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Wolverine State finally has one . . . but how?

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Wolverine State finally has one . . . but how?

Hunters find animal in Thumb, hundreds of miles from its range

February 26, 2004




This wolverine was seen running out of the woods in Huron County. The state may begin tracking the animal.

We're the Wolverine State. University of Michigan athletes are nicknamed Wolverines. And Ohio folks called us Wolverines during the Toledo War in 1835. But there never was a confirmed sighting of a wild wolverine in Michigan -- until Tuesday.

"I couldn't believe it," said Wayne Steerzer, one of a group of hunters whose dogs ran a big wolverine for 18 miles in Huron County before treeing it. "It was so big and beautiful. And it was so graceful. It had moves like Barry Sanders."

The coyote hunters eventually chased the wolverine into an open field, where they and state Department of Natural Resources biologist Arnie Karr saw it at close range and got some good pictures.

"There's no doubt, it's a wolverine," Ray Rustem, head of the DNR's endangered species program, said Wednesday. "But out there in Huron County -- wow! How far across the ice of Lake Huron is it to Canada?"

No one has ever trapped a wolverine in Michigan, and no one has found a wolverine skeleton, so it's unlikely the animal made an 80-mile trip across the ice. DNR biologists thought the animal could be an escaped pet, "but there's really no way to say where it came from," Rustem said.

Huron County is at the top of the Thumb.

The normal home range for wolverines is where the dense forests give way to tundra in the far north of Canada and Alaska and in the northern Rocky Mountains. Steerzer, estimated that the one his party saw Tuesday weighed about 50 pounds, which made it an average size for an adult male.

The wolverine is not covered by Michigan wildlife regulations, Rustem said, so the DNR was preparing a special director's order Wednesday as an emergency measure to protect the Huron County animal and stop people from hunting or harassing it. An animal can be shot if it's not protected by state or federal law.


Steerzer, who lives in Croswell, was with a group of hunters pursuing coyotes near Bad Axe when some other hunters called to say their dogs had been running for miles behind a large animal that was leaving a bizarre track in the snow.

"Some guys thought the track looked like an otter, but no otter could go cross-country that fast," Steerzer said. "Others said it must be a fisher, but the track was too big. We packed our dogs up and drove up there and put them on it. Pretty soon, they treed something.

"One of the guys went in on snowshoes, and when he came back out, he said, 'You'll never believe what's in that tree.' So we all went in, and even though we had never seen one, we knew it had to be a wolverine."

The hunters called DNR biologist Karr, who went to the scene just before the wolverine made a 30-foot leap out of the tree to the snow and took off across an open field.

Karr and the hunters herded the animal with snowmobiles and stopped it long enough to get pictures that confirmed its identity.

Rustem said a handful of people had permits to keep wolverines as educational exhibits -- a Minnesota woman brought her wolverines to the Michigan United Conservation Clubs Outdoorama show a few years ago -- but he didn't know of any in Michigan.

"It doesn't even make sense that this animal would be found across the border or the lake in Canada," Rustem said. "Wolverines aren't found there, either. You have to go hundreds of miles north of Michigan to get to where they live."

Wolverines are mustelids -- weasels -- and have a reputation for being nasty, ferocious and ravenous eaters. Northern Indians and trappers thought wolverines were possessed by evil spirits that went out of their way to make life difficult for people, mostly by devouring valuable fur animals caught in trap lines and wrecking the interior of cabins.

Legendary Michigan coach Fielding Yost asked Michigan trappers to get him a live wolverine as a team mascot in 1921. But when none had been caught two years later, the state had 10 shipped from Alaska to the Detroit Zoo, and two of them, Bennie and Biff, were carried around the U-M field at football games in a large cage.

But the animals quickly grew so large and ferocious that they spent most of their time trying to get at the people outside the cage, and they were retired to a larger cage on campus.

U-M referred to its sports teams as Wolverines as early as 1861, and Yost wrote in the "Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1944 that he thought Michigan got the nickname "Wolverine State" from pelts that Indians in far northern Ontario sent through the fur trading post at Sault Ste. Marie.

Ohioans referred to Michiganders as wolverines during the 1803 border dispute called the Toledo War. Why? Because Michigan residents supposedly had as gluttonous an appetite for land as the wolverine had for flesh.

Contact ERIC SHARP at 313-222-2511 or [email protected]

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