California’s Wolverine Wanderer

As a massive college football fan, I’ve always equated wolverines to the University of Michigan’s mascot – even though the school’s athletic programs refuse to have a prancing student dressed up like a critter on the field. Or maybe the battle cry in the original Red Dawn movie gives me some wolverine nostalgia as well.

Well, here’s a story about an actual California wolverine – they are not easy to spot in the wild – ironically an actual wolverine spotted in 2004 – of all places, Michigan – was believed to the first such one seen in the Wolverine State in 200 years.

In the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “Outdoors Q&A” feature, a reader asked about the Golden State’s sparse connection with these fierce weasel. Here’s the section on what was believed to be the state’s only resident wolverine:

wolverine photo from a game camera
Image of a wolverine caught on a CDFW game camera in 2010. (CDFW file photo)

Question: Wolverines are thought to be extinct in California, is that correct? When I was younger my oldest brother and dad told me they spotted a wolverine at our cabin in the Sierra but that was over 10 years ago. I have also heard of sightings from neighbors. Is it possible there are wolverines still thriving in the Sierra? (Ryder)

Answer: Scientists documented a single wolverine in California from 2008 to 2018. That wolverine was first discovered in February 2008 in the Truckee region of the Tahoe National Forest by a student who baited remote camera stations to monitor Pacific marten, another member of the weasel family. Genetic research indicated the wolverine was male and came from a population in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. Scientists aren’t sure how the wolverine got here – but there have been other documented cases of wolverines traveling long distances.

The wolverine was monitored in the Truckee region using remote cameras and through collection of genetic samples. He was last detected in January 2018. We’re not sure what happened to the wolverine, but a 10-year-old wolverine in the wild would be considered fairly old, so it’s possible he lived out his life.

If your family’s cabin was in the Truckee region (north of Highway 80 and west of Highway 89), they may have seen the wolverine that scientists were documenting. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Environmental Scientist Chris Stermer, who helped monitor the wolverine, recalls that several locals reported seeing it at the time.

In the past decade, multiple researchers have been surveying for other high alpine carnivores using baited camera stations. This additional camera work was largely due to the need to monitor the very small population of Sierra Nevada red fox in the Cascades and southern Sierra Nevada. These regions would be prime wolverine habitat, and scientists probably would have discovered a population if they were living there.

“I am fairly confident we will not find a breeding population of wolverines in California, but it is possible an occasional young male wolverine in search of a territory could make its way to California,” said Stermer. “Fortunately, there is habitat for them to persist. Unfortunately, females do not travel as far, which limits their ability to mate.”