Take Audrey Magoun, a 35-year veteran of field biological research, who made a discovery so unexpected she says, “I have to admit I literally skipped down the mountain trail coming home, saying, ‘Yahoo! Yahoo!’ all the way down.”
Magoun had just confirmed the first wolverine in recorded history in northeastern Oregon. “I was just exhilarated,” she said.
With the remote trail camera in hand, she headed home to look at the pictures on a large computer screen. There she got an even bigger surprise; the camera had snapped photos of not one but two male wolverines.
Later, another camera captured images of yet a third wolverine.
Magoun had found three wolverines in her first season of research since moving to Oregon, making discoveries that had eluded the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) for decades.
She knew what she was doing, having tracked wolverines in Alaska and Canada since 1978. In the early days researchers lured wolverines into traps, tranquilized them and then fitted them with radio collars to see where they went.
Modern technology has made that intensive, hands-on handling of wildlife virtually unnecessary. “You can find out a lot of things about wolverines just using cameras,” says Magoun. “It’s not quite as invasive.
She has carried cameras, supplies and roadkill deer in her backpack deep into the Eagle Cap Wilderness of Oregon’s Wallowa Mountain to set up 34 camera stations over a two-year span.
She hangs the deer as bait but the free food lured in more than just wolverines. Marten, bear, elk, flying squirrels, bobcat, cougar and a wolf have all come to the bait station and had their pictures taken. Magoun only learns of these sightings after she hikes back to each and every location to retrieve the memory cards.
Her cameras have spied wolverines from about 5,500 feet in elevation up to 7,000 feet. “They probably roam higher, but I can’t get up there in the winter because of the avalanche danger,” she said.
Magoun’s success has inspired other researchers to resume the hunt for wolverines and other carnivores in Oregon’s central Cascades range. ODFW teamed with Oregon Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service to place 20 cameras across three wilderness areas, but after a full season of waiting, no wolverines had visited any of the cameras retrieved in the summer of 2013.
Like Magoun’s cameras, however, the Cascade cameras saw a host of other wildlife including montane fox, flying squirrel, a bear and a rare high elevation sighting of a raccoon.
Says Oregon Wildlife’s Jamie McFadden-Hiller, “When we’re looking for a wolverine it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, but you don’t know if that needle exists.”
Her team hopes to get funding to continue the Cascades Carnivore Project into a second season.
Magoun extended her cameras for a second winter in the Wallowas. This time only one wolverine returned, one she nicknamed Stormy.
“He didn’t show up until January,” says Magoun. “So where he was all the time, I don’t know.”
DNA analysis of a hair sample from Stormy traces his roots to a known population of wolverines in Idaho. They have ranges of hundreds of miles and swim easily. Magoun says wolverines would have no trouble swimming the Snake River to visit Oregon.
She’s not sure where the other two wolverines went. But she intends to keep looking.
“For me, wolverines make wilderness — more than wolves, more than grizzly bears,” Magoun says.
“To me, if an area doesn’t have wolverines, I don’t feel like I’m in the northern wilderness. I feel like something’s missing.”
The US Fish & Wildlife Service is due to decide in 2014 whether to add wolverines to the endangered species list.
By Vince Patton for OPB, a NW News Exchange co-op member