On the trail of wolverines in the North Cascades

On the trail of wolverines in the North Cascades

Conservation Northwest / Aug 31, 2015 / Wildlife Monitoring, Wolverine

Tess en route to the wolverine monitoring “run pole” with Mt. Shuksan in the background. Photo courtesy of Tess Rooney

The adventures of our 2015 wildlife monitoring intern Tess Rooney

By Tess Rooney, Wildlife Monitoring Intern

As the spring-summer 2015 intern for the Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project, I was familiar with the protocol for setting up a wolverine camera trap: construct a run-pole, stabilize it, attract wolverines with bait or lure, and set up two motion-activated cameras to collect images from different angles. Easier said than done, as it turns out.

The purpose of setting up this type of site is to gain information about species presence in a given area—in the case of a run-pole, specifically wolverines. With partners and advisers like the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Wilderness Awareness School, Conservation Northwest’s Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project (CWMP) works to supplement ongoing research efforts documenting the recovery of wolverines in the North and Central Cascades through citizen-science monitoring efforts. 

North Cascades wolverine in 2012. Photo: CWMP / CNW
North Cascades wolverine in 2012. Photo: CWMP / CNW

Wolverines are elusive and their numbers in Washington are suspected to be at less than three dozen animals, so identifying individuals can help to get a sense of their population numbers. Determining the presence or lack thereof of wolverines (and other wildlife) in an area can inform conservation decisions and land management policies vital to the recovery of these rare animals.

Tracks had recently been detected near Mount Shuksan in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, but no state, federal or other research efforts were lined up to monitor for wolverines in that area. So looking to utilize the adaptability of the Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project to fill this gap, we struck out for a spot between Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker and headed into wolverine country.

Building a wolverine run pole

This expedition was my first time going out into the field with Conservation Northwest, and it was quite the learning experience. My morning started with a 6:30 a.m. departure with Trent and Jenna, volunteer team leaders who have set up several camera sites for other species of interest in the past.

Having recently moved to Seattle from the Northeast I was completely astounded by the glimpses we caught of enormous bald eagle nests from the highway, a breathtaking sunrise, huge snow-capped peaks, and the stream that we passed that was simultaneously brilliantly clear and saturated with a deep turquoise hue, so cold to the touch that it felt searing hot.

After driving deep into the North Cascades, we assembled our gear at the trailhead near the currently abandoned Mount Baker Ski Area. We packed our bags up for the day, dividing our supplies; I carried the gusto lure, a concentrated puree of pig intestine and fish oil designed to attract carnivorous wildlife (turns out it will likely make a good human deterrent, as well!), a cow femur, and the nails and screws that we would use to construct the run-pole.

Building the first run pole. Photo: Tess Rooney
Building the first run pole. Photo: Tess Rooney

As I reached for the drill that I had borrowed from a friend of mine, its cord dangled comically out of the box and I suddenly froze—it had a cord?! In my haste I hadn’t even bothered to double check that it was a battery-operated drill. Crap. Well, Trent had brought a hammer as a backup allegedly, right? Nope. The hammer was the single item on his extensive supply list that he had forgotten to pack that morning.

The three of us stood grimacing and laughing at ourselves and decided that we may as well proceed with the plan using the manual hand drill and if we couldn’t figure the project that day, we could at least get the site established and partway assembled. As we began to trudge up the trail near the edge of the ski area, we passed some friendly construction workers who had a hammer! They agreed to lend it to us for a few hours.

After some time on the trail, we got off the snowy path and crossed a burbling creek, soon encountering very steep slopes with sparse patches of trees. It became immediately clear that we could stop looking for “the optimal location”; we were just going to need to try to find a cluster of trees that would match our needs for this particular set-up.

We needed two trees about eleven feet apart. We would attach the run-pole to one tree (Tree A) with a bunch of gun-brushes strapped around the girth of the three to hopefully snag some hair samples for genetic testing. A camera would be attached to Tree B, facing the run-pole. A wire with bait dangling from it would be strung between the two trees to entice the wolverine to stand up on its hind legs, giving the camera a shot of its chest.

The distinctive markings in the fur on wolverines’ chests can help with individual identification so that a general sense of the number of individual animals present in a given area can be gained. There can’t be any smaller trees or bushes between these two that the wolverine could try to take advantage of to get a different vantage point to get the bait from. Finally, there needs to be a third tree nearby that can hold a second camera that will take photos of the entire scene so that we can see what else is going on in the area.

After stomping through knee-deep snow for an hour or so, we came across a small patch of trees on a steep hill that would work. With a downed tree from nearby and some serious manual labor, we put our run pole together.

Finally we had the run-pole with a ledge and a support set up, and could measure the appropriate distance above it to hang the bait so that it would be just out of reach of the wolverines’ grasp, but still close enough to them that they would make an attempt to reach it.

The tree with the run-pole was easy enough to fasten the wire to, but the camera tree was drastically downhill because of the steep incline. Even in that small eleven-foot distance between the two. Jenna had to take off her hiking boots and stand directly on Trent’s shoulders, reaching up as far as she could to make the wire even with its height on the other tree. It was quite a challenge to reach so high up and fasten the tiny bolts while holding the wire tight with numb fingers, but with some acrobatics and determination, Jenna managed to sling it up.

The cameras were quickly put into place and programmed to the right settings while we made final adjustments to our set-up, and we traipsed out of the woods right as the sun began to sink behind us. We reached the car right at dark, exhausted but pretty impressed with our newly discovered architectural skills, despite our several misjudgments.

Despite our struggles, I was so glad that I got to be a part of this trip; to go off into the woods with two strangers and have to assemble an extremely specific set-up with no previous experience. How often do people face challenges like that in every day life? It was such a unique situation, and the chance to be outside of my comfort zone in order to accomplish something for a great cause was really unique.

I learned that fieldwork requires a lot of improvisation, that the product probably won’t look exactly how you had imagined it, and to never leave the house without a hammer. Compromise and perseverance are both absolutely essential, and if you’re lucky (and up at the crack of dawn) you might catch a beautiful sunrise along the way. Here’s to hoping for some wolverine footage!

Stormy Cascades view from the run pole site. Photo: Tess Rooney
Stormy Cascades view from the run pole site. Photo: Tess Rooney

Checking the site

Five months later, here’s where we’ve found! Our run-pole site was moderately successful; we got some footage of a HUGE black bear absolutely ravaging the bait we put out, and several visits by pine martens, birds, and deer (Editor’s Note: Seriously, it’s a huge and beautiful black bear. More pics here).

Black bear at the run pole. Photo: CWMP/CNW
Black bear at the run pole. Photo: CWMP/CNW

However, due to the unusually warm conditions this season, the snow has been absent from this area for a couple of months now. In order to optimize the chances of getting some wolverines on camera, we decided to move the site.

Another intern, two volunteers and I were able to dedicate a long day to disassembling the current site and constructing a new run-pole set-up, about 600 vertical feet above the previous site, in a spot where tracks have been noted previously. The views are beautiful and there’s snow to be seen, so we’re extremely optimistic about this new location.

Hopefully when Alison (Huyett, CWMP program manager) or the other Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Program volunteers check it in the fall, there are photos a new North Cascades wolverine waiting on the memory card!