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Wolverine: 'The true wilderness carnivore'

Wooly the Wolverine is the official mascot of the Wadena-Deer Creek School District.

Wooly the Wolverine might rev up the crowd at Wadena-Deer Creek sporting events, but that's just someone in a costume.

The closest most students will get to a real-life example of the animal is in the middle/high school office, where a stuffed mustelid sports a ferocious scowl.

To see wolverines in captivity, they could head to the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. To see them in the wild, they would need to head to the Rocky Mountains or north to Canada - and get really lucky. Although abundant at high latitudes, wolverines have a very low population density, which means encounters in the wild are rare.

On occasion, the animal might make an appearance in Minnesota, but there are no permanent populations, said Jeffrey Copeland, executive director of the Idaho-based Wolverine Foundation. We would know if there were, he said.

"This is not a terribly elusive animal that shies away from humans and human activity," said Copeland, who has been researching the animal for 20 years. "Wolverines don't hide from humans; they make themselves known."

Researchers once thought that humans displaced the wolverine from more southern habitats, including Minnesota, but they now believe the animal has always lived in higher elevations in the western United States and in the far northern hemisphere.

"This is an animal that evolved to function within it's arctic niche and does very well at living at an extremely low population density," Copeland said. "They thrive I think because of their almost insatiable need to be on the move. They travel all the time and they are very capable of finding each other."

To build a den for successful reproduction, the animal needs deep, persistent snow cover through the middle of May.

The largest member of the weasel family, wolverines - adults average about 30 pounds - are known as formidable, vicious predators.

"They are kind of like little dogs," Copeland said. "They don't really recognize their size."

In the summer, they eat insects and hunt small mammals, such as squirrels and rabbits. They also kill caribou and can even take down moose. Their winter diet consists primarily of dead animal flesh, known as carrion.

'Their sense of smell is their stock of trade," Copeland said.

Wolverines' primary predators are wolves, bears and the occasional mountain lion, but the researcher said it's much more common for them to die falling off cliffs or in avalanches.

Much of Copeland's research has looked into the relationship of the wolverine to its habitat. "There hadn't been much work when I started," he said. "It was sort of an open book."

One thing he's discovered, Copeland said, is "this is a much more social animal than we ever imagined."

Throughout the years, his appreciation for the animal has deepened. Unlike wolves killing livestock or bears rummaging around trash, the wolverine is completely disinterested in humans.

"The wolverine is off the radar," Copeland said. "It doesn't have any need for us. This is the true wilderness carnivore. The wolverines are just out there and they persist and thrive in this environment we consider hostile to say the least. I just admire the character of the wolverine in that regard."

The tenacious, ferocious animal, he said, "makes a good mascot."

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