One weasel heads over the river, through the woods

Posted: Friday, November 12, 2010

It was all because of Trapper Dave.

Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

That's how LaVern Beier tells the tale of a wild wolverine which made it's way from Berners Bay south to the Iskut River, a tributary of the Stikine in British Columbia, Canada.

Because of the avid outdoorsman, regional wildlife researchers were able to recover a radio collar from a "lost" wolverine and download information that would have otherwise been unrecoverable, said Beier, a wildlife technician with the state Department of Fish and Game.

"We thought the collar died, or he died, or maybe he was hiding in a cave," Beier said.

Such things wouldn't be unheard of in this type of situation. Wolverines are inherently hard on equipment, according to Beier.

Rewind to the spring of 2008 when local wildlife researchers with ADF&G were headed to Berners Bay to tag a variety of animals in the region as part of requested studies during the vetting of the Juneau Access Road.

"(That trip) we collared 14 wolverines, a few wolves, a number of brown bears, mountain goats and moose," Beier said.

A while later, one radio collared male wolverine "disappeared."

Around the same time, a wolverine expert in Petersburg was doing similar research; collaring wolverines and setting up motion cameras to capture images of their unique hide patterns. Like a fingerprint, the coloration and pattern on the chest of each wolverine is unique. This researcher hoped to use the images to identify individuals.

According to Beier, she too was missing a few animals from her study.

A year later, in the spring of 2009, word of mouth travelled to Petersburg carrying news of a radio collared wolverine that had been trapped up the Iskut River by Trapper Dave.

"He was kind of a recluse," Beier said. "And he was a little irked this collar had rubbed the hid of the wolverine ... which was all he cared about."

But even recluses need contact with the outside world and Dave's contacts were all in Petersburg. Local pilots would often fly him supplies and groceries. Petersburg locals said he'd spend winters in the mountains and come into town every so often, clad in his wool pants, suspenders and head to the bars after a clean shave. So, it's no surprise that word of the found collar reached Petersburg and once the thaw began, the race was on to recover the collar, Beier said.

On occasion, the ADF&G has been known to pay for a collar's return.

"These collars have a lot of writing and numbers on them," Beier said.

And he said most of it meant very little at first glance. But, upon recovery, one word stood out: "Lewis."

"Steve Lewis, who no longer works for F&G, had originally collard the animal near Berners behind what we call the 'hump,'" Beier said.

In a year, this wolverine had travelled roughly 200 miles, as the crow flies, over steep terrain, through thick rainforest and across vast fields of ice. Wolverines are known for their vast home ranges, but this discovery was one that confirmed what local scientists had believed for years.

"The collar was downloaded and the data pooped out around Sweetheart Creek, near Snettisham," he said. "It just makes us think on a different scale."

And "it confirms some hypothesis" on how these animals move. It's just one individual, but it is another step toward understanding these animals and managing them accordingly.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.



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