Column: No wolverine in the Wolverine state

Published 9:41 am Thursday, May 4, 2006

By Staff
Michigan, the “Wolverine State.” The wolverine is generally considered to be, pound for pound, the most fearless, vicious animal on earth and die hard U of M fans, and most other testosterone driven Michiganders, are proud to be symbolized with such ferociousness. Though the Wolverine State is only an unofficial nickname, it is solidly entrenched and here to stay.
An interesting question is how the state got this nickname. Ironically, many experts question whether wolverines ever inhabited Michigan at all. Wolverines, the largest member of the weasel family, are creatures of the far north. Today, they are found across Northern Canada, Alaska, the Scandanavian countries and Siberia as well as a few holdouts in Northern Idaho. Very little mention of wolverines appears in Michigan history. A few unofficial accounts note wolverine sightings in Michigan in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Old Michigan fur records from this period show a very limited trade in wolverine pelts and a few wolverine bones have surfaced at archaeological sites, but skeptics point out that trappers and Indians roamed and traded far and wide and these items could have been brought here from elsewhere.
It is documented, however, that wolverines once inhabited areas of Ontario, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana as well as several eastern states, so they were most likely present in Michigan, though in very limited numbers. Throughout their range, their large territory of nearly 250 square miles per animal precludes them from ever being abundant.
To everyone's astonishment, in February of 2004, a live wolverine was documented 90 miles north of Detroit. A pair of coyote hunters first saw it and took a DNR biologist to the scene where it was again located and photographed. As with cougar sightings, the timeless question arises as to whether this animal has been here all along, had roamed into the state or was an escaped captive animal.
It's highly unlikely wolverines have existed here unknown for hundreds of years. Unlike cougars, which could conceivably roam in from the west while staying in reasonable cougar habitat and finding acceptable habitat here, a wolverine would have to wander hundreds of miles through distinctly non-wolverine habitat, which is also unlikely. That leaves an escaped or released captive as the most logical scenario.
The wolverine's fearsome reputation is legendary. Though they only weigh 25 to 50 pounds and stretch out to a mere 40 inches at most, nearly all literary accounts credit them with killing adult caribou and moose and taking on grizzly bears and wolf packs to steal their kills. Though somewhat exaggerated, there is some basis to these facts. Obviously, a short legged, relatively slow loping wolverine isn't going to run down and kill a healthy adult caribou or moose. They'd have to somehow chew it off at the shins to even get at it. They do prey regularly on newborn calves and occasionally take advantage of adult females incapacitated during the birthing process. They also finish off severely sick or wounded animals. Primarily, though, wolverines are scavengers. Here, their reputation is more true to life. There are many accounts of a wolverine taking on a bear or wolves in an attempt to take over their kill. Often, the larger predators back down but at times they take exception to the audacity and add the wolverine to the dessert selection. Make up your own mind if the wolverine is being ferociously fearless or incredibly stupid. And tales of wolverines attacking humans are strictly campfire entertainment. They shun humans.
So back to how Michigan became the Wolverine State. No, it did not arise from the University of Michigan football team. It came long before then and apparently had nothing to do with the presence of wolverines.
One story credits it to the Toledo War in 1835 when Michigan and Ohio was fighting over a strip of land along their adjacent borders. The Ohioans reportedly claimed the Michiganders to be as vicious and blood thirsty as wolverines. The other explanation also dates to the 1830s, when white settlers were invading Michigan. The local Indians compared the way settlers were taking land to the way the gluttonous wolverine went after food. Take your pick. Carpe diem.