For the third year in a row, she’s the MVP — Mom, Very Proud — of Mount Rainier’s wolverine population.
Joni the wolverine made headlines in 2020 after rearing two male kits, making her the first wolverine mom at the park in more than 100 years.
She had another two kits in 2021 — a boy and a girl — starting a streak of successful parenting.
And this summer, researchers snapped photos of Joni bounding across the snow with yet another new pair of little ones. (It’s still not clear what sex the new kits are.)
The tenacious wolverine mom has done it again. And her burgeoning clan of mustelids aren’t the only newcomers trying to set up shop on the mountain.
KITS ON A HILL
It’s not very common for wolverines to rear kits three years in a row, said Dr. Jocelyn Akins, researcher and founder of the Cascades Carnivore Project. Wolverines are born in the spring, and their mother’s reproductive success is tied to how well she does in the winter before.
“If a female is having a hard time finding food over the beginning of the winter, that’s usually a sign she’s not going to successfully reproduce,” Akins said. “On the flip side, to see a wolverine reproduce year after year is typically a sign that the habitat is really good.”
So Joni — named after Joni Mitchell, because the wolverine was first documented near Paradise — is proving that Tahoma can produce enough prey for carnivores to thrive.
Researchers went out in June this year but didn’t find Joni’s family in their typical denning spot on the east side of the mountain, Akins said. She seems to have found a new den, which could be a sign that she’s starting to shrink her territory to make room for her growing family.
“Now she has this brood of wolverines roaming Mount Rainier … and they all need to find a place where they can find enough food,” Akins said. “So it’s possible Joni shifts her territory a bit, which researchers have shown to occur in Scandinavia — that a mother will adjust her territory a bit for her daughter. … It’s pretty typical that the males are going to take off, and if the habitat is good enough, the females can set up shop adjacent to their moms.”
Joni is middle-aged, likely around 5 years old, Akins said. Wolverines in the wild generally don’t live much longer than a decade, but Joni probably has at least several more years of baby-raising ahead of her.
It takes two to tango, and Joni’s partner, a male named Van, has been just as consistent a force in the Cascades. In addition to producing kits with a female named Pepper in 2018, researchers believe Van fathered all six of Joni’s kits, though they haven’t genetically confirmed the most recent litter.
The resident male of Mt. Rainier, Van cruises a huge territory that reaches almost up to Snoqualmie pass, Akins said, likely looking for other females, defending the region for himself and kicking his sons out of the metaphorical house.
Wolverines are fierce scavengers and hunters that claim vast territories, and for the most part, they leave each other alone except to mate and raise children. They once roamed as far south as California, but due largely to human activity, wolverines had disappeared from Washington by the early to mid-20th century.
Their recovery since then has been slow. Wolverines in Washington have for decades been mostly confined to the North Cascades, north of Highway 90. But over the last couple decades, the animals have started trickling further south.
REFUGE FROM THE ROADS
It’s not all snowdrifts and sunshine for the wolverines. Of Joni’s first two kits in 2020, one was struck and killed by a car in the Yakima Canyon Highway near Naches. The other took off east — its current whereabouts are unknown. The two from last year are still around, the son exploring down in the south Cascades and occasionally visiting his dad.
“It’s so exciting to see them move down the Cascades, but it’s such a slow process, and I-90 is so dangerous for them,” Akins said. “And there’s not that many wolverines north of I-90 either.”
Joni and her clan are a surprisingly successful case. But the rest of the state’s wolverine population is still confined to the north Cascades. One wolverine was shot in Centerville this summer, and another hasn’t been seen since briefly popping up in the Goat Rocks.
So other than Joni’s new kits, no new wolverines showed up in the area in 2022. And that means no young love for Joni’s kits.
To put the problem bluntly: “There’s basically no one to mate with when your only choices are your parents or your siblings,” Akins said. “We need new individuals to help repopulate our region.”
It’s an exciting — yet precarious — time for all sorts of wildlife at the Mt. Rainier National Park.
Dr. Sarah Converse is an ecologist, a US Geological Survey scientist and associate professor at the University of Washington. Her work focuses on how animal populations change and what strategies work to help those that are in decline.
Along with Cascades Carnivore and other researchers, Converse studies the Cascade red fox, an endangered species in Washington distinct from the more common lowland red foxes.
Researchers know little about the wily vulpines, who have a stronghold on Mt. Rainier, and are building on a data set of scat samples and camera images created by Akins’ team to learn more about them. Next year, scientists hope to catch around 15 of the foxes and put tracking collars on them — not an easy feat, Converse said.
They’re trying to learn two things: How do foxes move in response to habitat features, like roads? And how are they responding to carnivores like coyotes, which compete with but also hunt foxes? Answering those questions will help state leaders decide which specific conservation actions to take.
“It’s very hard right now for the state to know what they might do to mitigate declines, reconnect this fox,” Converse said. “That’s why this work is important. … This is a pretty special animal. It’s a fox, a mid-sized carnivore, only found in Washington … and we just know too little about it.”
Animals with small populations face greater risk of inbreeding, Converse said. As a result, there’s a greater risk their offspring will express traits that aren’t favorable to survival.
“Is that affecting foxes? We don’t know exactly, but we do know they’re pretty closely related,” Converse said. “Their populations tend to be small, but there was a time that the high levels of connectivity would have allowed them … to exchange over larger areas. It’s one of the consequences … of fragmentation.”
Animal crossings are “really positive” developments, Converse said. They give animals a safer, easier way to explore and connect populations, and there’s research indicating those crossings can also minimize collisions between motorists and deer, she said.
MOOSE FROM MOUNTAINS
Mount Rainier National Park recorded its first-ever moose sighting on Dec. 8, and the park service said the moose could be the same one caught by a WSDOT camera traversing an I-90 wildlife crossing at near Snoqualmie pass.
If so, it would be another example of an enterprising mammal, like Joni, braving the unknown to venture south in the state.
The sightings are exciting and may represent moose expanding their range in Washington, said Kyle Garrison, a wildlife biologist and ungulate section manager at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Garrison said the most recent estimate is that there are approximately 5,000 moose in the state, mostly in the northeast with some in the north Cascades.
Moose are the biggest deer species, more solitary than elk and partial to spending time in the water, Garrison said, where they like to eat aquatic vegetation. Their population has generally grown over the last few decades as moose from Canada and other northern U.S. states migrated here.
When some ungulates colonize or recolonize an area, “you often see a pretty dramatic increase … an ‘eruptive’ stage in the population dynamics, and as that population grows it eventually stabilizes and levels off,” he said.
But even for the mighty moose, human structures like I-90 present obstacles and danger.
“Moose have long legs, they can step over barriers,” Garrison said. “They’re not physically (deterred) from even crossing I-90, however doing that successfully with the amount of traffic (is) difficult.”
Could we see more moose visiting our corner of the state? Garrison says it’s very possible.
“Clearly this is a dispersal event of a moose from an otherwise established population,” he said. “It would probably take a while for this to become a fully established population, but it just takes a handful of individuals (reproducing) … and new individuals coming in. As long as there’s that connectivity, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t thrive.”
The big unknown for all these animals is climate change. Higher-elevation areas like Mt. Rainier will see the effects sooner and stronger, but it’s harder to predict what they’ll look like, Converse said.
Lynx, for example, are threatened by the increasing number and size of wildfires, which split up their population and burn away territory. Fewer than 50 populate the forests of the north Cascades, according to WDFW, and “vast swaths” of their habitat have burned in wildfires over the last two decades. Wolverines and other sub-alpine predators risk losing their frozen throne if glaciers continue to retreat or other predators, like coyotes, move up to compete with them for food in the mountains.
Don’t tell Joni any of that, though. She’s got scavenging to do, and with any luck, another pair of furry kits on the way.
“I like to tell people there’s amazing carnivores out there, really unique to our mountains,” Akins said. “They have a lot of threats causing them to decline, so just to get the word out that they’re out there is really important.”