What’s up with wolverines?

A wolverine in the snow
Credit: Getty Images

Later this month, when Ohio State University plays the University of Michigan in their annual football rivalry, the contest will be the 116th meeting of the two teams, with those pesky Wolverines holding the edge in wins: 58 to 51, with 6 ties. But what exactly is a wolverine, and are they really as fearsome as their reputation?

A true wilderness animal of the high-mountain West, Alaska, and Canada’s far north, no wolverines live in Ohio. More surprisingly, their existence in Michigan — the Wolverine State — is questionable, even in the rugged, remote Upper Peninsula.

“Actually, there is no reliable evidence that wolverines are even native to Michigan,” says Adam Bump, a furbearer biologist with the Michigan DNR, Wildlife Division. “There is debate about their historical presence, but likely they were, or are, only accidental visitors to Michigan.”

Bump added that the last known and perhaps the only instance of a wolverine in the wild in Michigan was the one spotted in the northern portion of the “Thumb” region in 2004. “A necropsy showed that the animal later died of congestive heart failure, basically old age, and was potentially a captive escape or a release, although we have not determined its origins.”

As in Ohio, the Michigan woods these days are covered with trail cameras placed on trees by deer hunters. Could a trail camera have possibly recorded a wolverine somewhere in the state recently?

“Again,” insisted Bump, “there are no wolverines known to be in Michigan at the present time. We have not verified any trail-camera photos of wolverines other than the one animal previously mentioned.”

That’s not to say a wolverine couldn’t show up at any time in either Michigan or Ohio, as males in particular can travel hundreds of miles in search of new territory. For instance, in 2009, a wolverine captured near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming was tracked by wildlife biologists using radio-telemetry equipment. The critter covered an astounding 550 miles during just two months, April and May, successfully crossing highways and scaling mountain ranges to become the first wolverine seen in Colorado since 1919.

The largest member of the weasel family, wolverines weigh from 65 pounds for a large, adult male to about half that size for an adult female — either sex a formidable animal. However, their size belies their tremendous strength and aggressiveness. A wolverine won’t hesitate fighting wolves or a bear over a kill, and given the right deep-snow conditions, are even capable of taking down a moose, a feat wolverine researchers liken to “a house cat bringing down a deer.”

Some fans humorously describe the annual OSU versus U of M football game as a battle of poorly chosen mascots: Buckeyes (a worthless nut) versus Wolverines (an overgrown weasel with an attitude). One more thing: Like all members of the weasel family, wolverines have a strong, rank odor — but if you’re a Buckeye fan, you already knew that.

W.H. “Chip” Gross is Ohio Cooperative Living’s outdoors editor, a member of Consolidated Cooperative, and an OSU alumnus.