Experts confirm Sierra hiker's photo is of wolverine

06/09/2012 12:00 AM

06/08/2012 10:52 PM

A Sacramento man believes he has snapped a live picture of what only remote motion-sensitive cameras have captured before: a wolverine in the Sierra Nevada.

David Messa, 51, was on a camping trip in Nevada County on May 19 when around nightfall he took a picture of a creature walking on a thawing lake.

Wildlife biologists working for the U.S. Forest Service and the state Fish and Game Department on Thursday confirmed that the animal is a wolverine.

The rare sighting came at 8:41 p.m. during an all-day hike at Beyers Lake.

"It was fairly dark," Messa said Thursday. "I hear him come galloping across the lake. I wasn't sure exactly what it was."

He was not sure how his digital camera would work in a low-light situation, so he took a sequence of three shots very quickly, combining them into one photo, he said.

The camera, he could see, was not taking great photos of the wolverine. The animal ran by, fell through the snow a few times, splashed around in water and then pulled itself back up.

Then, the wolverine ran back toward Messa and was about 40 yards away when he took the picture.

"I knew I only had one chance to get the photo," he said. "So when I pushed the button, I panned along with him and got the photo."

The animal then ran off and was gone.

Messa knew it was not a bear, and he was sure it wasn't a pine marten.

He also knew he was not far from Castle Peak.

On the north side of Castle Peak, a doctoral student in wildlife biology at UC Davis has captured photos of a wolverine with a motion-sensing camera.

Still, Messa was viewing a tiny screen on the camera. When he got home and looked at it on a computer screen, he was pretty sure the image was that of a wolverine, especially when he saw the telltale white streak on the side of the animal. He sent the image to the Fish and Game experts.

In 2008, a wolverine was discovered in the Tahoe National Forest north of Truckee. Scientists believe the creature continues to roam the region.

They have found hair samples and baited remote cameras that have snapped its image. Its DNA closely matches that of wolverines in the Sawtooth Range of Idaho.

While other wolverines have reportedly been spotted over the years, the animal photographed four years ago was the first confirmed in California since 1922, when a trapper killed one.

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