By Tina Wynecoop
The prime habitat in Spokane County for the elusive wolverine is the old growth forest atop Mt. Spokane. Imagine Little Spokane Valley residents, Mike and Jen Childress’ surprise when they spotted a wolverine last Thanksgiving near Perry Road and Little Spokane Drive! Jen Childress describes this remarkable sighting, which she prefaces with “while we are pretty sure the animal had to have been a wolverine, that was not our immediate assumption — we just knew it was something out of the ordinary. We definitely knew right away what it wasn’t, but we only determined what it had to be after looking in the guidebooks and on YouTube.” Here is her report to the Wolverine Foundation which tracks wolverine sightings:
“Yesterday as we drove out to the folks’ for the Thanksgiving holiday, it was daylight and both my husband and I got a pretty good look at this odd creature. My husband spotted it and thought at first it was a wild cat because it leaped from a tree at some wild turkeys on the ground. We were so surprised, we quickly pulled over to get a better look. The sound of our car startled the creature, which then ran up a small rise into the forest. As it ran up the hill we got a fairly good look at it in the sunlight. I thought at first it might have been a fox because of its tail, but it was too dark and heavy for a fox and it didn’t run like a dog. It seemed (in comparison to the turkeys) to be about as big as a badger, but taller; chocolate brown with golden undercoat and more gold on its head; small ears, big brushy dark brown tail and loped in a strange way. We waited quietly in the car for about 5-10 minutes to see if it would sneak back (for the turkeys which were still nearby), but it didn’t.
As wolverines are extremely rare (to my understanding) I thought perhaps it could have been a pine marten (which I’ve never seen either, but have heard they are around here), but when I looked at videos on YouTube and photos & guidebook descriptions, a marten is too small and much more weasel-like than this animal was. By a process of elimination, it seems the only animal that comes close to what we both saw is a wolverine and the description of its appearance and behavior actually seemed dead-on. So odd since the area is rural, but well-populated — not really “wilderness” anymore. There are lots of varied wildlife big and small in the area, but if this was truly a wolverine, it would be a very rare sighting, wouldn’t it? We thought it quite strange and amazing! After looking up videos on wolverines, and feeling more convinced, we went back to the spot today to look for tracks, but the ground was too grassy and needle-covered. I didn’t poke around too much because I was trespassing on people’s private property and there seemed no one home from whom to ask to ask permission. Although we have no proof in photos or tracks, we thought we should at least mention the possible sighting in case it is important, you are interested in following up, or maybe perhaps you’ve even had other reports from this area.”
Later Jen and I (Tina) revisited the property and found the owners at home. They were intrigued by the account of the possible sighting and gave us permission to explore further for any evidence of the mysterious animal. We found scat and fur samples and a wild animal’s ‘latrine’ at the base of a tree situated alongside a little spring-fed stream.
Nearby were the remains of a wild turkey carcass. We gathered what we could find for DNA testing (if anyone were to ask for it) and took photos. Well, the Childress’ sighting and report certainly piqued the interest of scientists, naturalists, biologists, and writers! The Wolverine Foundation’s biologist responded to her emailed description with these comments:
“It would be a bit odd to find a wolverine in a heavily populated area, but it has happened before, particularly if the area is fairly close to what we might consider wolverine habitat. We know that wolverines are present in
the Selkirks of northern Idaho and I’ve always wondered about the Colville country to the north of you. Young wolverines reach maturity in their second year and can sometimes get the wanderlust, which can take them into very unusual places. They are not particularly wary of humans and will sometimes simply follow their noses into places that are not often the best places for them to be. So, I certainly could not discount the possibility that what you saw was a wolverine. If it was, hopefully he (she) made their way back into the mountains where they belong. If it was, I wouldn’t be surprised to get more reports of sightings, so if I do, I will let you know.”
Author Jack Nisbet came out to the site a few weeks later. He knew of a radio collared wolverine which had migrated from Glacier National Park to Calispel Lake near Usk, Washington, in the 1980s. He was inspired to write his March 2015 North Columbia Monthlyessay, titled “A Shadow in the Sunlight” about the Little Spokane River sighting: “Many biologists consider the wolverine the least studied and least understood large mammal on our
continent.” Jack wrote. Wildlife biologists, Steve Zender of Chewelah, and Howard Ferguson of WDFW, Spokane region told him, “that over the years they received occasional calls from local residents about wolverine
sightings, but had no way of confirming their truth. Neither was shocked to hear of the Thanksgiving Day report, and pointed out the way functional wildlife corridors stretch from Mount Spokane and the Little Spokane drainage east clear to Glacier Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. That is where the most extensive scientific observations, done on viable wolverine populations over the past few decades, have revealed complex behaviors and life histories. Collared wolverine males have been shown to defend astonishingly large territories (up to a quarter of a million acres), and walkabouts by juveniles can stretch for hundreds of miles.”
Our local library has an informative book about this elusive mammal: The Wolverine Way by Douglas Chadwick. The author writes: “If an air of obsolescence seems to hover around these creatures today, it isn’t due to shortcomings on their part. They got through the Ice Ages and the post-Pleistocene period alike in vigorous shape. Granted, their chances of making it through the Industrial Exhaust Age in good shape don’t appear to be nearly as high. But then neither do ours.”
Canadian writer Eileen Delehanty Pearkes also featured the Thanksgiving Day sighting in her January 2015 North Columbia Monthly essay and titled it, “The Art of Noticing.” Things have quieted down. Perhaps the young wolverine is back in wilder territory and he/she has found a mate. Wanderlust has many trails. Practice “the art of noticing” dear readers, for the Little Spokane River Valley is still rich in untold mysteries and wonders.