Tracking the Toughest Critter Out There


US Fish and Wildlife Service Photo

Grizzly bears are some bad ass critters, no two ways about it.  But pound for pound, the wolverine wins the One Tough Critter contest, hands down.     And it’s not just because they’ll take on animals many times their size.    For one thing, grizzly bears sleep most of the winter, while wolverines are out prowling around no matter how cold it gets.    Heck, one guy was even monitored as he winter climbed straight up Mt. Cleveland in Glacier:  he reached the top (5000 feet in 90 minutes!) and then just went down the other side.     There was nothing he wanted up there; he just was climbing because that’s what tough critters do.  Their jaws are so strong that they eat every part of a carcass, bones included.  I’ve even seen video of a wolverine going up a tree after a black bear.     They’re rare, and I thought that they were pretty much all in the Glacier Park area.

So I was surprised last weekend when the Montana Wilderness Association and Wild Things Unlimited offered a workshop to go out and learn about tracking wolverines and lynx just an hour outside of Helena.    There are wolverines there?  Cool.

We spent two hours on Friday night learning about winter tracking in general: information about stride, straddle, and direct registry that was nifty in itself.     We (the citizen scientists!) were going to be looking for three animals in particular: lynx, wolverines, and fishers.    On Saturday we broke into four groups and headed up four different drainages to search for tracks.  Our group found interesting stuff right away: bobcat, coyote, snowshoe hare and deer tracks, and some unknown scat that our fearless leader collected.

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We continued up the trail, trying hard to decipher the tracks we found in the crusty snow.


More scat.


The big reward came  when we discovered a fairly fresh elk carcass.  Something had been eating on it recently, and had even buried it in the snow.

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We started looking carefully, and found….wolverine tracks!  They were not the best tracks, but they were clearly wolverine: large, with five toes, and with a gait and track pattern that is typical of wolverines.  We may have even found lynx tracks,  as well.  There was even a bit of scat near the carcass (yay, poop!)   My photos of the tracks are not the best, but I think you can make out the prints:




We had lunch near the carcass, and then headed back.  When we all met up we discovered that three of our four groups had found wolverine tracks.  One group even followed some tracks to a snowshoe hare kill.  Amazing.


If you’re interested in learning more, here is the link to Wild Things Unlimited, as well as a link to a short piece that NPR did about our day in the field.

About westerner54

Hello. I'm Cindy, and I love to hike, bike and explore the outdoors - particularly the western U.S.
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16 Responses to Tracking the Toughest Critter Out There

  1. Lyle Krahn says:

    There’s a whole world going on there that we rarely see

    • westerner54 says:

      There is! I forgot to mention that after we found the carcass one of the team leaders went back and strapped a motion-activated wildlife camera to a tree. So maybe we’ll be able to see some shots of the actual wolverine! Will share them if that happens, for sure.

  2. What a wonderful opportunity, and it must have been thrilling to make such a contribution to the ongoing research. That wolverine is one scary looking dude.

    • westerner54 says:

      He is scary looking, isn’t he? I wonder how scared I’d be to really see one. We were out again three times this week, looking for more tracks; it’s been so fun.

  3. Jeff Katzer says:

    Oh, what a fabulous way to spend a day. I’m training our newest little tracker these days (6 years old) and very much into everything “wild”.

  4. TedG says:

    “Yay, poop!” The sign of a true scientist. Love it! 🙂

  5. Wow, that is so cool! It’s amazing how much you see when you know what to look for. I hope the camera catches a photo of the wolverine.

  6. brickthomas says:

    That looked and sounded very cool! Thanks for sharing the story and links.

  7. Jet Eliot says:

    Wow, that’s right up there in the list of near impossibilities. And I love how you had lunch near the carcass, Cindy. Hard core, hard core. 🙂

    • westerner54 says:

      It was incredibly lucky that we actually saw tracks that first day. We’ve been back there twice since the workshop and just saw coyote tracks. And how much do I love being called “hard core!”

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