In stunning news, researchers at Oregon State University snapped a photo of a possible California Wolverine (Gulo gulo luteus) north of Lake Tahoe between Truckee and Sierraville in the Tahoe National Forest. This is the first proven detection of a wolverine in California in 86 years – the last one was shot dead in 1922.
According to new data, the wolverine in the photo at the top of the page is from the Rocky Mountains and is not a California wolverine. Reginald Barrett, dean of furbearer studies in the West, told me in an in a recent interview that he felt that this wolverine had come down from Idaho through the Great Basin into California.
Nevertheless, in my opinion, California wolverines never left this state.
The actual location was on Sagehen Road in the Sagehen Creek area at the Sagehen Creek Field Station. This station is in the Sagehen Creek Experimental Forest. The field station itself, where the photo was taken, is at 6,375 feet.
California wolverines seem to exist more at lower elevations as one travels north in California. Towards the south in the Sierra Nevada, they are found more at 8,000-9,000 feet if sightings are any guide. It is 8.4 miles north of Truckee and 20 miles north of Lake Tahoe. Sagehen Basin itself ranges from 5,900 to 8,700 feet.
Despite much theory stating that wolverines hate any human presence, the area where the photo was taken is only 1.5 miles away from a major highway, Highway 89.
An excellent brochure about the Sagehen Creek area, listing hydrology, geology, geography, botany and biology, including insects, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, is here. Katie Moriarty, the graduate student who took the photos, was probably staying at the field station, which has excellent lodging facilities for researchers and has served as the study area for more than 80 theses and dissertations.
A photo of the first California Wolverine documented since 1922. This wild region where they were found in being proposed as a wilderness area by Senator Barbara Boxer. The probable proposed area is the proposed Castle Creek Wilderness Area . The photo shows the wolverine from the rear view.
It is probably next to a Red Fir.
In the background is what appears to be a White Fir and the tree in the foreground looks like some kind of pine. In this part of the Sierras, the Red Fir Zone (where this photo was probably taken) starts around 7,000 feet elevation.A much larger version of this pic, too large to put on this blog, is available here on the researchers’ website.
The area is in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California.
What they mean by confirmed sighting is that it has to be backed up by a photo or a specimen. They say fur or scat also counts, but apparently that is not true, as California wolverines were confirmed via fur samples from Del Norte Siskiyou and Shasta Counties by the California Department of Fish and Game in the late 1980’s.
I know that a wildlife biologist saw one above Bishop, California in 1980, and I understand that there have been a number of other sightings by biologists. There have been quite regular sightings of these very elusive animals in California down through the years.
Live wolverines have also been trapped in far Northern Washington state in the Cascades near the Canadian border in the past couple of years.
The natural range of the California wolverine extends in California only and has been separated from wolverines in the Washington Cascades for at least 2,000 years, according to genetic studies. As a subspecies, it is controversial and is not yet accepted across the board by the scientific community.
The first description of a California wolverine was published in the Field Colombian Museum of Zoology Zoological Series in 1903 (rare online copy here). You can see in the description of the type specimen from Mount Whitney that the California wolverine was much paler than the wolverine normally found in the rest of North America.
The California wolverine is a subspecies of wolverine that split off from other branches about 2,000-11,000 years ago. The California wolverine formerly ranged into the Cascades of California and even over towards the Coast in the Northern Coast Range all the way down to San Fransisco.
It then ranged down the Sierra Nevada Mountains all the way down to the southern end of the range at the Southern Sierra Wilderness, where they were last sighted in the 1950’s. Monache Meadows is usually given as the southern end of the range, but the Southern Sierra Wilderness is south of there.
Based on sightings, it was felt that the California wolverine had declined to a very low level near extinction in the early 1930’s and then the population had been increasing slowly ever since. William Zielinski is an expert on wolverines who participated in this study.
Thomas Kucera, a researcher at San Fransisco State University, undertook a wolverine survey in the state in the early 1990’s with bait stations and cameras.
They saw quite a few animals, including many martens, a few fishers, coyotes, bears, bobcats, and mountain lions, but they found no wolverines in the exhaustive survey. The guarded conclusion then was that California wolverines were extinct in the state. I did a web search on the California Wolverine recently and most experts were saying that the the general conclusion was that they were gone from the state.
Wolverines in the Sierra Nevada
I never thought this animal went extinct in the state because I was aware of regular sightings, mostly around the Sierra National Forest, which is near where I lived for 16 years.
There has been an undated sighting of a wolverine four miles west of the Snow Canyon Research Natural Area on the Amador Ranger District of the El Dorado National Forest. This area is near Highway 88 about three miles south of Carson Pass, and part of it is in the Mokelumne Wilderness.
There have also been undated wolverine sightings in the Pacific Valley area north of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, an area that connects the Carson-Iceberg with the Mokelumne Wilderness on the El Dorado National Forest. Pacific Valley (map) is being considered as an addition to the Carson-Iceberg. The date of these sightings is not known.
There have been sightings at Green Island Lakes, a National Forest Service Research Station at 6,100 feet in the Lassen National Forest in Plumas County.
Wolverines have also been sighted around Eagle Lake on the Lassen National Forest.
There have been two sightings on the Collins-Almanor Forest, a large commercial forest northwest of Lake Almanor. This area is where the Northern Sierra Nevada meets the Southern Cascades.
There was also an unverified sighting of a California wolverine four miles west of Truckee on Highway 80. It had scavenged road kill from this busy interstate highway and was dragging it down into the rocks to eat it. I traveled over Donner Pass in Summer 1979. It’s quite a beautiful area.
Approaching Donner Pass from the east. Highway 80 does not actually cross Donner Pass itself anymore but actually goes two miles to the north at Euer Saddle. Donner Pass gets 415 inches of snow a year, making it one of the snowiest places in the US. Wind gusts of over 100 miles an hour are common during winter storms.
North and east of Yosemite, in the Hoover Wilderness Area, wolverines are said to persist. One was spotted there near the Virginia Lakes in the 1970’s.
In 1978, there was an unverified sighting of a wolverine near Disaster Peak (10,047 feet) in the Sonora Pass area in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. I went through the Sonora Pass area in 1987.
In 1979, a wolverine was spotted at Hilton Creek Lakes near Mt. Stanford (map). This area is east of Lake Edison and west of Tom’s Place in the John Muir Wilderness on the Sierra National Forest.
Hilton Creek Lakes in the John Muir Wilderness, elevation 10,705 feet. This area is near Stanford Peak. Access is out of the Rock Creek Trailhead on the East Side of the Sierras. A wolverine was seen here in 1979.
In 1980, a wildlife biologist saw a wolverine in the Robinson Flat area of the Foresthill Ranger District on the Tahoe National Forest.
In 1984, the district ranger of the Sierraville Ranger District, near where this photo was taken, saw a California wolverine running down a road in the middle of the day.
California wolverine tracks were seen here, at Courtright Reservoir, in 1990. The tracks were verified by a Forest Service biologist, but this counts as an unverified sighting, since tracks don’t count (Go figure!)
On the Downieville Ranger District on the Tahoe National Forest, a wolverine was sighted in 1989 in the Haskell Peak area.
Also on the Downieville District, another wolverine was seen in 1990 in the Upper Sardine Lake area.
Around 1990, tracks were sighted near Courtright Reservoir at 8,200 feet near Kings Canyon National Park in the southern Sierra National Forest. A local Forest Service biologist had seen the tracks.
Around 1990, a wolverine was spotted on the back side of Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park the middle of winter.
North of Yosemite on the Stanislaus National Forest, there was a wolverine sighting in the Emigrant Wilderness in 1990.
There are wolverine sightings near South Lake Tahoe. In 1990, a wolverine was sighted two miles from where Highways 50 and 89 meet in South Lake Tahoe and the southern end of the lake (map). This area is close to Emerald Bay, DL Bliss, and Sugar Pine Point State Parks. I have been to all of these parks on the shore of Lake Tahoe, but that was 45 years ago. It’s a beautiful place.
A wolverine was sighted in 1991 in the Euer Valley on the Truckee Ranger District in Tahoe National Forest.
A wolverine was seen in 1992 in the Harding Point area on the Tahoe National Forest northeast of Sierraville, and this sighting was confirmed by tracks.
In 1992, as wildlife biologist saw a wolverine in the Granite Chief Wilderness Area on the Tahoe National Forest.
In 1992 and 1993, a Biology teacher at the local high school in Oakhurst, Gary Spence, saw them two years in a row at Spotted Lakes (9,100 feet) in the far southeast corner of Yosemite National Park near the National Forest border. Spence is a good biologist and he used to go out on field surveys with the local Forest Service biologist.
Also on the Downieville District of the Tahoe National Forest, a wolverine was seen in 1993 in the Gold Lake Road and Salmon Lakes Road area.
In 1993, a wildlife biologist on the Lassen National Forest sighted a wolverine in a den near the headwaters of Deer Creek at 5,000 feet (note that even sightings by wildlife biologists are said to be unconfirmed). This area is near Child’s Meadow and is next to the southern border of Lassen National Park.
Lassen National Park’s draft management plan proposes to reintroduce wolverines to the park.
Child’s Meadow at the headwaters of Deer Creek near the southern boundary of Lassen National Forest. A wildlife biologist spotted a wolverine in a den here in 1993.
Those who keep saying that California wolverines no longer exist ought to note that all sightings are regarded as unconfirmed, even those by wildlife biologists.
Tracks are also regarded as unconfirmed sightings. This area was in private hands and was recently purchased by the Nature Conservancy. Incredibly, the private landowner wanted to put a golf course in here!
There was also a sighting in 1994 in Kaiser Pass near Huntington Lake at about 9,200 feet in the Sierra National Forest. The local Forest Service biologist said she believed the man who saw it.
Kaiser Pass east of Huntington Lake in the High Sierras. I was here in the summer of 1991 when I drove a relative and a friend to a drop-off at Florence Lake further on down the road. The road across Kaiser Pass was truly horrid and terrifying at the time, and I doubt if it has been improved. It’s beautiful up there though, and if you get the chance, check it out. A unverified sighting of a California wolverine was reported here in 1994.
The area to the west of Lake Tahoe continues to get sightings. A sighting was reported from Island Lake in the Desolation Wilderness Area just southwest of Lake Tahoe in 1994.
Another sighting was from the north shore of Loon Lake Reservoir near Lake Tahoe on the El Dorado National Forest on July 7, 1994. This is a few miles to the west of the Desolation Wilderness.
A Panorama of Loon Lake Reservoir west of the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe. A wolverine was seen here in 1994.
Another was seen in Lyell Canyon at 8,900 feet in eastern Yosemite in 1997.
Lyell Canyon in Yosemite National Park, where there was an unverified California wolverine sighting in 1997. This area is east of the Tuolumne River and southeast of Tuolumne Meadows. The Pacific Crest Trail runs through here, and Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep are known to exist in this area. Bighorns have been being devastated lately by mountain lions. This is poorly understood.
It appears that Bighorns are staying up high to avoid the mountain lions instead of migrating downslope as they normally do. Hence, they are being killed by avalanches when they stay in the high elevations for the winter. Bighorns and mountain lions evolved together, and it is not known why this dynamic is occurring. Domestic sheep grazing in this area is totally pointless and is ongoing.
Also in 1997, there was an unverified sighting of a wolverine off Highway 120 just after it passes Tioga Pass to the east, looking down into Lee Vining Canyon. The wolverine was sighted running away about 1,000 feet down below.
Lee Vining Canyon just east of Tioga Pass. I was near Tioga Pass in August 2003, but I did not continue down the road a ways to the pass itself. In 1997, there was an unverified sighting of a wolverine running away over a snowy ridge about 1,000 feet below near where this photo was taken. Tioga Pass is at 9,943 feet, so the wolverine was at about 9,000 feet.
In 1998, a wolverine was seen once again on the Downieville District on the Tahoe National Forest near Bassett’s Station.
The very wild area north of Lake Tahoe, especially the Granite Chief Wilderness, was considered to be one of the most likely places for the California Wolverine to be found due to the very high number of sightings in the area. In 2000, there was an excellent sighting of tracks in this area.
In 2001, a biologist spotted a wolverine somewhere on the Stanislaus National Forest, but the location was not given.
Donner Pass is where the famous Donner Party tried to cross into California in the winter of 1846-47, became trapped, turned cannibal, and ate half of their own party due to starvation. There was an unverified sighting of a California wolverine here in 2004 dragging roadkill off the highway to eat it. There have also been sightings north of Tahoe National Forest.
In 2004, there was a reported sighting north of Polly Dome Lakes at 8,500 feet near Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.
The Polly Dome Lakes near Lake Tenaya, where there is an unverified California wolverine sighting from 2004. I was here in the Summer of 2003. I stayed at White Wolf campground and paid money for a cabin. Any lazy, old or out of shape person can do this, even you!
You drive your car into the campground and stay in a cabin! All you need is money. I even, at age 46, hiked up the murderous trail to Lukens Lake. You can do this too! All you need to do is get off your butt. Along the way, I saw a shrew running along the forest floor. Come on, when do you ever see such a thing?
I took a drive one day down the Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows and went by Lake Tenaya, where the scenery looks about like this. This part of Yosemite is beautiful! If you are in the area, take a drive up there in the summertime. There’s a nice highway, you don’t have to worry about a thing, and you are in the most beautiful scenery on Earth.
In 2004, apparent wolverine tracks were photographed on the trail up to Possible wolverine tracks photographed in July 2004 at Gabbot Pass on the Sierra Crest west of Bishop by Australians David Noble and Lizzy Went. There have been consistent sightings in the area west of Bishop and east of Courtright Reservoir and just north of Kings Canyon National Park over a 28-year period now.
In addition, in the Duncan Canyon Proposed Wilderness Area on the Plumas National Forest, there have been two wolverine sightings in recent years. This area is near French Meadows Reservoir.