TRUCKEE, Calif. 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 had apparently 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 currently 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."
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 northern 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.