TRUCKEE (CBS/AP) — Once believed to have gone extinct in the Sierra Nevada, scientists believe a wolverine spotted this winter north of Lake Tahoe is the same one that in 2008 became the first documented in the area since the 1920s.
Chris Stermer, a wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, set up remote cameras in the Tahoe National Forest after officials at a field station sent him photos in January of unusual tracks in the snow near Truckee.READ MORE: One Killed in San Jose When Truck Crashes Into Outdoor Diners at Sports Bar
“They were definitely wolverine tracks,” Stermer told the Sierra Sun newspaper.
Wolverines, a member of the weasel family that look like a small bear with big claws, rarely venture near people. They are known for their ferocity and strength — able to kill prey many times larger than themselves.
Prior to the 2008 sighting, scientists were convinced fur trapping during the early 1900s had wiped the species out in California. Stermer said the male carnivore apparently migrated from the Sawtooth Range in Idaho.
Since then, the animal that scientists have nicknamed “Buddy” has been detected more than 20 times over nearly 300 square miles, but it had not been sighted since November 2014, Stermer said.
Video from the remote cameras soon provided additional evidence. One clip recorded the night of Feb. 19 offers a glimpse of the wolverine before it scurries away.
A second daytime clip captured Feb. 27 shows it scale a tree before chewing and tugging at a baited sock. The video has been viewed more than 350,000 times on the state agency’s Facebook site.READ MORE: 'In the Heights' Delights at First Pride Movie Night at Oracle Park
“When you see them on video, a wolverine is a pretty exciting species to have in California,” Stermer said. “With the population we have in California, thinking that we can have a wild wolverine amongst us is pretty amazing. It really begins to restore our larger carnivores back in California.”
Wolverines once were found throughout the Rocky Mountains and as far west as the Sierra. An estimated 250 to 300 wolverines survive in remote areas of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state, according to wildlife officials.
Stermer is awaiting test results on DNA samples taken from saliva collected from the tree bait to confirm its identity.
“I’m pretty certain — 95 percent — that it’s the same animal,” he said.
If the DNA samples match, “Buddy” is estimated to be at least 9 years old, Stermer said, adding that the life expectancy of a wild wolverine ranges from six to 10 years.
Talk of reintroducing wolverines in California has been put on hold while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers its response to a federal court order in Montana that overturned its decision denying protection of the animal under the Endangered Species Act, Stermer said.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ordered wildlife officials to act as quickly as possible to protect the species as it becomes vulnerable to a warming planet. Wolverines need deep mountain snows to den, and scientists warn that such habitat will shrink as Earth heats up.MORE NEWS: COVID Reopening: Napa County Toasts Return Of Visitors, Business Close To Normal Levels
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