Have you seen the rarest mammal in the Sierra Nevada? I’m going to guess not. Do you know what it is?
(Remember, rare does not mean nonexistent. Polar bears and penguins are not “rare” in the Sierra Nevada – they aren’t there at all.)
Before I tell you the name of this beast, how many do you suppose there are? Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are pretty rare; there are only about 600 of them. There are a little more than 400 California condors throughout their range, and fewer in the Sierra. Let’s say there are at least 10% of those huge birds soaring above the Range of Light; that would put the number at 40.
Okay…enough of the guessing. The best estimate for the number of this rarest of animals (at least in the Sierra Nevada) is: one. Not one hundred. Not one dozen. One.
Such is the plight of the lonely wolverine who lives in the Tahoe National Forest.
He (it’s a male) has been seen on several occasions north of Highway 80, beginning in 2008. That sighting was made on a camera set up by Oregon State University graduate student Katie Moriarty. When she first saw the image, her reported response was, “That’s impossible! There is no way that I could have possibly documented a wolverine in the Tahoe National Forest.”
The previous Sierra Nevada sighting was in 1922.
Like most wolverines, Buddy (as he was named) is about three-feet long, weighs around thirty pounds, has a body that hugs the ground (which provides for a low center of gravity), has paws almost the size of a human hand (think of them as snowshoes), is totally impervious to the cold thanks to his amazing fur coat, and will eat darned near anything – alive or dead, bones and all. Wolverines have a keen sense of smell that allows them to find frozen carcasses buried in as much as twenty feet of snow. They also have an outsized attitude; wolverines have been known to bring down deer and even moose, and to face down grizzly bears over a carcass.
Their territory often includes 500 square miles, in which one male and two or three females reside. (No females have been sighted in the Tahoe National Forest, which no doubt makes Buddy one unhappy wolverine.) On ten-inch legs they can cover terrain in a way that would embarrass all but the fastest hikers. They can sustain four miles per hour uphill, downhill, and through deep snow. They routinely cover twenty miles a day. One was recorded climbing 4900 vertical feet in ninety minutes.
The Tahoe National Forest is well north of the John Muir Trail, so there is no need to look for Buddy during your thru-hike. Still, it’s kind of neat knowing that he is out there in the same mountains.
Good hiking, Ray