Tracking Michigan’s Last Wolverine: A Conversation with “Wolverine Guy” Jeff Ford

By | September 19, 2012

InterviewsMichigan's last wolverine, Photo by Jeff FordMichigan may be known as the “Wolverine State,” but it’s not a nickname we necessarily earned. Until very recently, Michigan’s last known wild wolverine sighting was in the early 1800s—and actually predated Michigan becoming a state in 1837. Indeed, many historians trace Michigan’s wolverine association to the State’s “war” over Toledo in 1835, when Ohioans took to calling us Michiganders “wolverines” because of our supposedly ferocious nature. But as far as actual wolverines? We haven’t had anything to brag about in that department in an embarrassingly long time.

That all changed, however, in February 2004, when—out of the blue—the DNR confirmed a wolverine living in Michigan’s Thumb. At the time, the State wrote it off as an escaped zoo animal and left it at that. And that’s probably all we would have ever known about her if not for a local science teacher named Jeff Ford. For more than five years, Jeff took it upon himself to document everything he could about Michigan’s first wild wolverine in 200 years—how she lived, where she came from, and eventually how she died. He and journalist Elizabeth Philips Shaw have now published an account of Jeff’s time with the wolverine—a period this tough guy with a heart of gold calls “the coolest thing that’s ever going to happen to me.” The book’s called The Lone Wolverine and earlier this week we talked with Jeff to get the story behind the story.

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Jeff Ford with co-author Elizabeth Philips Shaw

Jeff Ford with "The Lone Wolverine" co-author, Elizabeth Philips Shaw

Found Michigan: So Jeff, you sort of took on tracking this wolverine as your personal mission, but you actually weren’t the first one to spot her, right?

Jeff: That’s right. I was actually coming home from teaching at Deckerville High School one day, and I stopped at a store and the girl behind the counter said that, earlier that day, some coyote hunters had spotted a wolverine about 20 minutes away. And I thought she was full of crap, to tell you the truth. But as I drove home, I started thinking more about it, and sure enough I put on the news that evening and it was the headline story all across the nation. And I instantly decided that I was going to find the wolverine.

FM: Really? Just like that?!

Jeff: Yeah, I actually packed up my gear that night, and I basically decided I was going to spend all my free time looking for this animal. It took me two weeks to find her track in a remote area about 12 to 13 miles as the crow flies from where she was last seen. It was in a swamp called the Minden City Swamp, and it’s 8,700 acres of what humans would call “Hell on Earth.” It’s an absolutely miserable place—just acres and acres of bogs and thicket. But it’s heaven for a wolverine, and she had apparently established her home there. So I started leaving my game camera out there and going out every week to check on it, and that’s how things went for a long time. And I probably got over 500 pictures of brush and branches blowing in the wind before I got my first picture of her.

FM: So how long did that take?

Jeff: Well, 371 days to be exact! By that time, I’ve got to say my wife was pretty much over the whole thing. And to tell you the truth, I was thinking about giving it up too. Shoot—after a year of trying to get this wolverine’s picture, the girls at the photo desk at Rite Aid thought I was crazy: Every week I’d come in with a roll of film and all I would get developed were pictures of branches blowing in the wind. They actually started calling me “Brush Guy.”

FM: [Laughs]

Jeff: Yeah and sometimes they wouldn’t even charge me full price—if I had all pictures of brush they would cut me a deal. I think they felt sorry for me. But then one day, like normal, I went to pick up my pictures, and the girl at the photo counter said she wasn’t going to charge me full price because I just had 22 pictures of brush. And I was thinking, Here we go again, same old thing. But when I reached for my wallet she said, “But that picture of that wolverine sure is pretty.” And my jaw just dropped. I grabbed the packet of pictures and threw a ten on the counter and when I went through the pictures, it was the last negative on the roll. And you know, there was no question it was a wolverine. Hell—it was almost waving as it went on by! And the feeling of elation was indescribable. The only thing I can compare it to is scoring a game-winning touchdown in football. But it was even beyond that.

FM: Yeah, but unlike the game-winning touchdown, the game wasn’t over. I mean, this was just the start of it for you. And what you were especially interested in was how this wolverine got here, right? I mean, wolverines haven’t been seen in Michigan since the early 1800s.

Jeff: Right, and there were a lot of different theories. When the first pictures came out, people thought she might have hitched a ride on a garbage truck coming from Ontario. This was at a time when Michigan was importing a lot of garbage from Canada. But the DNR dismissed that theory for two reasons: One—to be cost efficient, they pack that trash so tight you couldn’t fit your pinky in there. And two—most of that trash came from Toronto, and it’d be even more unlikely for a wolverine to come from a highly populated area like Toronto than anywhere surrounding us. And there was another theory that she might have escaped from a zoo in Minnesota, but later we proved that to be wrong too.

So eventually I decided to start collecting hair samples so that we could run a DNA analysis and see which part of North America she might have come from. There were three analyses done and the first geneticist suggested she came from Alaska. But then a second researcher came along and said that the diagnostic indicator that was used was not a good indicator of origin. So he ran a different kind of genetic comparison in which he took the Michigan wolverine’s DNA and compared it to 226 wolverines from all over—from Ontario all the way up to the areas surrounding Alaska such as the Northwest Territories. And 79 percent of her DNA matched Ontario and Manitoba wolverines. Obviously, then we had two conflicting analyses. So we did a third DNA analysis, this time throwing in an extra 14 wolverines from Ontario, and again she showed a 79 percent match with Ontario wolverines. So ultimately, what I think happened is that in the winter of 2003 and in 2004—when we had 100 percent ice-over in the northern two-thirds of the Great Lakes—she crossed over from Ontario into Michigan. And that might sound like a lot of distance to cover. But a wolverine will regularly travel 40 miles in a day. For a wolverine, a 40-mile trip is like you or I walking from the living room to the kitchen to get a pop.

One of Jeff's trail cam shots of the Michigan wolverineWhen Jeff Ford was tracking the wolverine from 2004 to 2010, it was literally Michigan’s rarest animal. Before she appeared, the last known sighting of a wolverine in Michigan dated back to the early 1800s. No other wolverines have been found since. (Photo courtesy Jeff Ford)

FM: And we should mention that this took years to try to piece together. You were taking trail cam photos and eventually video of the wolverine. You were in communication with some of the world’s top wolverine experts trying to solve this mystery. One thing we maybe don’t get such a clear picture of in the book is just how much of your time and energy you were putting into this.

Jeff: Yeah, well, when you have to get back into the bowels of the Minden bog, it’s not a two-hour trip—you’ve gotta take pretty much most of the day to do it. And so I couldn’t go out to the swamp during the week because I was teaching physics and chemistry and biology and coaching football and track and basketball. I was literally sleeping about four hours a night and trying to fit everything into 24 hours, and it just wouldn’t fit. So it had to be a weekend thing, you know? Either a Saturday or a Sunday had to be sacrificed, and Saturdays were family days and Sundays were church. So it was either family or God that had to be put on the back burner. And I’m not proud of some of the things I did, because I had a daughter who was—at the time of the discovery—two years old, and she was my first child. So I definitely made some sacrifices on time spent with my family. But my wife was pretty understanding. She’d throw me some jabs here and there. But I just crossed my fingers and hoped that my wife and I had a strong enough bond to make it through and we did.

FM: And at a certain point your health actually became an issue.

Jeff: Well, yeah, in early August 2008 I lost my voice completely without any explanation. And after a week or two I started to get concerned about it, and eventually they confirmed that I had a paralyzed left vocal cord. And then in September, I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t breathe and I knew something was seriously wrong. And I was rushed to the hospital and they discovered my heart that was working at 8 percent efficiency. And I had to have emergency heart surgery and shortly after was implanted with a defibrillator and a pacemaker. And this was all when the wolverine was still alive. I continued the research, but it was tough on me in 2008 and 2009 for sure. I mean, I was really attached at this point, and even at death’s door, I was worried about her.

FM: And then when you got out of the hospital, against doctor’s orders, you hiked back out to the swamp to your research site.

Jeff: Yeah, I didn’t tell anybody I was going to do that. As soon as my wife left for work one morning, I went out there. It took me all day to hike in and I had to keep stopping and laying down to rest. But it was a good feeling getting back in there. Clearly, I was obsessed because at that time I had two young children and to risk everything—there’s really no other way to describe it.

FM: And then finally, if we fast-forward to 2010, we get to the final chapter in the story when the wolverine—your wolverine—is found dead.

Jeff: Yeah, well, in March of 2010 an avid bow hunter from the area named Todd Rann and his girlfriend were out in the swamp, just taking a walk out there, looking for a new tree stand spot. And he was on the main trail that I usually took to go in, and his cell phone rang. And he stopped and his girlfriend just walked down this deer run through the brush and there near this beaver dam was the wolverine just laying there in the water.

Around 5:30, my friend Steve Noble called me and told me that the wolverine was found dead and that the DNR had just taken it out of the swamp. So Steve got in contact with the DNR officer who had the wolverine in the back of his truck, and he arranged for us to meet him. And so I grabbed my son—my wife and daughter were gone—and hopped in the truck. I remember my heart was racing. My boy looked over at me and I could tell he was scared because he was used to seeing me pretty much under control. And so I told him that we were going to see the wolverine—a dead wolverine. A little later, we met up with them and checked her over for bullet holes or trap marks and there was nothing. Then I drove home, called my wife, dropped my son off, went and got a case of beer, and went out to the State land to drink it. And I knew it was over. I didn’t want my family to see me like that.

FM: And were you expecting to be so emotional?

Jeff: Well, you know, it’s weird because I didn’t know how emotional I’d be because I never pictured it happening the way it did. I just never imagined that anybody would ever find her. I figured she would just eventually disappear and I’d stop getting pictures. I didn’t figure there would be any way in hell anyone would ever find her. That was a miracle in itself. You know, the kind of area she lived in, I never considered the fact that she would be found dead. So it kind of shocked me. I knew it was over, and that I would never be able to follow her again.

Jeff Ford holds the dead wolverine, March 13, 2010Jeff holds the dead wolverine, March 13, 2010. “I didn’t know how emotional I’d be because I never pictured it happening the way it did,” Jeff says. “You know, the kind of area she lived in, I never considered the fact that she would be found dead. So it kind of shocked me. I knew it was over, and that I would never be able to follow her again.” (Photo courtesy Jeff Ford)

FM: And you actually went to the necropsy, right?

Jeff: Yeah, I put a request in to attend the necropsy and videotape it. And they allowed me to do that. I wanted to know for sure in my own mind what happened to her. Like I said before, there was no indication she died of anything other than natural causes. She was confirmed to be nine years old, and it was confirmed, ironically, that she also had a heart condition. So my theory is that she probably tried to pull a beaver out of the dam, and the physical stress caused her to have a heart attack. And the DNR’s lab analysis came back later confirming she died of heart failure.

FM: And after that they actually sent the wolverine to a taxidermist. Are you okay with that being her final state?

Jeff: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a heck of a lot better scenario than what I thought would happen. And she’s actually been on tour in Michigan all summer. I mean, this way at least people around Michigan actually get to look at her, at her actual fur, and appreciate what cool animals wolverines are. And to be honest, when I stand next to her and look at her now, it’s hard to imagine that being her because I was used to her being so active and energetic and strong and athletic and all that. And now she just sits in a glass case. In all the video I took of her, I’ve never seen her standing there just stationary like that. But I will say the taxidermist did a tremendous job. You look at her, and a lot of people say, when you compare her to the photos and video, that’s how she looked. So that’s a good thing.

FM: You know, one thing occurs to me, Jeff, and maybe this is sort of a strange question: But it’s clear you got so close to this animal, I’m curious why you never named her?

Jeff: Well, you know, that’s one of the weirdest parts about this whole thing. And some people are almost irritated that I didn’t name her. You know, I don’t really know that I have a good answer as to why I didn’t name her, other than the fact that I didn’t want to disrespect her by tagging her with a name that represented something other than her being a wolverine. At one point, I thought about naming her after my mother Barbara who died in a fire when I was five years old. But then I thought I’d be bringing other things from the outside into the whole situation.

And actually I did sort of name her. Often if anyone asks, I just say her name is “The Pretty Girl.” I just thought her name should be a description of how she appeared to me. And I think “The Pretty Girl” gets at the heart of it better than anything else.

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“Wolverine Guy” Jeff Ford has co-authored an account of his time with Michigan’s last wolverine: The book’s called The Lone Wolverine: Tracking Michigan’s Most Elusive Animal (University of Michigan Press, 2012). Jeff has now retired from teaching and lives in Tuscola County, Michigan with his wife Amy and their two children, Riley Jo and Clint. Find out more, or buy the book and DVDs, at Jeff’s website: wolverineguy.org.

 

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4 Comments

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Nina Bell on September 20, 2012 at 4:36 am.

This article touched me. I believe I saw three young wolverines at the edge of the Waterloo forest, in Grass Lake township, about three or four years ago. As I rounded a curve, my headlights caught them playing on a grassy rise next to the dirt road. They scampered around to try to escape, then ended up climbing a tree! I had never seen such an animal, but the dark fur and short stocky legs, and short tail told me I had seen something special. They were fast – they got up the tree very fast. I believe they were wolverines, but, of course, I could be wrong. I never saw them again. They were a wonderous sight!

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jonathan on November 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm.

i had caught a pic of a wolverine on my trail cam in Benzie county by the old medicines factory off of a road to not be named for protection. It was coming out of some old cedar swamps. About three months later my father and i actually seen it crossing a two track we were hiking about two miles down the road.

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Tristan on February 3, 2013 at 12:35 am.

Great article! Its great to hear of someone so dedicated to a cause.
I remember about 3 years ago a neighbor of mine up at my Otsego County Michigan cottage was with me on a late night excusion. We had a tradition of taking the family teens and preteens out on late night haunted rides trying to scare each other as we drove along telling spooky stories.
One night the neighbor decided to take us all out onto a two track road that he said lead to a river. To tell the truth I cant remeber this rivers name but I do remember that we had driven past the south end of Otsego Lake going west. Supposedly these two track roads are service roads for some gas or oil wells in that area.
Anyway we were all in the vehical looking out into the light cast by the headlight when we saw a creature about the size of a medium size dog around 35 lbs that ambled across the two track at a fast pace and disappeared into the heavy brush across the road.
I was totally amazed to see a dark colored creature with a wide band of light colored fur that went across its rear end. I knew in a second it was a wolverine but my neighbor insisted it couldnt be since they are supposedly extinct here in Michigan.
I have many time wanted to have him take me back there and install a trail camera just to see what might show up. I mentioned it several times to the neighbor but he always says it would be a waste of time since its probably long gone! I’m telling you in my eyes and mind it was a wolverine and no one can ever tell me different!

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Mona M on January 29, 2014 at 11:48 pm.

Thanks Jeff for all your research on the Lone Michigan Wolverine and your sacrifices! We really appreciate you sharing your story with us, so we can teach our children too!
We had a wonderful time with the Lone Wolverine Exhibit in Jan 2013 & Jan 2014 over 5,000 people have been in Burton, Michigan so see her!
God Bless you and Amy and the Kids
Mona Miron :)

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