National Forest Foundation

Sniffing Out Wolverine Dens on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest

Treasured Landscapes, Wildlife

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The Forest Service’s Wolverine Study Draws to a Successful Close with One Big Last Hurrah: A Field Trip Deep into the Forest’s Rugged Backcountry with Pips, a Wolverine-Scat-Sniffing Rescue Dog.

For the past ten years, the Methow Valley Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest has collaborated with scientists at the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station to undertake an ambitious study of the elusive wolverine on the North Cascades ecosystem.

The North Cascades Wolverine Study, which became part of the NFF’s Treasured Landscapes: Majestic Methow restoration campaign, was the first of its kind in this part of the world. John Rohrer, the Methow Valley Ranger District’s Supervisory Wildlife Biologist, recently summarized his experience this way: “Being the Wolverine Study’s field director for ten years was challenging, but also extremely rewarding. It was the unique combination of partners, people and personalities that made this study so successful.”

During the course of the Study, wolverines were live-trapped and fitted with satellite telemetry collars that track the animals’ movement. The resulting data showed that wolverines in the North Cascades have immense territories – females roam over up to 760 square miles, males can cover up to 1,155 square miles.
Photo courtesy of Forest Service, Zach Winters
Wolverines are uniquely adapted to cold, harsh winters: they have enormous paws and claws for their body size, fur that is frost-resistant and does not ice over even when wet, and jaws so powerful they can easily crush frozen meat and bones.
Photo courtesy of Forest Service
Scientists can identify individual animals by their unique chest markings. A non-invasive way of keeping track of the who-is-who in the forest is to set up baited run-poles that encourage wolverines to look up while a camera trap snaps a quick photo.
Photo courtesy of Forest Service

Scientists learned and confirmed a wealth of important information about wolverines during this study. But it’s arguably most interesting project only just took place: a trip into the remote reaches of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest with Pips, a scat-detection dog trained to find wolverine droppings, in an attempt to locate a natal den.

Wolverine natal dens, it turns out, are even harder to find than wolverines themselves. In fact, despite having collared fourteen different wolverines, biologists had only been able to locate two natal dens over the course of the study’s previous nine years. Dens are particularly difficult to find not only because they tend to be in high, remote mountain ranges, but also because wolverines build them under boulders or downed logs buried beneath twelve to fifteen feet of snow.

Scientists discovered the first two wolverine natal dens in the North Cascades in 2012. This is the location of the first den in the winter and the summer. Once the deep snow cover had melted, scientists discovered that a female wolverine, named Mallory, had denned under an enormous debris pile at the bottom of an avalanche chute.
Photos courtesy of Forest Service, John Rohrer
These photos show the location of the second den in the winter and the summer of 2012. This wolverine, Xena, had denned under large boulders in the middle of a steep mountain slope. Although females den alone, scientists confirmed that the kits’ fathers stop by intermittently during the winter for what appear to be social visits. In the fall, when the kits become more independent, they have been documented to spend time with their mothers and fathers separately.
Photos courtesy of Forest Service, John Rohrer
This winter, during the denning period, scientists discovered an unusual amount of wolverine tracks on another mountain slope, and hoped to be able to confirm a third natal den in the area. The exact location, however, was hard to pin-point after the melting snow revealed nothing but a vast boulder field.
Photos courtesy of Forest Service, John Rohrer

Biologists typically are able to find a natal den only when a denning female was outfitted with a telemetry collar, allowing her exact movements to be tracked from afar. In the absence of such luck, biologists may fly over vast high mountain slopes during the winter, hoping to find recent tracks in the snow.

If they do, biologists are faced with a tricky choice: either set up a remote camera and risk disturbing the female and her kit, which often results in the prompt relocation of the den – and the exposure of the kit to cold winter temperatures; or wait until the snow melts and try to find the den and any DNA left behind – usually as scats – long after the wolverines have left. Wildlife biologists, however, are not particularly good at sniffing out wolverine scat. And that’s where Pips enters the picture.

Pips is a member of Conservation Canines’ elite group of scat-sniffing dogs. Back in 2009, Pips’ future looked anything but rosy. Pips, an Australian cattle dog, was two years old and already had a tumultuous history: his original owner had placed him in a shelter in Arizona where he was adopted – and returned – three separate times. Scheduled to be euthanized, a rescue organization took him in and Pips was adopted – and returned – three more times. In a last-ditch effort to save Pips’ life, the organization contacted Conservation Canines, a non-profit organization associated with the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology that trains detection dogs and their handlers for wildlife research. Pips was an immediate fit.

Photo courtesy of Forest Service, Cathy Raley

Pips and his handler, Heath Smith, the Program Director for Conservation Canines. Conservation Canines has a total of 17 working dogs and 6 handlers. All dogs have been trained to work with any of the handlers – or, as Smith would be quick to correct, all handlers have been trained to work with any of the dogs: dogs, after all, already have the skill set necessary for this kind of work; it is the handlers who need to learn the tricks here.

And that is how, four years later, Pips found himself trekking into a remote corner of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest with his handler, Heath Smith, and four wildlife biologists: John Rohrer, Cathy Raley and Keith Aubry from the Pacific Northwest Research Station, and Scott Fitkin from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (“WDFW”).

Pips had been meticulously prepared for this field trip with wolverine scat from both captive and wild animals. The goal was to teach him to identify wolverine scat generally, including from individuals previously unknown to him. The deck, however, was stacked against him: this was his first wolverine-mission in the field, and no other dog has been reported to have ever been successful.

Pips and Smith climbing into the boulder field where the suspected natal den was located after having trekked in several miles to get to the location.
Photo courtesy of Forest Service, Cathy Raley
Pips and Smith working the large boulder field sniffing out wolverine scat to help verify the presence of a natal den.
Photo courtesy of Forest Service, Cathy Raley
Pips and Smith taking a well-deserved break. Pips, a veteran scat-detector for badgers, weasels, mink, fishers, martens, spotted owls, barred owls, bobcats and mountain lions, can now also add wolverines to his area of expertise.
Photo courtesy of Forest Service, Cathy Raley

Pips, however, once again beat the odds. After trekking into the backcountry over arduous terrain, he honed in on what the biologists now believe is indeed a recent natal den, and located over a dozen scat samples. These samples, happily bagged by the scientists, have already been sent in for a detailed DNA analysis. And so, while the NFF’s Treasured Landscapes: Majestic Methow Wolverine Project draws to a close, it seems that Pips’ career as a wolverine-scat-detection dog has only just begun.

For more information about Conservation Canines, click on www.conservationbiology.uw.edu or visit them at www.facebook.com/ConservationCanines.

For information about the North Cascades Wolverine Study, go to www.wolverinefoundation.org.

For information about the NFF’s Treasured Landscapes: Majestic Methow campaign, please contact Natalie Kuehler at (509) 996-4057 or Dayle Wallien at (206) 832-8280, or visit www.nationalforests.org/who-we-are/our-impact/methow.


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