March 6, 2008

Wolverine Photographed in Sierra Nevada

News of a picture of a wolverine in the Sierra Nevada caught the interest of many scientists who had assumed the elusive animal had been driven out of the area by human activity.

Katie Moriarty, a graduate student at Oregon State University, spotted the wolverine during a recent project in the northern part of the mountain range with the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station. She was trying to take pictures of martens, which are slender brown weasels.

She said the image came as a "complete shock. It was not something I would expect by any means."

Bill Zielinski, a research ecologist for the Forest Service who was working with Moriatry, said that people had reported wolverine sightings in the area before, but without substantial proof.

"The conventional wisdom was that they were pretty much gone from California," said Zielinski. "There's been a lot of other camera work and a variety of methods used to track rare carnivores. Those same methods, if wolverines had been around, would have detected them, we thought."

Zielinski said photograph was sent "immediately from the camera to her e-mail and to mine." He then sent the image to a wolverine expert who confirmed that it "looks like the real deal."

"It would be fantastic if it's a real California wolverine because they are a genetically distinct group that was probably isolated at least 2,000 years and possibly 12,000 years ago," Shawn Sartorius, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service said. "That would be a pretty important find."

Sartorius said the next step for scientists is to retrieve a DNA sample from the wolverine's feces to determine its origin.

Paul Spitler, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that wolverine sightings are reported regularly in the southern Sierra.

"We know they are in the Sierra," he said. "We don't know how many and we don't know how far they travel in the Sierra, but we certainly know they exist in the Sierra Nevada."

The Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to announce Tuesday whether it plans to continue to begin classifying wolverines as endangered species.


Photo Caption: California wolverine photographed by Katie Moriarty, Oregon State University


On the Net:

Oregon State University

U.S. Forest Service

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Center for Biological Diversity