ALEXANDER, N.D. - For the first time since the late 1800s, a wolverine has been confirmed in North Dakota.
Stephanie Tucker, game management section leader and furbearer biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said the animal was shot last week near Alexander, in North Dakota’s McKenzie County.
“This is the first verified report of a wolverine in the state in modern times,” Tucker told the Herald. “We get reports from time to time, and this is the first one we’ve been able to verify.”
The largest members of a scientific family that includes fishers, weasels and badgers, wolverines are known for their elusive, solitary nature and extensive home ranges that often cover hundreds of miles. Adult males can weigh anywhere from 24 pounds to nearly 40 pounds.
According to reports, a ranch hand shot the animal April 24 after spotting it harassing cattle. Tucker said wolverines are listed in North Dakota as furbearers with a closed season, but state law allows them to be killed if they’re threatening livestock.
In this case, she said, a warden’s investigation concluded the ranch hand who shot the animal was within his rights to do so.
Robert Seabloom, a professor emeritus of biology at UND and author of “Mammals of North Dakota,” said to his knowledge there hasn’t been a verified wolverine record in the state since the 1850s. Wolverines traditionally inhabit forested areas, although they occasionally make prairie travels.
“Alexander Henry and other early fur traders did take them along the Red River and in the Pembina Hills area in the late 18th and early 19th century,” Seabloom said in an email. “Also there may have been a sighting in the (Killdeer Mountains) in the 19th century.”
The wolverine shot last week was a young male. Tucker said the carcass of the animal as of Monday morning still was at the district Game and Fish office in Williston, but once it’s taken to Bismarck, department staff will conduct a necropsy -- basically the animal version of an autopsy -- to collect DNA samples in an effort to determine its origin, do some basic disease testing and gather more information about the wolverine’s age and diet.
“This definitely will be the first time I’ve ever handled or seen a wolverine, so it will be interesting,” Tucker said.
The closest known wolverine population is in Glacier National Park in the northern Rocky Mountains, Tucker said, and breeding populations also are found in northern Canada. Tucker said there was a report in March of a wolverine spotted near Havre, Mont., and she speculates it’s the same animal shot last week in western North Dakota.
“We get reports of wolverines from time to time, and the first thing in my mind is, let’s make sure it’s not a fisher,” Tucker said. Fishers are expanding in North Dakota as far west as the Missouri River corridor, Tucker said, but after seeing photos, she knew the animal was a wolverine.
“If I had to guess, I would anticipate this would be a subadult or young adult male wolverine,” she said.
Seabloom said he suspects the wolverine was dispersing in search of a new home when it came across the rancher’s cattle and the encounter that led to its demise.
“Hard to say how he got there,” Seabloom said. “They are known to travel long distances cross country, but I think it more likely he could have followed the Yellowstone or Missouri rivers out of Wyoming or Montana.”
John Erb, furbearer biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., said there is no evidence of a breeding wolverine population in Minnesota, and he believes it has been more than 50 years since the last verified sighting in the wild.
Erb said a wildlife manager in northwest Minnesota received a photo and video last fall of an animal that clearly was a wolverine, but it wasn’t confirmed the images were verified as being from northwest Minnesota.
“Nothing seemed suspicious -- just that we like to verify the site,” he said.
Erb said he also has corresponded with a Manitoba biologist who confirmed there have been a couple of verified wolverine sightings in southeast Manitoba in the past year.
“It does appear to be a little more wolverine ‘action’ in the past year or two, but certainly no evidence of breeding in Minnesota,” Erb said.