Photo by David Moskowitz, Cascades Wolverine Project

Searching for Phantoms: Wolverines in the North Cascades

 Inhospitable. 

That’s it, in a word. Inhospitable. The word for today—and for this landscape.

The three of us were working our way across the terrain of the North Cascades, ostensibly out here recreating but more accurately, persevering.

Here in the shadows of the White Salmon Basin, the sun will not crest the north face of Mt. Shuksan for some hours yet, and the cold is a force to be reckoned with.

A stiff gale had been at work on the snow for the previous couple of days, leaving our skis skittering across the wind-hammered surface and necessitating the use of ski crampons. The landscape does not welcome us today, far from it. It taunts us.

Even so, we ascend through a river valley of devil’s club and slide alder to tree line, ski tips pointed toward the pendulous ice of the Hanging Glacier, when our solemn trance is broken. Alerted to our presence, an animal begins to heave itself across the snow a few hundred feet away, splitting the rise above us with a muscular lope. It is a shaggy charcoal image drawn against a sheet of white, like a small bear with a long nose and a bushy tail, breathy exhalations escaping through the wind.

Struck dumb and motionless, our eyes can only track it. There isn’t even time to gesture or speak, only a split second for the neurons to fire a name: Wolverine. 

An actual wolverine.

It pauses briefly for a quick glance back to see if we’re giving chase, then disappears beyond the Krummholz-bristled threshold at the far margin of the valley as if it had never been there at all.

A North Cascades wolverine visiting a research station set up by Cascades Wolverine Project on the east slope of the North Cascades. Photo by David Moskowitz, Cascades Wolverine Project.

 

I noted every feature I could remember; the time, the direction we faced, our rough coordinates. I don’t know much about wolverines, I thought to myself, but I know enough to understand that seeing a wolverine in Washington State is very, very rare.

Surely, I figured, someone would want to know about this.

Some months prior and clear across the crest of the North Cascades, Dave Moskowitz labors in the predawn light under a jostling beam of a headlamp. He kills the engine on his snowmobile and glides to a halt, moving onto skis for the human-powered portion of his day. Slung over his shoulder is a cache bag of equipment, weighed down with camera gear, rigging, harnesses, a drill, and finally, the head of a roadkill deer, recently dispatched by automobile bumper or grill.  Wolverines demand only the finest.

My encounter with the wolverine (scientific name: Gulo Gulo, meaning “glutton”) might have been accidental, but Moskowitz has made it his job to make his interactions intentional. Here at the headwaters of the Methow River in early winter, the wildlife tracker and photographer is joined by field biologist and mountain guide Steph Williams to set up a wolverine camera trap. Together they operate the Cascade Wolverine Project (CWP), a Methow Valley-based nonprofit that aims to raise consciousness about wolverines through field monitoring, documentation, and community science. “This isn’t a species that is going to generate its own publicity by making itself known to the world,” Moskowitz says.

Basically, Moskowitz and Williams are here to speak for the phantom.

It’s Moskowitz’s mailbox that my message lands in a few days after my encounter. In addition to running their own camera trapping operations, CWP also solicits citizen reports of wolverine sightings, and after laying out the circumstances of my encounter, Moskowitz replies with exciting news: the wolverine we saw was no stranger to them. They had received multiple reports of tracks and potential sightings in the Baker/Shuksan area that winter and were looking into the potential of setting up another camera trap in the area to follow up.

Steph Williams and Drew Lovell setting up a winter wolverine detection station in the North Cascades. Photo by David Moskowitz

 

Since 2017, CWP has installed and maintained remote camera trapping stations across the North Cascades, logging multiple detections a season and documenting the slow resurgence of wolverines in the state. Each station is set deep in backcountry study areas and requires a full day’s work to assemble and install. Williams typically attends to the rigging and tree-climbing associated with hanging bait, while Moskowitz sets the stage and arranges an entire (eliminates redundancy of “a full”) backwoods photo shoot. A station might also include a hair snare (a belt studded with gun brushes affixed to a tree) with the hope of snagging a bit of genetic material in order to identify individual wolverines.

Make no mistake.  Seeing a wolverine in Washington is extremely rare. The creatures are the largest of the mustelid family, resembling small dogs in stature and sporting large skulls, incredible jaw strength with legendary reputations for an outsized ferocity, voraciousness, and most of all, elusiveness. Their distribution is circumboreal, living primarily in the harsh and isolated arctic, alpine, and boreal forests of the northern hemisphere, due in large part to their fundamental reliance on nearly year-round snow cover for denning.  Here in Washington, where year-round snow only lasts at the highest altitudes, suitable habitat is extremely limited.

In Washington State, with a human population of 7.8 million, it is believed that the wolverine population does not exceed 40 individuals eeking out a living at the tattered edge of the wilderness. And that’s just the best guess.

Years ago, Moskowitz remembers a meeting that he attended with a consortium of researchers doing wolverine-related research in Washington State. People from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service, as well as other like-minded groups that work in concert with CWP, such as Conservation Northwest and the Cascade Carnivore Project. Moskowitz realized that—despite their passion and dedication—the vast majority of these researchers had never actually seen a wolverine with their own eyes.

Rarely have so many worked so hard to save an animal of which they have never caught a glimpse. The uneasy truth may be that there are likely more people involved in the study of wolverines in Washington State than actual wolverines to study.

This shadowy existence may be the wolverine’s greatest asset, but it may also contribute to their struggle to regain historic habitat. Wolverines have long suffered from a drought of public understanding, largely related to their reputation for ferocity. In reality, wolverines are as much opportunists as savage hunters, often subsisting on carrion stolen from the kills of other predators such as wolves and lynx (although they are known to take down animals much larger than themselves).

As has happened so often, the human perception of wolverines overwhelmed reality, and these animals were subject to trapping and poisoning that nearly eliminated them from the lower 48 in the 1900s.

Today, their global distribution is a fraction of what it once was in both Europe and North America. Although they have reclaimed scant terrain in the North Cascades in recent years (a video of a wolverine and her kits near Mount Rainier National Park recently surfaced, suggesting that wolverines are pushing into the Southern Cascades (see ANW Autumn ’20), they face new challenges.

David Moskowitz. Photo by Sarah Rice

Wolverines are intrinsically tied to the landscape they inhabit. Since wolverine mothers dig their natal dens deep into a spring-resistant snowpack that must endure until May to raise their kits successfully, they are uniquely dependent on the extent of the snowpack. This reliance puts their survival on a collision course with a planet warming due to climate change.

Snow also acts as the wolverine’s deep freezer, preserving the large carrion they primarily scavenge. As the snow line continues to rise here in the North Cascades at the bitter edge of their foothold, their future is in peril.

Despite this threat, wolverines are not on the endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has considered extending this protection since the mid-90s but repeatedly has failed to do so, often citing a lack of data.

The conundrum: The wolverine’s remote habitat, small numbers, and reclusive behavior make gathering data extremely difficult.

“When we started, there were researchers who believed you couldn’t survey for wolverines on the ground in the North Cascades in the winter,” says Moskowitz. “But there are tons of people that go out into that terrain, so for us, it’s a matter of connecting that resource with the research needs.”

Moskowitz believes that instead of training wildlife biologists to navigate the challenges of winter travel in the North Cascades, a better approach is to train the backcountry skiers that are already in the mountains in the art of observing wolverines.

“All of a sudden, we have observers all over the landscape,” says Moskowitz. Through engaging the backcountry recreation community, CWP facilitates hundreds of potential community scientists, and in return has seen the submitted observations grow from 12 observations submitted the first season, to 26 the next, then over 90 after that. Not every observation is a confirmed wolverine, but good data is being produced, and it all adds to the body of knowledge needed to understand wolverines at a deeper level.

Photo by David Moskowitz, Cascades Wolverine Project

 

Deep in the backcountry of the high Cascades, an early snow falls, and a susurration fills the air as wet flakes accumulate. It’s dusk, and a male wolverine plods into a small clearing, nose to the ground. This wolverine’s home range is nearly 250 square miles, straddling the international boundary from E.C. Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia to the southern tip of North Cascades National Park. He has been following the scent of a kill for days. His route has seldom strayed from a more or less straight line, opting to ascend right over mountain tops along the way. Finally, he reaches his prize, a deer carcass half-buried in snow, and as he rapaciously enjoys a meal, the little tick of a shutter clicks in the dimming light.

Images produced like this are powerful tools in elevating the wolverine out of obscurity, and every observation carries the possibility of changing the direction of research. The same goes for the citizen science reports sent to CWP each season, which help dictate where to allocate resources for camera trapping and exploring new facets of wolverine life here in the North Cascades.

Take, for example, a certain wolverine making the greater Mt. Baker/Shuksan area its home. Up until 2019, CWP hadn’t placed a camera trap west of the Cascade crest, focusing on the eastern Cascades in and around the Methow Valley and Holden Village.  But after receiving reports from backcountry skiers and climbers, a volunteer for CWP trudged into the hills on skis and set up a camera trap in the area to run for the length of the winter season.

I spent much of that winter looking for phantoms,  scanning for tracks, imagining a stocky beast running up the north face of every mountain, but I had no luck in my search. Then on March 1st, nearly a year since I had seen “my wolverine,” a game camera photo landed in my inbox. The image was taken from the Baker/Shuksan site and centered on a trio of conifers set in a snowy scene, a hair snare wrapped around one tree. The photo captured the inquisitive look of a wolverine, seemingly pondering the inhospitable landscape it calls home.

Cascades Wolverine Project

 

 The Cascades Wolverine Project is a grassroots organization in the truest sense of the term, a small collective of passionate researchers who have taken on the continued existence of wolverines in the North Cascades as their singular mission. Based in the Methow Valley on the eastern edge of these mountains, the organization undertakes some of the most difficult animal research imaginable as their subject is found only in the most remote and rugged terrain. The CWP works in partnership with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, US Forest Service, Conservation Northwest, The Wildlife Conservation Society, and Woodland Park Zoo.

Funded mostly by individual contributions (and with support from Patagonia), the CWP is adept at visual storytelling to support their efforts. Finding Gulo, a film about the CWP’s efforts featuring co-founders Steph Williams and David Moskowitz (as well as the stunning winter backcountry of the North Cascades) has been included in the Banff Mountain Film Festival’s 2021 edition.

To support the important work of the CWP, visit their website at cascadeswolverineproject.org.

Nick Belcaster is an adventure journalist who may be based in Bellingham, but he calls the ancient ice and spires of the North Cascades home. He contributes to local and national publications, and his work focuses on the intersection of recreation, energy, and the environment.

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