The chestnut brown bundle of fur dives with an energetic blast into new fallen snow.
With acrobatic twists and turns, the wolverine plunges face-first into a drift, then pops up again with what looks like a smile on her face.
As she rolls, powder clings to the edges of her fur, which looks a bit like it was made from a bearskin rug. With wide paws that act like snowshoes, she has no trouble maneuvering as she frolics in her snow bath.
Camera flashes mounted to nearby trees pop every few seconds. She doesn’t seem to care, aside from a few sideways glances. Instead, she’s more interested in the stinky deer head hanging on a wire, just out of reach.
It’s wise to use caution when applying human thoughts and emotions to an animal, but in the case of this wolverine, it’s hard not to think of words like “joyful,” “playful,” “exuberant” and even “mischievous” when you watch her.
This particular animal is named Stella, and she’s been known to wildlife officials in the North Cascades for the past five years. They know who she is because, like all wolverines, she has a unique pattern on her chest that reveals her identity whenever she leaps in front of the cameras.
It is a fleeting but entertaining glimpse at one of the rarest, least recognized and least understood mammals in our region.
But for Stephanie Williams, founder of the Cascades Wolverine Project, these photos and video clips are far more than a fun look at an exotic Northwest species. They are a huge payoff for months of work, and a critical part of wolverine recovery in our region.
A challenging subject
The wolverine is a hard creature to study. They range for hundreds of miles across the most remote and technical terrain in the Northwest, making them difficult to locate. Add in the fact that they are exceptionally clever and good at avoiding live traps, and it makes them a species that has been overlooked in much of the scientific world.
Trying to answer basic questions such as, “How many wolverines are there?” and “Where do they exist?” is partly what led Williams to found her nonprofit.
Drawing from a degree in biology and a background in mountain guiding, she and her team snowmobile and then backcountry ski into the Cascade mountains to manage remote motion-triggered camera stations in hope of learning more about the animal.
Wolverines are slowly returning to the Northwest, but researchers are not totally sure where they’re coming from, Williams says.
By collecting genetic information (using methods such as hair snags), the group is trying to determine if they are coming from the Rockies or from British Columbia, she explains. Knowing the corridors wolverines traverse will help with efforts to ensure their long-term survival.
Another crucial element that scientists know little about is their denning habits. In the Cascades, scientists have only located three dens over the years, and wolverines don’t use the same den twice, making it especially hard to find them.
“We know that they only den in places where snow persists into May, which is the limiting factor in wolverine recovery,” says Williams. “But beyond that, what are the critical terrain features? What about snow depth? Do they use woody debris or boulders to build a den?”
Knowing where they raise their young can help scientists know what areas to protect, and when and where to limit outdoor recreation during important periods in their lives.
Wolverines in Washington
The largest members of the weasel family, weighing up to 35 pounds, wolverines exhibit traits common in mustelids: lightning-fast reflexes, seemingly boundless energy, liquid speed, curiosity and intelligence.
Think of them as nature’s all-terrain snow machine — a creature that doesn’t just enjoy a romp in the snow, but actually needs snow to raise its babies in the tunnels and caves beneath the snowpack.
With a delicate sense of smell, they scavenge animal carcasses and small mammals in the most remote, deep, rugged glacial terrain.
“They’re the spirit animal of the backcountry,” says Williams.
By the early 1900s, the Northwest wolverine population had been decimated due to over-trapping and a misguided predator eradication program. The Cascade bloodline and its genetic diversity were extinguished. And for decades, wolverines weren’t seen in our mountains.
Reestablishment began in the late 1960s to early 1970s, when animals moved down from Canada along a chain of mountains.
Mount Rainier is now on the southern edge of their range as they fill in their former territory. A denning female with kits was recently spotted south of I-90 for the first time in 75 years, and there’s now an estimated 30–50 wolverines living in Washington.
But good habitat is a rare find. While animals can easily travel across eye-popping terrain, they need deep, persistent snow to reproduce.
On a map, that looks like small slivers of land — peninsular extensions of the snowy regions up north that act as ever-shrinking islands in the face of climate change.
But our area could be a citadel for wolverine recovery in the long term, Williams says.
“The Northwest has more glacial mass than any other place in the lower 48,” she says. “The ocean acts as a climate buffer to extremes in temperature, and there’s also ample snow. We have a lot of designated intact wilderness areas in the Cascades with consistent deep snowpack.”
Conditions are changing here; we are losing glaciers. But it’s even worse in the Rockies, Williams says.
What you can do
It’s easy to gain an appreciation for wolverines if you love the mountains. Backcountry skiers, mountaineers and climbers all spend time in the same environment as the animals. Seeing a set of tracks heading straight over a mountain or watching an animal bound across a snowfield is stirring.
“The people most likely to encounter wolverines are the backcountry skiers who get deep and high and far, or the mountain climbers in the summertime,” says Williams.
The outdoor community that shares the wolverine’s habitat has a vital role to play in its recovery. By reporting wolverine encounters on the project’s website, citizen scientists can add a lot of important data, Williams says.
If you spend time in the mountains, here is what you can do:
Learn to recognize the tracks: Wolverines have five toes and leave a paw print about the size of a human hand.
Take photos with something for scale: Use a ski pole or glove to help measure the size of the track and the track pattern.
Get GPS coordinates: Pin the exact location if you can.
Tell the story of what you see: What direction was the animal moving? What did it do when you saw it? Did it go into a hole?
Recognize a den: This is an important puzzle piece because not much is known about den sites. Between February and May, if you discover a hole in the snow about the size of basketball with tracks going in and out, it is probably a sensitive area. Don’t disturb it, but do take lots of photos.
More about the Cascades Wolverine Project
The Cascade Wolverines Project is a grassroots nonprofit organization documenting the lives of Northwest wolverines. The group operates 10 remote camera stations in four locations during the winter months using a combination of DSLR and off-the-shelf trail cameras.
It receives financial support from Patagonia, Conservation Northwest and private donations. Information collected and observations reported by citizens are shared with the scientific community.
“At the global level we are extinguishing species at a rate higher than any time in human history. It’s a mass extinction,” says founder Stephanie Williams. “It’s an ethical question. Paying attention to any animal and caring about their survival over time — that’s a response to what’s happening to global biodiversity. Wolverines are an indicator species for a healthy Cascade Mountains.”
To learn more and get involved, visit cascadeswolverineproject.org.