deer, to bring in hungry carnivores. Last year they had more elevated stations than ground stations. This year it’s the reverse.

The researchers switched to focus on ground stations after finding evidence of a rare red fox. The foxes appear to be the Sierra Nevada red fox, which Hiller said is under review for federal endangered species act protection. They only visits ground stations, and the researchers wanted to collect more evidence of them this year. The wolverine will visit either type of station.

Audrey Magoun, a wolverine expert who used to study the elusive animal in Alaska, developed the design for the elevated station. About six years ago she moved to Flora in far northeast Oregon and went out in search of wolverine after seeing terrain where she thought they might be found. In the winter of 2011 she captured evidence of three male wolverines in the Wallowa Mountains, one of which appears to be a resident. She said in an email Thursday she keeps finding signs of one of the animals, including tracks last October. The other wolverines may have just been passing through the Wallowas.

If there are wolverines in the Central Oregon Cascades, they may also be on the move and have simply not come across one of the stations. The stations are set at high elevation, where snow is deep, and in terrain conducive to avalanches. Hiller said wolverines seem to like the disturbance caused by the slides.

Hiller used to work for ODFW and his wife was on contract with the state agency. They’ve continued their research despite starting their new posts at Mississippi State in August. They still live in the Salem area and plan to move to Mississippi in the summer, although they’ll continue research in the Northwest.

Oregon Wildlife, a Portland-based foundation aimed at preserving wildlife in the state, is helping fund the project. The foundation gave $10,000 each year to it, which also had $40,000 in federal funding the first year and $20,000 this year, said Tim Greseth, executive director of Oregon Wildlife. He said there is still a good portion of winter left, during which the researchers could find a wolverine.

“I do believe they are looking in the right place, if there were wolverines,' he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

Eyes in the mountains

Researchers have set up 25 bait stations equipped with digital field cameras around the Central Oregon Cascades in hope of capturing photos and video of foxes, martens and wolverines. They have yet to detect any wolverines, but have seen foxes and martens.

Elevated stations : 21 during the first season, 5 during the second

Ground stations : 11 during the first season, 20 during the second

Station elevation range: 2,240 to 7,340 feet during the first season, 3,480 to 6,523 feet during the second

Photos : More than 25,800 during the first season, more than 37,500 during the second

Total mammal species : 14 during the first season, 13 during the second

Source: Tim Hiller