TRUCKEE -- The high school mascot in this mountain town may be the wolverine, but none of the students has ever spotted one of the elusive forest carnivores, known for their voraciousness and distaste for civilization.
Even scientists who have looked far and wide, tromping almost the entire span of the Sierra Nevada from Mount Whitney in the south to Mount Lassen up north -- have found nothing. The last confirmed Sierra wolverine was shot as a scientific specimen in 1922.
Last year, a team of scientists reported that the wolverine -- a chocolate-brown weasel the size of a border collie but as vicious as a grizzly bear -- apparently had vanished from the Sierra long ago, squeezed out by human activity.
Now one has been found in the Tahoe National Forest north of Truckee. The sighting, captured by a graduate student's remote control camera at a rustic field station, could have widespread implications for future land-use decisions ranging from logging to ski-resort expansion in the fast-growing Truckee region.
Coincidentally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether to place the wolverine on the endangered species list -- a decision that could lead to a new round of spotted-owl-style development conflicts.
Potential controversy aside, the discovery was greeted with enthusiasm around Truckee.
"Oh my goodness! That is so exciting," said Susan Lowder, a chemistry and physics teacher at Truckee High School. "So when are the grizzlies coming back? And the wolves?"
Ray Butler, a member of the Nevada County Fish and Wildlife Commission who lives in Truckee, was thrilled, too. "I'm going to have a single malt tonight," Butler said. "Other than a saber-toothed cat, this is about as good as it will ever get in California nowadays."
Native or migrant?
William Zielinski, a research ecologist with the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Field Research Station and a forest carnivore specialist, said there's little doubt the animal in the photo is a wolverine. Beyond that, not much else is known.
Scientists aren't sure, Zielinski explained, whether the animal is a bona fide Sierra Nevada native or a long-distance migrant that wandered in from the North Cascades in Washington or the Sawtooths in Idaho, its two closest home ranges. Another possibility, although slim, is that someone may have released a captive wolverine into the wild.
"Nobody knows of any captive wolverines in the California area," Zielinski said. Some animals, though, are kept as captives for photography and other purposes in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. "It would have been a pretty unusual and diabolical event to have someone travel a great distance with a wolverine and release it," Zielinski said.
The discovery came about by accident. The researcher, Katie Moriarty, a graduate student at Oregon State University, wasn't looking for wolverines. She was studying martens, a slender brown weasel fond of old-growth forests, at the Sagehen Creek Field Station between Truckee and Sierraville, just west of Highway 89.
The work -- part of a master's degree thesis -- was going well, according to Zielinski, who was supervising Moriarty's project from his office in Arcata. By baiting locations with raw chicken and positioning a motion-detecting digital camera nearby, Moriarty was capturing a diverse gallery of Sierra wildlife, including martens, a spotted skunk, bobcat and black bear.
Then March 2 at 7:15 a.m., the phone rang at Zielinski's home. It was Moriarty, her voice trembling. "Bill," she said. "Check your e-mail. Just check your e-mail." Alarmed, Zielinski sat down at his computer. "I was really frightened because she doesn't call me at home much at all," he said.
He logged on, called up Moriarty's e-mail and opened the attachment. There was a healthy-looking wolverine with an almond colored stripe, caught by the camera from behind, digging into the snow for a scrap of chicken.
First known Sierra photo
It is the first known photo of a wolverine in the Sierra Nevada.
"I was flabbergasted," Zielin- ski said. "I just could not believe what I was seeing."
Reached by e-mail late Tuesday afternoon at the Sagehen facility, Moriarty said that when she first glimpsed the digital image, she tried not to jump to conclusions.
"I stared at the photo for a long time, running through every animal I thought it could be. And I couldn't think of anything but this," she wrote. "So I called Bill immediately and asked him what he thought. Things just got crazy from there."
Tom Kucera, a wildlife biologist who is among those who searched in vain for wolverines, called the discovery "the best news I've heard in a long time. Everybody is speechless. People are stunned." To many scientists, one surprise is that the animal was found north of Truckee, a region that while rugged, is not wilderness. The area has been logged and is used by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers.
Historically, most wolverines had been spotted in the high, wild southern Sierra, part of a population that may no longer exist.
Zielinski and others wonder whether the Sagehen wolverine is a remnant of that southern population that wandered north and remained undetected until now. To find out, they hope to capture a bit of its fur, compare the DNA with museum samples and solve that part of the mystery.
However, Butler, the Nevada County wildlife commissioner, said he was not surprised the animal turned up at Sagehen. A decade and a half ago, he claimed, another was sighted in the area.
"The old agriculture commissioner for Nevada County called me on the phone," he said. "He was going up to the Euer Ranch, one basin south of Sagehen. And he was just ecstatic. He said he had seen a wolverine. He said, 'There's no question in my mind, Ray, it was a wolverine.' "