Sixteen years ago, Ross Carkeet Jr. received a federal government grant aimed at determining whether wolverines still existed in the Sierra.
The longtime and recently retired Columbia College natural resources instructor placed cameras in vantage points ranging from near the top of Sonora Pass to Eagle Meadows and Long Valley, east of Strawberry, during the winter of 1992-93.
Some Tuolumne County residents thought the study wasted taxpayer dollars and told him so. A few friends teased him when his cameras turned up some martens and fishers -- weasellike animals -- but no wolverines.
"I got a lot of that," said Carkeet, including a chiding from one local rancher who told him, "You're chasing ghosts."
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"I said, 'You might have to eat your words,' " said Carkeet, 64, of Twain Harte.
Even wildlife researchers had their doubts.
"Most experts believed the California wolverine was probably (locally extinct)," said Adam Rich, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Pinecrest.
Carkeet, however, never wavered in his belief they still inhabit the Sierra. A story in Monday's paper finally brought him vindication.
An Oregon State University student researcher accidentally captured a wolverine on camera in the Tahoe National Forest in late February. The irony: She wanted a photo of a marten and got a wolverine. In 1992-93, Carkeet wanted a photo of a wolverine and got martens.
Jealous of her good fortune? To the contrary, he's thrilled.
"It made me feel good," Carkeet said. "It shows the wolverines must be here (in the Sierra). I always thought they were."
Carkeet and other researchers in the high country up and down the state all came up empty that winter.
"Nobody in the state snapped a photo (of a wolverine) in 1992-93," he said. "In fact, the last picture I can recall of one in the Sierra was taken in 1930 in the Yosemite area. Trappers got a picture. There had been lots of sightings, but we wanted a documented photo. We'd heard accounts of deer hunters who were confronted. One fellow actually got jumped by one (wolverine) in the 1940s up by Mill Creek (east of Strawberry). It jumped on his head, realized he wasn't easy prey, and took off."
Wolverines are known to be aggressive and vicious, he said. They range from 40 to 50 pounds in the lower 48 states, but can reach
60 pounds or more in Alaska.
"They can take down a full-sized deer," Carkeet said. He had heard of one instance in Alaska in which a wolverine killed a young moose after dropping from a tree limb onto the animal's neck.
Wolverines tend to prefer higher-altitude snowfields, from 9,000 to 12,000 feet.
The males roam large areas, loops of as much as 200 miles, as they search for mates. They are love-'em and leave-'em types.
"They can have a number of mates -- three, four or five -- within a 60-mile radius," Carkeet said. "They're real cads. They knock 'em up and take off."
That's assuming they can find females at all. The species isn't reproducing at a great rate. Carkeet suspects there might be only a few dozen mated pairs in the entire Sierra.
During his study, he got permission to use road-kill deer as bait, putting them up in tree perches where the coyotes couldn't get to them. Then he mounted his cameras accordingly.
"But (wolverines) are smart," Carkeet said. "They'd see the cameras, smell human scent on them and know they're phony."
Later that winter, he began putting the bait into holes in the snow, figuring they'd be more likely to dig for food. Wolverines are known to claw through snowdrifts to reach other animals hibernating below. He was on the right track.
The wolverine captured on video last month did, indeed, appear to be digging through the snow, Carkeet said.
Granted, it wasn't Carkeet's find. The 1992-93 wolverine program ended after a year and wasn't renewed. Now, the Tahoe photo justifies 16 years of belief that yes, they do exist in the Sierra.
"I'd have to say I give Ross lots of credit for keeping the hope alive," the forest service's Rich said. "Lots of us in the profession had given up that there were still wolverines in California."
As for the rancher who said Carkeet was merely chasing ghosts:
"I think I'll give him a call," Carkeet said.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.