LAKETOWN, Utah -- A rare species not seen in person in Utah for nearly 40 years has mysteriously turned up right on the side of a highway.
The Division of Wildlife Resources says it recovered a wolverine hit and killed by a car in Rich County. The young female is now providing wildlife managers with clues to the species' secretive existence.
If you're the kind of person who won't believe it 'til you see it, photos of the wolverine serve as living-- or perhaps, used-to-be-living--proof that wolverines do indeed wander the woods in the Beehive State.
"It's very exciting to know that we had one here," said Leslie McFarlane with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
She said the wolverine was hit on a road a mile west of Laketown, south of Bear Lake. A Department of Transportation employee found the body and reported it to the DWR Wednesday.
It's unusual to find the carnivorous mammal so close to town, she said, and in such a visible place.
"We're not sure if it was just wandering or if maybe it was born around there, we're not sure," McFarlane said.
A lot of speculation's swirled around whether wolverines roam the Utah wilderness--and just how many are out there.
Her existence is helping piece together the decades-long mystery.
"This wolverine was not transplanted to Utah," DWR Director Greg Sheehan stated in a press release issued Friday. "It made its way here on its own."
"It's not very often that you actually get a verified report, or a verified sighting, or the actual animal for that matter," McFarlane said.
She said the last verified sighting was in February 2014, when a trail camera at a bait station in the Uinta Mountains captured images of the small predator.
The last time a wolverine carcass was found in Utah was in 1979, when a wolverine was hit and killed by a car on US 40 east of Vernal.
Points on a map from those three incidents show wolverines could be hanging out in the northeast part of the state. If that is true, how could an animal like this hide, seemingly unnoticed, for four decades?
"They're a very solitary species, and they're very secretive. They don't like being around people very much," McFarlane explained. "They also tend to occupy very high terrain mountainous areas, and so you don't tend to run into them very often."
She did add that there's been many unverified sightings. Some of the reports, she said, they've deemed credible. In one case, she said DWR was able to find wolverine tracks.
But much like Bigfoot, they need hard evidence. And here they have it.
While this case proves the small creature is indeed lurking in the woods in Utah, the mystery is far from solved.
Testing will be performed to learn more about the animal, and if she's linked to established populations in other states. It's still unclear if wolverines live permanently in Utah.
McFarlane said currently, wolverines are known to roam areas of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington.
"We don't know how many wolverines live in Utah," McFarlane stated, "or if they're living here at all. They're elusive, have a wide distribution range and can travel long distances. A wolverine's territory can be as large as 350 square miles. They tend to move large distances within that territory."
McFarlane estimates there are between 250 and 300 wolverines in the northern Rocky Mountains.
"To prove that wolverines are established in Utah, we would have to have multiple sightings over a short period of time and in one particular area," McFarlane stated.
While wolverines are not listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the animals are fully protected by state law in Utah.