It took two aircraft, two traps and over a dozen wounded sheep, but Utah biologists finally captured an animal they've searched decades for.
Biologists last week finally captured a wolverine in the state, 43 years after the first documentation of the animal in Utah. They've since placed a GPS tracking collar on the creature and let it back into the wild in an effort to gather the data they've dreamed of collecting since 1979.
"It's amazing to get a chance to see a wolverine in the wild, let alone catch one," said Jim Christensen, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources' northern region wildlife manager, in a statement Monday. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Up until last week, there were only about a half-dozen confirmed wolverine sightings in Utah since 1979. A few were caught on camera, while a few were after a wolverine was found dead — half of the total sightings came last year alone.
But on Thursday, a sheepherder on a farm about 6 miles west of Randolph, Rich County, came across one attacking his sheep. The creature was in the middle of wounding 18 sheep — some of which died, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The animal ran away when the sheepherder approached.
It just so happened that a team from the Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services was working on a livestock protection project in the area. It was able to send both a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft to help track down the wolverine.
Biologists from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources also responded, setting two barrel traps with the help of the sheepherder and the USDA Wildlife Services team. They put three dead sheep within the traps and waited to see what might happen.
Then, Friday morning, the sheepherder found that the door to one of the traps was down. Biologists rushed to the scene and discovered the first wolverine captured in the state.
The 28-pound male wolverine was sedated and taken to the division's office in Ogden for an exam. Christensen said it is believed to be 3 or 4 years old and is in "really good condition."
"The animal had good, sharp teeth," he added.
Following the exam, biologists placed a collar on the animal and then woke it up. It was released on the North Slope of the Uinta Mountains Friday evening. Division officials said the collar will provide biologists "invaluable information" in trying to understand the species' habits and migration within the state.
They believe this data will help figure out its home range and other habits during the different seasons. This data will then go toward better wolverine management policies in Utah.
"Having a collar on this wolverine will teach us things about wolverines in Utah that would be impossible to learn any other way," Christensen added. "Were we seeing the same animal or different animals (in 2021)? Having a collar on this animal will help us solve that riddle."