A camera trap set up to catch cougars prowling Yellowstone National Park has captured an even rarer creature. The park released footage this week showing a wolverine tearing through the forest, marking the first on-camera sighting since the camera traps were deployed in 2014.
Wolverines are in many ways ghosts of the forests. They prefer cold climates, are solitary, and require large amounts of space to roam in search of prey. There as few as 300 left in the Lower 48, so the odds of seeing one are incredibly low.
That’s what makes the Yellowstone camera trap footage so special. The video — shot last month and released last week — shows a wolverine bounding through the light snowpack near Mammoth Hot Springs. That’s one of the few areas of the park visitors can reach in winter via car, though the park didn’t disclose the exact location of the trap, and given wolverines’ penchant to not hang out with humans, my guess is it’s not just off the boardwalk.
This is the first camera trap sighting of the elusive animal, the largest weasel in North America, since the park set up the cameras seven years ago. A previous camera trap experiment designed specifically to capture wolverines from 2006 to 2009 also managed to gather footage of the creatures, but it’s been more than a decade since then, so it’s nice to see one still roaming the park. The previous study found seven wolverines roaming the park.
There are many things to love about wolverines, from the fact they have water-repellent fur to the fact that their Latin name includes gulo (“ glutton”) because they eat so much. A National Park Service estimate indicates 1,554 square kilometres of high-quality habitat can support about 6 individual wolverines, but that number plummets to just 0.3 individuals if a habitat is less suitable. That makes the presence of wolverines an indicator of an ecosystem in good shape with ample prey, denning sites, and minimal human interference.
Though 2020 will generally go down as a reviled year, it was also causing for wolverine celebration at another national park. Researchers at Mount Rainier also caught a glimpse of wolverines on camera, marking the first time that park has seen the critters in 100 years. Their presence there and in Yellowstone indicates the value of national parks for wildlife as habit has become increasingly fragmented. Last year was also the 25th anniversary of Yellowstone biologists reintroducing wolves to the park, a decision that has further rebalanced the natural world in the northwest corner of Wyoming. That type of conservation work will be vital in a warming world, particularly the pressure it puts on wolverines.
Wolverines were heavily hunted and trapped into the 20th century, leaving their population and genetic pool in a diminished state. But just as worrisome are the impacts climate change could have on the cold and snowy conditions the animals like. Shrinking snowpack could reduce the viable den sites, and more variable winters in the Yellowstone area could make it tough to survive from one year to the next. Other human activities like snowmobiling and oil and gas extraction could further break apart their habitat.
The animals were up for endangered species listing due to the impacts of the climate crisis, but the Obama administration withdrew a proposal to list them in 2014. Conservation groups won a lawsuit in 2016 compelling the government to review listing the wolverine. But in 2020, the Trump administration decided not to, calling the wolverine population “healthy.” It has, not surprisingly, been sued for its decision.
“Recent scientific information makes clear that wolverines face threats from destruction of their snowy habitat due to climate change,” Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso, said in a statement at the time of launching the new suit. “We intend to take action to make sure that the administration’s disregard of the real impacts of climate change does not doom the wolverine to extinction in the Lower 48 states.”
All of which is to say, it’s great to see the Yellowstone camera trap footage, which serves as a reminder of what we stand to lose if the climate crisis and human development continue unabated.