Winning the Wildlife Lottery: My Encounter with Wolverine M56
On Sunday April 22nd 2012, I had a rare encounter that I refer to as winning the wildlife lottery; I somehow found myself within fifty yards of Wolverine M56, the only known wolverine to make Colorado its home since the early 1900’s.
Earlier in the day my wife had left on a business trip to the east coast, so I decided to head into the mountains to do some location scouting for my landscape photography. I had recently become interested in photographing Mount Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s more popular fourteeners, from some beaver ponds I had noticed on a map while doing research on the area. My destination was set.
Later that afternoon, I drove up toward Guanella Pass from Highway 285 and easily made it to the winter road closure near Duck Lake. Colorado had a well below average snowpack in 2012, so the walk up the road from the gate to the pass was almost completely snow free, making for easy foot travel. From the summit of Guanella Pass I could see the stand of trees I needed to hike through to get to the beaver ponds, as well as the infamous Bierstadt Willows. Those who have hiked in this part of the Mount Evans Wilderness know that the area is notorious for its tall, densely packed willows, and unless you are hiking on the well-traveled Mount Bierstadt Trail, you must negotiate this maze of willows before proceeding to your destination. Some routes are more difficult than others, but on that particular afternoon I managed to find a relatively easy path through. I headed into the trees and spotted a snowshoe hare and quietly paused for several minutes to watch it forage for food. I figured this would be the limit to my wildlife discoveries for the day, but as we all know that was about to change.
After reaching the upper pond, I set up my camera and took a couple photos. From there I noticed a large rock that I wanted to try incorporating into a composition with Mount Bierstadt, so I made my way below the pond. As I was setting up my camera, I heard what sounded like someone heaving large rocks into another pond below me. I couldn't see this lower pond from my position, but I knew it was unlikely to be a person causing all of this commotion; it had to be a wild animal, and a fairly decent sized one at that. Having no desire to spook an unidentified wild animal that was within such close proximity to myself, I decided to alert the animal to my presence by clearing my throat and making noise with the metal legs of my tripod. These noises did not go unnoticed.
Within moments I caught sight of an animal running up a snow covered hill about fifty yards away. Its gait looked familiar to me. I recall having seen a wolverine running in a similar manner on the Nature documentary ‘Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom’, but immediately dismissed the idea because I knew wolverines were incredibly rare in Colorado. This led me to falsely conclude that the mystery animal must be a badger.
Although the lenses I carry with me for shooting landscape photography are not the best option for shooting wildlife (not quite enough zoom), I like taking pictures of the animals I come across for the sake of documenting the encounter. Having a picture to reference also has the benefit of allowing me to identify an unknown animal at a later time, so I quickly grabbed my camera, made a couple quick adjustments, and took three photos of the creature. As I did this, it looked back and forth between me and the pond, apparently trying to decide whether to flee, or go back to continue its activities down by the pond. It chose the former and quickly ran out of sight.
At this point the sun was getting close to setting, and I wanted to get back through the willows and up to the pass before it got too dark. I took a few more photos, packed up my gear, and headed out. Wandering back through the willows under the fading light, I somehow managed to select the path of most resistance. I struggled through the willows and sections of waist deep snow for what seemed like hours before finally reaching the pass. From there it was an easy hike back to my car, and I enjoyed watching the crescent moon set over Squaretop Mountain as the stars slowly reintroduced themselves to the night sky. It was the perfect ending to an amazing day that I won't soon forget.
Wolverine M56 was caught and fitted with a radio transmitter near Grand Teton National Park in 2009. That spring he was tracked traveling a distance of over 500 miles in just a couple of months. This journey led him into Colorado where he has since been tirelessly searching the mountains for a potential mate. His current status and whereabouts are unknown.