The first wolverine recorded in North Dakota in nearly 150 years was killed in North Dakota this week in stunning news that comes on the heels of other reports in recent decades of rare wild animals being seen where they have not been seen in decades or scores of years or in one case, centuries. In the case of North Dakota, this is the first verified wolverine recorded in the state ever and the last record of a wolverine since 1870, 146 years ago. This should be national news possibly along the lines of the recent stories about the first wolverine in Michigan in ~200 years or the first wolverine in California in 90 years.
A wolverine was shot and killed in Western North Dakota on Sunday, April 24, 2016. The wolverine was killed on the Wisness Ranch south of Alexander between Watford City and Williston, North Dakota, probably during the daylight hours but at an unknown time. Alexander, a town of only 223 people, is located in far western North Dakota on the border with Montana. The animal was killed by a ranch hand named Alexander resident Jared Hatter when it was harassing pairs of calves in a field. Hatter reported it on his Facebook page and included photos of the animal.
Ranch workers contacted the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. A biologist from the department examined the animal and determined that it was indeed a wolverine. The department kept the wolverine and took it away to an unknown location. This Facebook post is the initial post made by Hatter on his Facebook page.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department verified the wolverine story. Dale Regnow, spokesman for the Wildlife Division of North Dakota Game and Fish confirmed that the story is true. “Yes, that story is correct. I can confirm that. And I believe we have the animal in our possession now. This is all very exciting news for us,” said Regnow.
So far, there have only been a few sporadic reports of this incident on social media and some small websites, all in North Dakota. There was also a report on a radio station in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan.
This report will be the first major report of the incident and the photos associated with it in the mainstream online media.
There have been a number of unverified sightings of wolverines in North Dakota in the past two decades. They are listed in my report, Wolverines in the Upper Midwest, available here. This is the most detailed report on wolverines in this region on the Internet or possibly anywhere for that matter. Be sure to check it out if you are interested in the subject. It has lots of great photos of the areas in which wolverines were spotted and the general terrain of the region. It also links a number of other reports
The last wolverine recorded in the state was from 1870 when a wolverine was poisoned by a hunter named Henry Bennett at the mouth of Cherry Creek near the Killdeer Mountains. Curiously, that location is quite close to where the current specimen was taken. There were 36 known records of wolverines taken in North Dakota, but none of them were verified. 35 of these are from a single locale, a fort at the mouth of the Penimba River in the northeastern part of the state. These records are all from the journal of a single fur trapper from Montreal, Alexander Henry the Younger.
Henry’s journals date from 1801-1806 when he worked as a fur trapper for the Montreal-based North West Company. During this period, Northeastern North Dakota had not yet been settled by Whites, so his records would seem to be a good record of the wildlife presence and density in this region pre-contact. At this time, the land was the territory of Dakotas, but Chippewas and Crees were also in the area.
He lived for most of the time at a fort at the mouth of the Penimba River. In those five years, Henry reported that 35 wolverines were trapped in eastern North Dakota alone.
The USFWS regards these records as possibly spurious since they nearly all came from a single person, and it is uncertain whether these are records were of wolverines actually taken in North Dakota or whether these were animals taken elsewhere and transported to the fort. However, a closer look at Henry’s journal shows that he was reporting exact locales where his trappers were taking wolverines. He listed a variety of locales, all in eastern North Dakota. The question that some or all of these wolverines were trapped outside of North Dakota and brought to the fort seems incorrect.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service says according to the known habitat associations of the wolverine in the US, North Dakota never ever housed a population of established wolverines during historical times.
However, this conclusion may be erroneous, and wolverine biologists think it may be incorrect.
The USFWS also says that the entire area of the US Northeast, Great Lakes and Great Plains never had an established population of wolverines. However, biologists reported that two juvenile wolverines were taken in the Diamond Lakes area of New Hampshire in a single year, 1918. The biologists felt that the taking of two young in a single year meant that a breeding population of wolverines may have been present at that time. Therefore, the current theory that the Northeast never had an established population of wolverines may be incorrect.
Dr. Keith Aubry, one of the nation’s top wolverine scientists, said that if those 35 specimens were all taken from eastern North Dakota in a five year period alone, then that implies that there was a resident population of wolverines in eastern North Dakota at that time.
The question here centers around the question of what one means by established population. To wildlife biologists, established population means breeding population, and the USFWS argues that the Upper Great Plains did not and does not offer suitable habitat for breeding wolverines due to the lack of snow cover into the late spring.
The FWS also argue that wolverines cannot live in this region because summer temperatures are too high. Nevertheless, the high number of records from North Dakota from 1801-1806 indicates that wolverines were able to live there year round despite high summer temperatures.
In addition, a wolverine recently lived for 5-10 years around the area of Ubly, Michigan where summer temperatures rise to 82 degrees, close to the 85 degrees found in Alexander. But the Ubly story is complicated by other factors. That animals had been live-trapped by someone in Alaska and brought to Michigan somehow and released in that area. A man who had set up the camera-traps that were photographing the animal was also feeding it regularly, so this is not pure case of a naturally dispersing wild animal surviving on its own, and this animal may not have been able to survive there on its own.
Based on this data, the Summer Temperature Theory about wolverines is wrong. Aubry acknowledged that the truth is that wolverines can live in areas where the summer temperatures get up to 80-85 degrees, but they do not live well or thrive in these places.
Based on the number of reports coming in of wolverines not only from North Dakota but also from elsewhere in the Upper Midwest and the long historical record of sightings in this area from the 19th Century, the Great Plains was definitely wolverine habitat pre-contact and even for a period of time after contact before they were possibly extirpated by the fur trade or even more likely by a warming climate, which is the theory that Aubry, suggests. The reason that the prairie may not be habitat now is because of the assumption that there it lacks the deep snow persisting into late spring required for breeding wolverines.
Although the prairie seems to be an odd place to have wolverines, when you think about the great herds of buffalo that used to roam here, perhaps it is not so strange after all. Aubry agreed that the Great Plains would have been perfect habitat for wolverines due to the huge herds of buffalo that would have provided a ready source of large amounts of carrion that would be perfect for a scavenger like a wolverine.
He also said that it was much colder in the US in 1800 than it is today because that was during the tail end of a several centuries-long Little Ice Age where temperatures dropped all over North America. Since then, the continent has been warming up, and what may have been cold enough for wolverines in 1800 is much less suitable habitat now that it is much warmer. Aubry said it may well have been cold enough in 1800 to sustain the snow conditions necessary for wolverine breeding.
He also noted that Canadian scientists say there has been a retraction of the wolverine’s range in Ontario over the past century or so. Whereas once wolverines occurred throughout the province from north to south, they have retreated north and are now found only in the northern half of Ontario. Aubry felt that the retraction of the wolverine’s range from the northeast, the Great Lakes and the Great Plains was probably more due to warming climate than to overtrapping and poisoning. “The wolverine may have been one of the first victims of global warming,” Aubry said.
My post on wolverines in the Upper Midwest has a number of photos of prairie terrain and habitat along with some theorizing on how and why the prairies may have been good habitat for wolverines pre-contact.
Among nearby states, wolverines were last recorded in Indiana in 1852, Wisconsin in 1870, and Minnesota in 1918. Wolverines are resident in the western mountains of Montana and re also known to be present in the Great Plains part of the state in the west. About one month ago, a trailcam snapped a photo of wolverine in north-central Montana. The wolverine was headed towards North Dakota. Two of the nation’s top wolverine experts stated that this wolverine may have been the same one that was recorded in Montana earlier.
Photos of the wolverine are below.
- Aubry, K. B., K. S. McKelvey, and J. P. Copeland. 2007. Geographic Distribution and Broadscale Habitat Relations of the Wolverine in the Contiguous United States. Journal of Wildlife Management 71: 2147-2158.
Aubry, Keith. April 28, 2016. Research Wildlife Biologist. Ecological Process and Function Division, Research and Development Department, Pacific Northwest Research Station. United States Forest Service. Olympia, Washington. Personal communication.
Bailey, V. 1926. A Biological Survey of North Dakota. North American Fauna 49:1–226.
Copeland, J. P. and Whitman, J. S. 2003. “Wolverine,” pp. 672-682, in Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Economics. G. A. Feldhamer, B. C. Thompson, and J. A. Chapman, eds. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Henry, Alexander. 1988. The Journal of Alexander Henry the Younger 1799-1814. Toronto: The Champlain Society, University of Toronto Press.
Jackson, C. F. August 22, 1922. Notes on New Hampshire Mammals. Journal of Mammalogy 3:1, p. 13.
Whitaker, John O. and Hamilton, William John. 1998. Mammals of the Eastern United States, p. 551. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.