Think Out Loud

Wildlife biologist weighs in on Oregon’s unusual number of wolverine sightings this spring

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
April 28, 2023 6:04 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, May 1

A wolverine along the banks of the Columbia River.

On Monday, March 20, 2023, this wolverine was seen along the Columbia River near Portland. The sighting was rare, as wolverines typically reside in Eastern Oregon.

Cascadia Wild / Provided by Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife


A wolverine hasn’t been spotted in Oregon outside of the Wallowa Mountains in more than three decades. But this year, there have been several sightings in Western and Central Oregon.

Officials with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife haven’t been able to confirm whether the scattered sightings are of the same wolverine.

Kaly Adkins is the East Region conservation wildlife biologist with ODFW. She joins us to talk about the unusual amount of wolverine activity this spring.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. A wolverine had not been spotted in Oregon outside of the Wallowas in more than three decades. Not until the last few months. With multiple sightings in the Portland area and in Clackamas County in Central Oregon. Kaly Adkins is the East Region Conservation Wildlife Biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. She is the one who confirmed the Sister’s sighting and she joins us now to talk all about wolverines. Welcome to the show.

Kaly Adkins: Thanks for having me today.

Miller: I want to start with the basics. Wolverines look like slender little bears. Their name makes it sound like they are related to wolves, but they’re actually in the weasel family. What are wolverines?

Adkins: Yeah, you hit it on the head. They are mustelids so they’re more closely related to weasels than bears or wolves. But typically described as kind of a small bear. They’re roughly medium dog size, which can be kind of a tricky description…

Miller [Interjecting]: Because a dog can be anything.

Adkins: Exactly. Exactly.

Miller: But…so they’re like 30 or 40 pounds?

Adkins: Yep, males are 25 to 40 pounds, roughly. Females, 15 to 25 pounds, roughly. So, about the size of a dog - a medium sized dog - but they look like little bears. They’ve got big bushy tails and huge feet for the size of their body. And that is to help them move in really dense snow pack.

Miller: Snow pack, which gives us a clue as to my next question, what’s their preferred habitat?


Adkins: Their preferred habitat is pretty rugged areas. So they exist in high alpine areas, commonly above tree line. The best way that we can predict their habitat is to look at both elevation and spring snow pack. That’s driven from females in the spring that need that dense snowpack to create natal dens to watch for the young or kits and also to cache food. They create these little dig outs kind of like refrigerators to cache food and to feed their young in the times of the year that it’s really hard to find food and travel.

Miller: What were wolverine populations like in Oregon in the past?

Adkins: Honestly, before 2011, wolverine presence in Oregon is really difficult to definitively determine. That’s because we get individual accounts reported to the state but a lot of those can’t be confirmed. With camera phones and videos, that’s made it a lot easier for us to be able to go out and verify sightings and know if a wolverine was spotted or if it was a different species potentially.

So, like I said, before 2011 it’s pretty hard to tease apart. There had been occurrences in the 1960s in the Cascade Mountains, and then there was one reported struck on  the highway by Cascade Locks in the early nineties. So it’s kind of just a scattering of observations. After 2011, in the Blue Mountains, there were three that were captured on camera at a base station set by the Wallowas Wolverine Project. Then since then, after 2011, there’s just been one single male, resident male, in the Wallowas that has been documented annually since 2011, last documented in the spring of 2022. And he’s believed to be at least 13 years old.

Miller: Then this spring, with a wolverine spotted in the Portland area near the Columbia River, three in three different parts of Clackamas County, and then in Sisters. That’s the one that you were able to verify. What went through your mind, when one after another confirmed sightings happened?

Adkins: Super exciting. I mean, there have been biologists, both working for the agency and other agencies, and community science groups that have put in a lot of work to try to document wolverines in the Cascades over the years. They, like we said, haven’t been documented in the past three decades. So it was a really exciting day for a lot of people to get that first photo that was sent in by fisherpeople on the Columbia River and then also being able to have biologists out and verify tracks. Like I said, super exciting.

Then as the sightings rolled in... continued momentum. And it’s really great to see the public interest in this because all of the sightings have come in from the public. That really shows how getting additional eyes and ears out on the ground [works]. Then also, when they’re quick to report and take excellent photos or videos, biologists can really work with that and make sure that we’re able to verify sightings quickly. Which is extremely important in this type of conditions where snow is melting and muddy conditions don’t always last. So we have to go out and check really quickly,

Miller: I should say, these were not particularly ambiguous videos. I mean, it’s not David Attenborough quality, but you can actually see these are real wolverines. How likely is it that we’re talking about one individual in these five different settings?

Adkins: So it’s really hard to know. Common sense says, because we hadn’t had a sighting in 30 years, that it’s likely one. However, we don’t have conclusive evidence from that. You can tell an individual occasionally by ventral markings on the chest and throat, that it’s unique patterning on the chest. You can tell occasionally that it’s a unique individual or from genetic analysis if you can manage to get a sample. We haven’t gotten a photo of the chest of any of these sightings. Like you said, they’re really good videos but they’re not to the quality that we would be able to identify to an individual. So we don’t know for sure if it’s one or if it’s more. Based on the trajectory and the timing, it suggests that it could be one. But biologists have certainly been proven wrong when they’re just guessing on it.

Miller: So we just have about two minutes left. And I can’t help but think about OR-7 and his famous pilgrimage all over the place looking for a mate. If this is a male wolverine, is it likely to find a mate in places where wolverines haven’t been seen for decades?

Adkins: Well, if the wolverines haven’t been seen for decades, then it’s unlikely that there’s a female that hasn’t been detected. But like we said, we don’t know if these sightings have been of the same individual or not. We also are assuming that this individual or individuals have come from the Cascades in Washington, where there’s been a breeding population. So if one is able to make its way down, hopefully a female could make its way down as well…

Miller [Interjecting]:  …crossing the Bridge of the Gods?

Adkins: They can also cross water…

Miller: Oh! Much, much handier. Ok, and you don’t even have to pay a toll. Kaly Adkins, thanks very much for joining us.

Adkins: Yeah, my pleasure.

Miller: Kaly Adkins is the East Region conservation and wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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