Once, wolverines roamed freely in the mountainous terrain of California’s Sierra Nevada. But because of trapping, hunting and other human activities, they disappeared from the state in 1922. Now, however, wildlife officials say a solitary wolverine is once again lumbering around the highlands in the eastern part of the state.
Wolverine experts with the U.S. Forest Service confirmed “multiple sightings” of the same elusive animal last month: two observations in Inyo National Forest and another in Yosemite National Park, according to a statement from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). They identified the small, carnivorous mammal in photos and videos captured by separate individuals in the various locations.
Ryan Campbell snapped some of those pictures while enjoying a late-season ski day at Mammoth Mountain. While riding in a gondola, Campbell and fellow skiers did a double take when they saw an animal that looked like a small bear—but with a long tail and a white marking.
“We saw it running toward a nearby clump of trees,” Campbell tells SFGate’s Katie Dowd. “Then, we noticed why it started running. A skier was coming down the slope and took the jump, likely never having seen how close they were.”
The wolverine likely walked to the Golden State from a neighboring population, say wildlife officials, because something similar happened between 2008 and 2018. During that period, a wolverine nicknamed “Buddy” began popping up on trail cameras in Tahoe National Forest. They tested some of Buddy’s DNA and determined that he had likely traveled all the way from Idaho’s Sawtooth Range.
The last time anyone detected Buddy was in January 2018, and given that wolverines typically live between 12 and 13 years, the newly spotted creature is likely a different individual.
Before Buddy, no one had seen a wolverine in California since 1922. That makes the new one—just the second in 101 years—even more exciting, says Daniel Gammons, a senior environmental scientist with the CDFW, in a statement.
Wildlife officials aren’t sure why the wolverine wandered into California this spring, but one possible explanation is because this winter was “a huge snow year,” as Julia Lawson, an environmental scientist with the CDFW, tells the Los Angeles Times’ Jeremy Childs. Many parts of California received record-setting snowfall over the winter, which helped boost the parched state’s snowpack levels. Colorado and Utah also had big snow years.
Next, wildlife officials hope to get a sample of the wolverine’s saliva, scat or hair to conduct genetic testing. As with Buddy, this analysis could reveal information about the animal’s origins. They’re asking members of the public to keep an eye out for any wolverine-like creatures in the Sierra Nevada and report all sightings through the CDFW’s Wildlife Incident Reporting system.
Though they resemble bears, wolverines are actually the largest member of the weasel family. They don’t have an established population in California, but they’ve hung on in Canada and Alaska and are present in small numbers in the Rocky and Cascade mountains.
In California, they’re listed as “threatened” under the state’s endangered species act, which makes it illegal to possess, kill or purchase them. Wolverines are not currently listed under the federal endangered species act, but after some legal back and forth, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently evaluating whether they should be. Globally, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers wolverines to be a species of “least concern,” though it lists the European population as “vulnerable.”