June 15, 2016

Citizen science wildlife monitoring project finds continued evidence of wolverines in Bitterroot National Forest.

This spring, we wrapped up another exciting field season for our Wolverine Watchers! This data collection program, in partnership with the Bitterroot National Forest, set up monitoring stations for medium-sized carnivores of the Northern Rockies. We were particularly looking for wolverines and fishers, and hoped to also find Canada lynx.

Well, what a year! With more than 140 volunteers tallying well over 2,000 volunteer hours, we gathered more than 12,000 photos of wildlife in the mountains and creek bottoms of the Bitterroot National Forest, south of Missoula. We found 20 different species, including some of the ones we were most eager to see! We found black bear, bobcat, a variety of bird species, deer mouse, flying squirrel, marten, moose, mountain lion, red fox, red squirrel, snowshoe hare, western striped skunk, wolf and wolverine. Here are some great shots from the remote cameras:

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The most photos taken were of martens and birds. Their eagerness to consume the bait bit by bit was thoroughly entertaining to observe via the stream of photos they left behind. And the most exciting result of all – we had wolverines at seven of our stations, compared to only four last year! From what we can tell from the unique markings on their chests, it appears that we actually documented four individual wolverines! We won’t know that for sure until the genetic results come back from the lab, which will likely take some time, but it certainly looks that way. Based on their unique markings, we got to know our wolverines rather well, and were thrilled to watch them pop up at each of the stations. Last year, once we got our results back, it was very exciting to learn that we had documented two wolverines, a male and a female. It looks like this year at least one and perhaps both of those wolverines was still in the neighborhood and visited our stations again.

Also, one of our volunteers is a photographer, so he set up a fancy camera set that has a trigger and flash system near one of our monitoring stations and got an AMAZING photo of one of our favorite individual wolverines!

Wolverine, © Robin Carleton

This region is an important chunk of core habitat for wolverines, and a connectivity zone that links several large mountain ranges together. If we had not found any wolverines with this project, it would have been very concerning. So while we weren’t surprised to see them, it was definitely reassuring to see that wolverines are still using this landscape.

While we were excited about the wolverine results, we are disappointed that once again we did not find fishers. We set most of our monitoring stations in fisher habitat and areas they have been found in the past – but we did not find any. This may be a cause for concern – it could mean that the population numbers have dropped, and too few were left in the area to find the bait stations. Two years of data isn’t enough to tell for sure though – we’re still hopeful that we will see fishers here next year.

Now we’re assembling the data from this year’s project to share with wildlife and land managers, contributing to the larger wildlife monitoring effort in this region and helping them make more informed decisions about activities on the landscape.

I want to take a minute again to thank our extraordinary volunteers. These amazing people gave so much of their time and effort to this project, many going above and beyond to contribute to the effort. They’ve been an inspiration to work with, and are the reason that this project was so successful once again. Hooray for citizen science, wolverines, and our public lands!

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