Wolverines in Wisconsin?

Jan 7, 2019

Wolverine
Credit National Park Service / Wikimedia Commons

There are a few animals that were probably present here but have been lost in the last hundred years or more.

In this week’s Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist considers past records of the wolverine in Wisconsin.

I guess it would be fair to say that the history of the wolverine in Wisconsin is not entirely clear. The records of reported observations or specimens seem to indicate that there were very few and infrequent wolverines present up to about 1870. According to Hartley Jackson’s Mammals of Wisconsin, there were three authentic reports that occurred in North Central Wisconsin. There was a wolverine reported as being killed in the first half of 1876 and turned in at the Taylor County office in Medford for a predator bounty payment. Another newspaper report came from Marathon county in 1870 that stated that a wolverine was taken along the Big Rib River. Finally “another good record comes from Chief Warden Barney Devine and George Ruegger of Radisson in their report that a Mr. Sig Tusculla trapped a wolverine in the vicinity of Radisson, Sawyer county, in 1922.”

While documentation is sketchy, it appears that there may have been one mounted specimen that was originally killed in Juneau County and donated to the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters in July 1870. Unfortunately, this mounted specimen no longer exists. When our third capitol building caught fire from a gas leak in 1904, there was a catastrophic amount of damage. Suppression and salvage efforts were extensive; firefighters from Madison and Milwaukee struggled for 18 hours to bring the blaze under control. Governor LaFollette led the charge to salvage any documents and the law library. Stuffed taxidermy mounts were a lower priority, and all were lost. The wolverine was among them, but the only specimen that seems to have gained enough notoriety to list was “Old Abe,” Wisconsin’s civil war eagle (which is a story for another time.) There are two other mounted specimens still housed at the Milwaukee Museum, but a thorough records search revealed that they may actually have been brought here from Colorado.

Looking back through records of fur trappers and traders shows no wolverine hides being exchanged commercially. This is not necessarily a surprise, however. Their hide would be so precious and so rare that it would probably be kept for a personal trophy, given as a gift to a loved one, or traded for valuables with other individuals. Their fur is highly prized. Supposedly it is so well adapted to cold climates that breathing on the fur in extremely cold temperatures will not cause frost to form.

Wolverines are probably the largest member of the weasel family, with the possible exception of the sea otter. The mustelids, which include weasel, mink, otter, fisher and badger are often considered to be ferocious animals with voracious appetites for meat. The wolverine is considered a strong fighter, often able to chase other predators off their kills without contest. They are very solitary animals, with very large territories and nocturnal movement, all of which would make them very difficult to observe. I would start by describing a wolverine as somewhat similar to a fisher, but much larger and heavier built. Their tail is shorter, maybe a quarter the length of their body and somewhat bushy compared to that of the fisher. The coloration can vary between brown and tan, but they have a visible saddle of lighter colored hair on their back which is very different from fisher and other mustelids.

It seems very unlikely that we will ever see the return of wolverines here, save for the occasional lost dispersing male from northern Minnesota or the UP of Michigan. The lack of extensive undisturbed forest landscape is a limiting factor for these animals, as is the presence of humans, vehicles, domestic dogs and other animals. However, as with any other animal, you can never rule out an animal when they have the ability to adapt to changes in their environment over time. To me, having the potential for another mid-sized predator in the deepest forested reaches of Wisconsin only adds to my appreciation for living here.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.