The California Department of Fish and Wildlife posted two videos this week of a wolverine in the Tahoe National Forest captured by cameras earlier this year, stirring the same excitement that occurred in 2008 when a similarly rare California sighting occurred after an 86-year absence.
The first video from this year was recorded on the night of Feb. 17, showing a brief glimpse of the wolverine before it scampered away. The second video, taken during the day on Feb. 27, provides an extended look at the wolverine scaling a tree to retrieve bait that wildlife biologists had tied to the tree.
Saliva samples from the bait were sent for DNA analysis. Provided the samples are of sufficient quality, the gender and geographic origin of the wolverine should be known within two to three weeks. If the DNA matches samples taken from the 2008 wolverine, the male animal from the Sawtooth Range in Idaho is estimated to be at least 9 years old.
"I'm probably 95 percent certain it's the same animal," said Chris Stermer, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The life expectancy of wild wolverines ranges from four to 10 years. However, scientists have found wolverines as old as 13 years. In wolverine years, the 2008 animal would be considered a senior citizen.
Although wolverines are fierce predators, their danger to humans is minimal. Wolverines tend to live in isolation and are "masters at avoiding all interactions with humans," Stermer said.
Stermer follows up on all reported sightings of wolverines throughout California. He sets up bait stations, which include a video camera trained on bait, to noninvasively monitor wolverine activity. He said he believes it is unlikely there are other wolverines, especially a female, in California.
If so, he said, we would likely have already seen baby wolverines, called kits.
Talks among state and federal agencies have taken place regarding the feasibility of reintroducing wolverines to the area. Currently, the issue rests largely on whether the wolverine will gain federal protection as an endangered species.
According to Stermer, if wolverines make it on the federal list of endangered species, relocating wolverines to California would be more difficult, as their movements would be more closely regulated. Therefore, discussions to reintroduce wolverines have been shelved until their status is decided.
Wolverines typically inhabit arctic and high alpine regions. They rely on a heavy spring snowpack to burrow dens in which to raise their young. However, climate change is reducing suitable habitats.
In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to recognize wolverines as an endangered species, citing inconclusive science. Scientists and environmental groups swiftly brought a lawsuit, and this year, a federal judge ordered the agency to revisit the merits for listing wolverines as an endangered species.