Wolverines Return to Mount Rainier National Park After 100-Plus Years

They 'make good models for conservation in a changing world.'

wolverine mom and kits
A wolverine mother and her kits climb a tree at Mount Rainier National Park.

 Cascades Carnivore Project / NPS

A wolverine mother and her two offspring have been spotted at Mount Rainier National Park. It's the first time in more than 100 years that researchers have identified a wolverine with kits in the Washington state national park.

“It’s really, really exciting,” said Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins in a press release. “It tells us something about the condition of the park— that when we have such large-ranging carnivores present on the landscape that we’re doing a good job of managing our wilderness.”

Wolverines are classified as a species of least concern, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. They are found in Canada, China, Finland, Mongolia, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. Although they are common in Alaska, they are rare in the rest of the United States. According to the National Park Service, there are only an estimated 300 to 1,000 wolverines in the lower 48 states.

“Many species that live at high elevation in the Pacific Northwest, such as the wolverine, are of particular conservation concern due to their unique evolutionary histories and their sensitivity to climate change,” said Jocelyn Akins, founder of the Cascades Carnivore Project and leader of the wolverines research team. “They serve as indicators of future changes that will eventually affect more tolerant species and, as such, make good models for conservation in a changing world.” 

In 2018, scientists installed cameras in the park to photograph wolverines. Because they have distinct white chest blazes, researchers believe they would be able to identify individual animals based on these unique markings. The camera stations are specifically designed to show details such as if a female wolverine is lactating. The wolverine recently photographed was identified as a nursing female.

The park also released video footage of three wolverines running through a meadow.

In order to keep the animals safe, park officials are careful not to release exact locations of the wolverines' den or camera stations. But if a visitor were to happen upon a wolverine, there's little chance of any confrontation.

“Wolverines are solitary animals and despite their reputation for aggressiveness in popular media, they pose no risk to park visitors," said park ecologist Tara Chestnut. "If you are lucky enough to see one in the wild, it will likely flee as soon as it notices you.” 

Wolverines look like small brown bears with bushy tails, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They have broad heads with small eyes and round ears. They have paws with claws used for climbing and digging. Females weigh about 17 to 26 pounds (8-12 kilograms) and males weigh 26 to 40 pounds (12-18 kilograms).

Park visitors are encouraged to learn how to recognize wolverine tracks and submit any observations of photos or tracks to the Mount Rainier online wildlife observations database or to the Cascades Wolverine Project.

“Reporting wildlife observations is very helpful to national park and other public land managers,” Chestnut said, “and if someone is lucky enough to get a photo of a wolverine or their tracks, we really want to know about it.”