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Inside the lone known wolverine den in South Cascades

The Cascades Carnivore Project is studying wolverines in the South Cascades. They recently set up cameras miles up a mountain outside Mt. Rainier National Park.

The terrain around Mt. Rainier covers some of Washington's last and most wild places, where snow covers the landscape even in summer and only the hardiest of creatures survive.

One of those creatures is the elusive wolverine, the largest member of the weasel family. To find them, researchers have to think like them, traversing miles of rocky terrain through water and snow.

"It's definitely a challenge at times but I think that's sometimes the draw," Scott Shively said.

Shively and the crew with the Cascades Carnivore Project are studying wolverines in the South Cascades. They recently set up cameras miles up a mountain outside Mt. Rainier National Park.

A couple months ago, they saw something incredible. The one known female in the South Cascades had recently given birth to babies, called kits. It proved that wolverines had finally made it there and settled down.

"That was a real coup, beyond out wildest dreams," Jocelyn Akins said. "That was the Holy Grail for this project."

Akins heads the research focused on tacking wolverines as they make their comeback. Humans trapped and killed them until they disappeared in the early 1900s. About a decade ago, scientists noticed that wolverines had migrated back and so began a decade of studying them in the North Cascades.

Most have remained north of I-90, as the highway has blocked their movement south. Recently, a male was found dead near Snoqualmie Pass.

"When you find what you're looking for and these animals show up to the stations you've set, it's pretty exciting," Shively said.

KING joined the Cascades Carnivore Project on their most recent hike to the only known den in the South Cascades. It belongs to the wolverine researchers have named "Pepper".

"The female came here a lot. She has a unique, very distinct white pattern on her chest and her throat," Akins said. "It's really neat to know there's this intrepid wild carnivore that can eek out a living in this extremely harsh landscape in the winter."

Pepper is the only known female to be reproducing in the area. Her den amazed researchers. Tucked under a boulder still covered in snow, researchers located scat they will test for DNA answers to questions about where the wolverines came from. The den allowed Pepper, her kits and her mate to burrow deep under rocks and stay warm during the harshest winter months.

"I wanted to have a look at what a wolverine den down in Washington looks like," said wolverine researcher Audrey Magoun.

Magoun has been studying wolverines in Alaska for many years, and she says she's never seen one as tidy and sturdy as Pepper's den. The continental United States only has a few hundred wolverines. Most estimate Washington has less than fifty.

"They're an emblem of wild places. If they're gone, it means something has gone wrong. If there aren't wolverines here anymore, it just doesn't feel as wild to me," Magoun.

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