The Final Chapter…
It was not how I had imagined it in my thoughts and dreams of the demise of the Thumb wolverine. The phone call that I always dreaded came at 5:32 pm on Saturday, March 13, and as I held the lifeless body of the wolverine in my arms, a rush of horrendous sadness overtook me that took a week to shake loose. My furry friend was gone!
I always figured following the moments and days after her death taking no phone call at all, that she would just mysteriously disappear- the thickness and magnitude of the Minden City Swamp swallowing up her body never to be found. Those that have dared to hunt and suffered the miseries that lie in the interior of the swamp where the wolverine called home know exactly what I am talking about. There are few of us. I’m not talking of those that venture in a half to three quarters of a mile, but the few hardy enough to attempt to navigate the deep, dark depths of the interior.
The gut of the swamp is made only for the hard core, toughest hunter. The allure for such a hunter is not the physical suffering he is sure to endure. It is hunting an area where bucks can die of old age due to a lack of human presence. I saw such a buck on one occasion prior to the wolverine’s arrival. He would have scored in the upper 140s to low 150s had the thick buck brush, tamarack blow downs, and my trembling hand not prevented me from harvesting the old brute.
The eastern half of the swamp extending from west of the canals to the east, striking into the thick tamaracks could swallow up a truck, never to be found. In fact, if you provide me twenty full size trucks, I’ll show you twenty places where they would remain hidden forever. How could the wolverine ever possibly be found if she was to die in the interior sections where she spent the majority of her time?
There were other thoughts plaguing my mind. If the phone call did ever come, I always figured it would be a direct result of human activity; a car, bullet, or a trap on the outer fringes of her domain. But the call I received from my hunting buddy Steve Noble that day held none of those scenarios I had spent so much time gathering up in my mind and was so fearful of. It came due to an outdoorsman named Todd Rann and his girlfriend that had miraculously stumbled upon the wolverine on the very fringes of her habitat; an area where I had only seen her tracks on two occasions.
They found the wolverine just over a half mile in from the east side, near the bog. What makes it even more amazing is if it hadn’t been for a phone call from his buddy, which he stopped to answer- unknowingly only 20 yards from where the dead wolverine was lying in the water- giving time for his girlfriend Morgan Graham to do some investigating- the wolverine would have possibly never been found. Certainly not in the quality condition she was in, allowing for a mount to be made and displayed in Bay City, and her skeleton to be displayed at the MSU museum, and a necropsy to be performed confirming her cause of death. We all owe a big thanks to the couple for finding her. I consider it truly a miracle, and I am very thankful for their find.
The eerie thing is I walked within 20 yards of the dead wolverine on Thursday, March 11, as I went in for research two days prior to their find. I use the same trail they were on that fateful day to enter into my research site which is another three-quarters of a mile west southwest, tucked into the edge of the interior.
I call the research site ‘the point of no return.’ It seems every year hunters not wise enough to carry a GPS past that point end up being rescued because they have become lost in the maze of thickness. I will see another story in the local papers of another hunter “swallowed up by the swamp.”
On one occasion back in 2002, Noble and I had the brilliant idea of forging through the deepest depths of the gut of the swamp just to see what it would be like. In retrospect, we were just a couple of testosterone driven men trying to prove we were tougher than Mother Nature. A huge mistake when you take on the Minden City swamp.
What we found was a miserable place and the trip nearly sucked the life right out of us. I rested for a full day on the couch suffering from leg cramps and physical exhaustion following the adventure, and Noble suffered miserably from the cuts and lacerations on his legs from the thorn thickets we ripped through de
ep in its core. My elkskin outback coat had saved me from similar sufferings. Following that adventure we never talked about, nor did we return back into the interior of that nasty, hell ridden area.
The same attributes of the Minden City Swamp that caused me pain and discomfort on so many occasions was the prime reason the Thumb wolverine was drawn there and thrived for so many years. A wolverine is molded for such a habitat in mind and body. The wolverine loved the seclusion and security the nasty swamp provided, and in the winter time she had an abundant population of snowshoe hares and cottontails to hunt, as well as deer and many other critters that swamps attract. In the spring and early summer she had such an abundance of food choices that I often had a difficult time enticing her to visit my research site.
On occasion she would get curious and strike out from the swamp looking for food, but these excursions usually resulted in negative contact with humans, so she would quickly dive back into her safety zone.
This is what I believed happened on February 24th, 2004 when coyote hunters from Ubly Fox Hunters Club first discovered her, and ran her for six miles. She had taken an exploratory trip looking for food, and got caught outside her core area and quickly bolted back into the swamp. We found her tracks there 10 days later on March 6th, and the quest to photograph her began.
By March 2003 the wolverine had already established the Minden City swamp as her home. Dale Abbott who is an avid trapper was trapping beaver back in along the canals when he came across her tracks in the snow. At the time he thought he had encountered the tracks of a bear, although the very short eight inch stride gait had him baffled, and he never even considered the possibility of a wolverine. But after the wolverine was discovered, photographed, and the casts we made started circulating showing how big her tracks really are, Abbott then knew the tracks he saw were of a wolverine, not a bear. He continued to run into her tracks near the canals in succeeding winters, and they matched perfectly with the ones he came across the winter of 2003.
In the aftermath of being ran with dogs, snowmobiles, and trucks back in February of 2004, Noble and I figured she would seek out and stay in the most secluded location the area had to offer, and although the thickest, eastern half of the swamp where she took up residence was ten miles from where she was ran and treed, we figured it would be our best shot at finding her.
With the wolverine showing up, my curiosity and interest peaked, not only forcing me into the woods looking for her, but spending many additional hours researching the internet trying to learn more about this allusive mammal. What I learned rather quickly is that a ten mile trip for a wolverine is the equivalent of me walking from the living room to the kitchen. The evidence was out there. A wolverine live trapped and GPS radio collared in Idaho traveled 258 miles in 19 days, all the while climbing up and down steep mountain slopes.
The other aspect of their behavior that caused us to forge deep into the swamp looking for her on March 6, 2004, was the extreme fear that wolverines have for humans. They will go to extreme measures to avoid and stay clear of us. I find it interesting how a wolverine is brave enough to drive a wolf pack or grizzly from a carcass, but also intelligent enough to know that humans pose them the greatest threat.
The initial set of tracks we found 1.6 miles back in the swamp were old and deteriorated, but we knew just based on the size that they had to be from a wolverine, bear, or cougar. But in June the set of fresh tracks I found in the mud stretching a half mile held all the details and specifics we needed to positively identify the animal as a wolverine.
Wolverine tracks are eerily similar to a human hand, with a bigger thumb on one side and a pinky on the other. In fact, during the necropsy with the wolverine stripped of her fur and claws, you would swear you are looking at a human hand. We compared those tracks to Richard P. Smith’s book of North American Tracks, and tracks on the wolverine foundation’s web site and knew this was a wolverine. Arnie Karr and his staff looking over our casts and confirming that fact only fueled my fire to get this girl on film.
But it would be a long and grueling quest getting the first picture that would test my patience, perseverance, and resolve. Finally, 371 days after we found her initial tracks, my clumsy old 35 mm Moultrie finally opened its shutter with the wolverine strolling on by six feet in front of it, and the real adventure of documenting her existence and travels began. Following that first picture the relentless nature of my pursuit instantly intensified, and I now found myself spending all my spare time in the woods.
I knew from the beginning that I would have to be careful; that her life or death was literally in my hands. I quickly came up with a set of ground rules to live by. Rule number one was that the wolverine’s safety — it was my number one priority. I knew due to a human’s selfish nature that there could be folks out there looking for a trophy to hang on their wall, and my actions could directly affect whether that happened or not.
I couldn’t bear to think of the tremendous guilt I would feel if I in some way were responsible for her demise, so safety was constantly on my mind. I placed the research site deep back in the swamp to keep her away from people, and made it less likely for people to find the location. When contacted by the media I would always give a verbal decoy, saying she was in Verona, Sanilac, or Deford State Game areas, or sometimes a very general statement such as Huron County, when she was actually living in Sanilac.
The awareness of possible trophy hunters increased at a wolverine presentation for Earth Day, when the Sergeant of the DNR Law Enforcement Division pulled me aside and warned me of information they received indicating there may be a group of trophy hunters looking to trap her, and if caught trying to do so, they would be shown no mercy. I told the sergeant I would keep a careful watch, and if I found any evidence of that kind of activity, I would immediately contact the Law Enforcement Division of the DNR. I started making regular sweeps around the perimeter of the swamp looking for signs of people trying to trap her in a conibear, or any other ill intention.
But it wasn’t until the early fall of 2008 that it hit me hard that the wolverine might be in real danger. Out of the blue and as a complete surprise someone close to me approached me about trapping the wolverine because she was “getting old.” The statement blew me away and disturbed me, and I quickly decided nobody would be immune from my wrath if they tried to hurt my furry friend. Even my grandmother would have been turned over to the DNR if she displayed signs of ill intentions towards the wolverine. I now realized that some people out there simply viewed her as a bunch of fur, teeth, and claws, to hang on the wall and look at. Nothing more!
I never understood that way of thinking; how someone could even consider harming such a beautiful animal- the only one confirmed here in over 200 years, but I guess it was that same kind of thinking that decimated the western buffalo herds, and extirpated the eastern elk and wolves from Michigan. Humans have a need to dominate, conquer, and control everything.
While conducting my research I became more careful than ever and kept very low key. During the winter months I refused to go in for research unless there was a good fresh covering of snow on the way, so my tracks would be covered. I also had moved the research site even deeper, so it would be less likely for someone to find it, and whenever leaving the site I would eliminate my tracks with a tree branch, and lay decoys in a different area to distract people looking to find her by following my tracks.
I also sometimes went in after dark, or early in the morning hours before first light. I had become literally paranoid about the wolverine being poached and I was willing to do whatever it took to ensure that it didn’t happen.
I decided to shut down the articles and pictures in Woods-N-Waters News and local newspapers until she was dead. I became very quiet about the wolverine, very low key, but all the while continued to visit her weekly deep in the swamp and take pictures and video of her doing her thing. The more pictures and video I took, the more connected I felt to her.
Her strength and agility was so impressive to me that she had become my hero, like an elementary kid looking up to a NFL quarterback. In regards to displays of strength there were two video segments my wildlife eye had taken that inspired me. I was having problems with the raccoons removing my bait rather quickly, so I dug a hole three feet in the ground, covered it and placed an 80-100 pound log over it. The coons had a terrible time excavating the site, while the wolverine would just come in, pick up the end of the log with her mouth, and move it over, or she would log roll it off the hole with her powerful front claws. The log was 4 times her body weight. It would be the equivalent of me lifting and moving a 900 pound log with only my teeth.
The other segment that proved her strength was a doe carcass that she ‘woman-handled.’ The first double hindquarter weighed about 35-40 pounds. I backpacked out to the swamp and wrapped heavy rope around it, securing it to a large tamarack. She came in and removed it so quickly and efficiently that I felt embarrassed for even bringing the rope.
A week later Noble and I packed in another carcass, and as Noble pulled back on a stout tree branch, I wedged the carcass between the two trees and ratchet strapped the carcass even tighter. Before we left I tried to move the carcass and I could barely budge it.
She came in, quickly looked things over and analyzed the situation, then climbed the tree, came in with her head facing downward towards the carcass, and proceeded to tug-o-war the carcass free from the ratchet straps upward, against gravity. She was smart enough to know she couldn’t remove it by pulling down from the ground end into the V of the wedge. She knew she had to do it from above. I couldn’t believe she could remove it without chewing through the ratchet strap, and I was now in awe of her skills.
In January, 2010, I had a hair-raising experience that caused me to break my newest rule, to keep the wolverine out of magazines and newspapers until she was gone.
The excitement of having the wolverine come in on me within 20 yards in the dark was too much for me to contain, and I spent the next few days putting together an article regarding my ‘nerve-wracking’ encounter.
Two months later I was present at the necropsy of the wolverine in Lansing. Pathologist Tom Cooley did an excellent job commentating as I took up close and personal footage of the 1 hour and 15 minute necropsy. The footage is being used as an educational tool for biology classes.
Here are the lab results I have so far: Their cross sectional microscopic analysis of the Thumb wolverine’s teeth showed she was nine years old. Wolverines disperse from their mothers upon reaching maturity at the age of two, so I believe she dispersed from Ontario across the ice in 2003, when she was two years old. Dispersion is an instinctive behavior many animals exhibit to ensure genetic variability, and no other mammal in North America is known to disperse as far and wide as a wolverine. An example is Audrey Magoun’s 1985 research study in northwest Alaska, where she documented with a GPS radio collar a female wolverine immediately upon reaching maturity dispersing 188 miles. Combining that capability with the close proximity of wolverines in Chapleau, Ontario makes it not only possible but likely she was once a Canadian girl.
Once established in the Thumb, she made Minden City Game Area her home. Other than the occasional excursion to satisfy her curiosity, she spent the next seven years in the swamp until the time of her death.
The necropsy showed no signs of external problems such as trauma caused by traps, bullets, or being hit by a vehicle. An obvious problem that was immediately evident upon opening her body cavity was her liver. The liver was very dark colored, and contained deposits all over the outer surface. All the tissues of the internal organs are currently going through lab analysis. The results will be back within one to two weeks.
The final chapter in the Thumb wolverine’s life has come to a close. I feel extremely fortunate for having the opportunity to study her over the last six years, and I will truly miss spending time with her back in the swamp. I would like to thank all the folks that took an interest in the wolverine; the hundreds of calls, e-mails, and letters from all over Michigan were much appreciated over the years. On days I was not feeling like making the long trek out to the wolverine’s territory, you folks that took such a keen interest helped motivate me to keep the research moving forward.
I would also like to thank Tom Campbell, Randy Jorgensen, and their staff for their outstanding display of her beautiful colored pictures over the years, and bringing the Thumb wolverine alive within the pages of Michigan’s premiere outdoor publication.
Unless I find another wolverine to research or a grizzly bear here in the Thumb, I think I might take on the endeavor of writing a book on my adventures with the Thumb wolverine. Anyone who would like to comment on a title for the book, has questions or would like to purchase Michigan’s wolverine photos or video please email the author at JFord@Deckerville.k12.mi.us
Author’s Note: The television show ‘Nature,’ which is doing a special on wolverines was tentatively scheduled to air in March, but is now pushed back to the fall, tentatively scheduled for the month of October. It is now a collaborative effort between PBS and National Geographic, so the funding is good and the show will be better than the initial budget allowed. The producer, Gianna Savoie, called me and told me the story of the Thumb wolverine will be told and they will use my night vision infrared video footage and will focus on the ‘dark side’ of a wolverine’s personality. The show will also have Audrey Magoun’s research study in Alaska, and a segment on baby wolverines. Keep your eyes open for that!