A tour guide and former park ranger last weekend had what he called a “phenomenal” encounter with one of Yellowstone National Park’s rarest and most elusive animals: a wolverine.
He even snapped a picture to prove it.
MacNeil Lyons, owner of Yellowstone Insight, was with a tour group in the park’s northern reaches March 5 when the visitors spotted what he calls a “unicorn.”
The wolverine — the largest species in the mustelid, or weasel, family — is related to otters, ferrets and minks.
In North America, the wolverine’s southernmost range touches Yellowstone National Park, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Fewer than 10 wolverines are thought to call Yellowstone and its 2.2 million acres home.
When Lyons spotted the animal this month, it was the first time he had done so in more than 20 years of working and traveling in the park.
Expert animal tracker James Halfpenny visited the site where the wolverine was spotted to make some determinations about the animal.
He said the wolverine had followed moose tracks through deep, packed snow and then turned, finding itself at a nearly empty road near Cold Creek, where it encountered Lyons and his group.
“I would like to think that this might have been the first human encounter that this elusive, more backcountry creature had,” Lyons said.
Lyons said wolverines are known to search far and wide for food in winter and may even sniff out an avalanche-buried moose carcass that it can burrow deep into snow and scavenge from for weeks.
“A wolverine is a scavenger, and it’ll eat anything it can put its mouth around, and in that bleak, high-snow country, it’s looking for dead animals, anything that’s died, a carcass,” Halfpenny said.
In normal years, Halfpenny says, it’s typical to get three solid reports of wolverine sightings in Yellowstone, but never a photo.
“I haven’t had time to run through our tracking databases yet to decide if it’s a male or female,” he said.
Halfpenny, who runs the tracking education company A Naturalist’s World and is licensed to submit animal data to Yellowstone officials, said members of the Yellowstone Cougar Project this week found more wolverine tracks and even obtained a hair sample.
If a follicle is attached or a nearby scat pile identified, Halfpenny said, researchers might have valuable DNA information to submit to Yellowstone Wolf Project, which collects data on wolves and other rare mammals.
“If they can prove whether it’s one or two, that would be neat,” he said.
Tim Fitzsimons is a reporter for NBC News. he/him