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Wolverines in North Dakota

I recently read that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed wolverines as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, due to impacts of climate change and associated habitat degradation and fragmentation.

Historically, wolverines ranged over much of the northern coniferous forests and adjacent tundra across much of North America and Eurasia as well as the Rocky Mountains and Cascades.

They are the largest member of the weasel family, weighing between 20 and 60 pounds. Their coat is dark brown to perhaps black with a yellowish stripe along the sides from neck to rump. They are sometimes described as a small bear in overall appearance or as a large badger with more of an upright posture.

It may surprise you, but wolverines are native to North Dakota, particularly the area in and around the Pembina Hills. Alexander Henry obtained pelts of wolverines at his trading post near Pembina in the early 1800s from in and around the Pembina Hills, Pembina River, Park River, and Red River.

The Mandan and Hidatsa had a name for the wolverine, an indication that wolverines lived in their area or were known through trading activities. But around 1850, verified sightings of wolverines in North Dakota went blank, although there were a few scattered and unverified reports.

Fast forward to 2016 when a ranch hand shot a wolverine while it was harassing cattle near Alexander in McKenzie County. The incident was reported, investigated, no charges were filed, and the carcass given to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

While doing a necropsy on the wolverine, a radio transmitter was discovered in its abdomen. We now know that this wolverine, “M56” was radio collared several years prior, in Wyoming just south of Yellowstone National Park. It somehow lost its collar, but the transmitter remained in its abdomen. It had been in Colorado for a time, but then the signal went silent.

M56 traveled over 2,000 miles after it was radio collared to become the first confirmed wolverine in North Dakota since the mid 1800s. With their status now listed as threatened, one must wonder when, or if, another wolverine will make its way to North Dakota.

Further Reading:

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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