The wolverine that terrorized Alaska’s largest city appears to have disappeared and nary a moose has been known to have died.
A month ago, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued its first-ever wolverine warning, telling Anchorage residents to keep an eye on their chickens, rabbits and pets after a little bear, as the animal is sometimes called, reportedly attacked a cat. The cat somehow escaped with no more injury than slobber despite the ferocious reputation of wolverines.
But the story quickly grew bigger than chickens, rabbits and cats because wolverines are, well, wolverines.
“Part of their intimidating reputation…comes from going after much larger prey,” public radio warned in mid-November, quoting a local zookeeper saying “they’ve been known to take down caribou up north.
“‘And they can take down a moose. They look for them in the deep snow,”’ (Kora) Isakson said. With broad paws studded with semi-retractable claws, wolverines can move atop snowpack that bogs down leggy ungulates. ‘So if a big moose is moving slow in the snow, they take that down.'”
Authorities on wolverines consider that more than a bit of an overstatement. There are several documented cases of wolverines killing moose, but the moose were debilitated animals a fox might have been able to kill and which a pack of coyotes (or for that matter dogs) would not struggle to “take down.”
And Anchorage’s rare urban (as opposed to more common suburban) wolverine posed no threat to people. There has never been a reported attack by a healthy wolverine on a human, but still some people apparently felt threatened.
“Fish and Game issues Wildlife Alert for wolverine attacking pets,” KTVA headlined on Nov. 15 with the local body count reportedly standing at four chickens and “up to 10 rabbits,” not to mention a couple scared cats.
The story then quoted area wildlife biologist Dave Battle advising against human worries, saying “I don’t really look for it to start going after people….”
Which was probably enough to make some think it might or could go after people.
Three days later Alaska Public Media, the public radio outlet, offered the warning of wolverines looking for moose in a story below a headline that read “There’s a wild wolverine in Anchorage. What do city dwellers need to know?”
Apparently one of those things they needed to know is that wolverines go looking for moose in deep snow and take them down, which was somewhat at odds with the story’s other observation that wolverines aren’t any more dangerous than any other Alaska wildlife.
The only other Alaska wildlife regularly taking down moose are bears and wolves, which have killed people in the 49th state
Twenty seconds of fame
Thankfully, the wolverine appears to have slunk out of the more developed part of Anchorage just about as quickly as it charged into the news.
The animal most certainly remains somewhere in the nearly 2,000-square-mile Municipality of Anchorage, about three-quarters of which is wilderness. But Fish and Game spokesman Rick Green said Friday the agency hasn’t had a wolverine report for weeks.
All of which might have something to do with the fact that the people living in the Chugach Mountain foothills around the edges of the city or in the bedroom communities of Eagle River, Chugiak, Birchwood and Eklutna to the north or Bird and Girdwood to the southeast historically haven’t bothered to report wolverine sightings.
For better or worse, that is changing in these days of Facebook, Nextdoor, Twitter and Ring home surveillance cameras good for catching images of animals that once passed through neighborhoods unnoticed.
“There have been a few reports where the person actually saw an animal with their own eyes, but many are reports from Ring videos,” Battle observed when the wolverine was running wild in the more developed part of Anchorage. “It wasn’t long ago that nobody had motion-activated cameras on their house, so if a bear or wolverine or lynx came cruising through their backyard at 2 a.m, they’d never know.”
Times are different now.
Nextdoor for in neighborhoods along the Anchorage Hillside was regularly lighting up with reports of bear sightings over the summer as if this might help someone avoid the animals. The problem is that unless animals are resting or actively feeding on something, they rarely stay in one place for long.
This is particularly true of wolverines. When state wildlife biologists Howard Golden and Mike Harrington put radio collars on some and tracked them around the Chugach and Kenai mountains earlier this decade, they found the animals covering up to 30 miles per night.
“People attribute magic powers to them, but they’re just doing their thing, looking for food. They are curious, smart animals and they figure stuff out pretty quick. They are smart enough to run down a trap line (feeding on trapped animals), and that’ll make trappers mad. But it makes sense that they’d do that – there’s always food on these trap lines. They’re not extra aggressive, they avoid trouble.
“Two wolves can kill one. You hear stories about them chasing bears off, I’ve never seen that happen, or known anyone who has.
“They’ve got strong claws for digging and defense, and incredibly strong jaws for biting and crushing bone and frozen meat – not the same crushing power as a wolf, but they’re not as big, a big wolverine is 40 pounds and small wolf is 60 pounds.”
“You look at them, they’re mostly built for scavenging. But they’re very opportunistic and regularly kill small game. They’re not as fast as wolves, and they don’t work in packs, but they can be more predator than scavenger if the situation allows for it.”
The Anchorage area’s few wolverines spend a goodly amount of their time in the mountains where their amazing climbing ability provides them protection from bears and wolves, and they are there known to prey on young Dall sheep that inhabit the same territory.
A 50-pound lamb is a decidedly easier target for a wolverine than an 800-pound moose.
The mapped, radio-collar plots of a dozen wolverines Golden and Harrington studied showed the animals roaming in sheep territory above the Anchorage Hillside and regularly venturing down to the Seward Highway between Bird and Girdwood. This is an area with a lot of cliffs that sheep also frequent.
One of those radio-collared wolverines also frequented Far North Bicentennial Park and the Campbell Creek drainage, which is part of a greenbelt system that runs all the way from the wild, half-million-acre Chugach State Park on the edge of Anchorage to Campbell Lake adjacent to Turnagain Arm.
The greenbelt is a well-documented travel corridor for bears and an old wolf – part of a pack that once roamed Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson north of the city – was known to be living in the greenbelt for a good part of the summer of 2016.
Bicentennial Park and the adjacent wild lands of the Bureau of Land Management’s Campbell Tract are also home to both black and grizzly bears and sometimes visited by wolves. Most of the recent wolverine sightings, according to Fish and Game, came from people living fairly close to that area.
Given that the wolverines Golden and Harrington studied in the area occupied home ranges from 115 to 380 square miles in size and sometimes went exploring outside of those ranges, the five-minute-famous wolverine of an Anchorage November could now tens of miles from where it was last sighted.
Given its new knowledge of the backyard chicken craze that has infiltrated Anchorage as it has other cities, the wolverine could also lurking anywhere on the edge of the city just waiting for the wind to blow it the scent of another tasty target zone.
Wolverines, as Golden noted, have “a really good nose. They can smell food over long distances or buried well under the snow.”
Correction: An early version of this story misidentified Rick Green.
The wolverine is more scavenger than hunter, but it’s tougher than its 15- to 40-pound size might indicate.
“Wolverines can survive for long periods on little food,” Fish and Game notes. “Their diet reflects annual and seasonal changes in food availability. In the winter wolverines primarily rely on carrion, remains of moose and caribou killed by wolves and hunters or animals that have died of natural causes. Throughout the year, wolverines feed on small and medium-sized animals such as voles, squirrels, snowshoe hares, and birds.”