SALT LAKE CITY — A fleeting, five-minute visit in a remote area of the Uinta Mountains yielded 27 images of an animal not spotted in Utah for more than 30 years — the elusive wolverine.
The unexpected visual treat was captured in February but not revealed until later this spring when four trail cameras were retrieved by state and federal wildlife biologists. Then in April, cameras in Evanston, Wyoming, caught images of a wolverine that wildlife officials are not certain is the same animal.
Biologists set up the camera stations to capture photographs of typically elusive, forest-dwelling carnivores.
Kim Hersey, mammals conservation coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the second station produced the array of images — the first wolverine verified in Utah since a wolverine carcass was found in 1979.
"This is the first strong documented evidence of a wolverine in the state since the late '70s. They are a very rare animal," Hersey said. "This could potentially be an expansion of their range."
Biologists baited the second station with deer that had been killed by cars, she said. A fox ultimately raided the deer carcass, but the smell left behind was apparently enough to attract a wolverine to the area.
Adam Brewerton, regional sensitive species biologist with the wildlife division, said biologists hope to compare images from the Utah and Wyoming cameras to determine whether the animal was the same one.
“If it is, we can determine a time frame when the animal or animals may have been in the area," Brewerton said. "We can also determine if the wolverine was wandering through the area or if it’s a resident animal that’s making its home here.”
Even though wolverines were historically found in the high mountain areas of Utah, Hersey said, they were probably rare. In recent years, biologists have received reports of sightings and tracks in the Bear River and the Uinta Mountains.
“We don’t know if the animal or animals that left the tracks are residents or are just passing through,” she said.
Hersey said wolverines are known for their ability to travel huge distances.
“They’ll occupy territories as large as 350 square miles,” she said. “In 2009, a young male wolverine was documented traveling over 500 miles from Grand Teton National Park to Colorado.”
Wolverines have never been common, and unregulated trapping and predator control decimated their populations in the continental United States in the early 20th century.
Continued threats include habitat loss and reductions in late spring snowpack, with estimates that put the wolverine population about 300 individuals in the North Cascades in Washington and in the Northern Rocky Mountains of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Facing a court order, the federal government in 2013 proposed to list the wolverine as threatened and put out a call for scientific and public input. A decision to list or to withdraw its proposed action is due in early August.
Despite their fierce countenance — complete with long, curved claws and powerful jaws — wolverines are not aggressive around people, Hersey said.
"They are really, really elusive. If you see one, count yourself lucky. They are not going to come after you at all," she said.
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