Citizen Scientists See Evidence Of 3 Wolverines Near Helena

Jan 12, 2015


Wolverines are solitary animals. There are only an estimated 200 to 250 wolverines left in the lower 48 and they slowly reproduce.

The notoriously fierce carnivore favors rugged and remote places.

Consider yourself lucky if you see signs of one in the backcountry.

A group of amateur trackers led by professional scientists didn't see just one this weekend during a forest carnivore study held about an hour north of Helena.

"Actually there were three verified wolverine finds," says Betsy Robinson, executive director of "Wild Things Unlimited," a Bozeman-based nonprofit wildlife research and education organization. "We've never run into that before."

Wild Things Unlimited led this weekend's excursion to quantify how many “mesocarnivores” - or mid-sized forest carnivores are in a relatively largely unexplored part of the Helena National Forest. .

Robinson says about 30 people were given a brief primer on wildlife tracking on Friday afternoon. Saturday, they broke up into four groups, and guided by team leaders, explored the Canyon Creek on the Helena National Forest.

One group found and followed one of those sets of wolverine tracks, "and in following them came to a site where wolverines had made a kill of a snowshoe hare."

Robinson says loads of valuable information can be gleaned from such a find.

"When they get a kill site like that, quite often you can get lucky and you can find not only where a wolverine had killed and fed on it, but then having fed, will often defecate. They can collect that scat and get DNA from it."

DNA can also be collected from hair samples.

"It was a big jackpot. It was exciting for us," says Robinson, "but it was really exciting for people who are new at the whole tracking thing. So, for them it was a really big jackpot."

Robinson says tracking projects like this weekend's not only provide interesting population counts, but also have wider implications.

"We are the only state outside of Alaska that still allows trapping. Everyone else has stopped it because they are so rare. There's implications for all sorts of things like travel plans for national forests, because they have found that any kind of human disturbance can really upset wolverines when they're denning."

In Montana, trapping regulations allow for a total of 5 wolverines to be taken each season.