Deer Highway, Wolverine Byway

This photo of white tail deer crossing my five acre lot was taken in 2006. Even as my house was being constructed - with all the noise and commotion that entailed - the deer continued to cross my lot almost daily during the spring and fall, moving from one section of the nearby national forest to another. My neighbors began calling my lot The Deer Highway.

I've now added an additional name: The Wolverine Byway.

One huge lesson my girls have taught me is: if one stands or sits motionless and quiet, one can take notice of, and often easily observe, wildlife going about their daily routines. The deer using The Deer Highway quickly learned that the girls were fenced in, close to the house, so they had nothing to fear by crossing my lot. The girls sit, side by side, at the fence's edge, watching the deer through the wire mesh. Malamutes can, but rarely do, bark, so the deer aren't bothered by the girls. Sitting in my home office, I'm alerted to deer when I notice the girls sitting near the fence, intently watching something in the distance that - but for their directing me - I would likely miss.

Last fall we had an unusual and amusing deer encounter. About an hour before sunset, I heard the girls rush to one end of the yard (believe me, their running footfalls sound like an elephant when all else is quiet). I also heard my neighbor's two Dachshunds barking madly. I looked out the window to see a young deer in the dirt road, about 300 feet away, where the neighbor's driveway ties in. Unbelievably, the two small dogs were trying to keep the deer from coming onto their driveway, and the deer was stomping his two front legs at them, repeatedly, challenging them! Just then, the neighbor - also wondering at all the barking - called her dogs in. I continued to watch as this deer, having "won" that battle and clearly gaining confidence in his powers, started up and across my lot toward my girls, who had been intently watching from behind our fence! The girls stood, huffing as malamutes do (their huffing is more like what a bear might do to warn another animal away), tails wagging and very excited. Not sure what this young deer might do, I stood out in the yard with the girls and waited. After pretending to look for something to munch on, the deer slowly walked uphill to within 100 feet, then across my driveway and behind the house (the fenced area, at that time, didn't go around the back of the house). I assumed he was heading up into the forest. I went back inside, and the girls resumed their snoozing-yet-always-alert positions in the yard.

Ten minutes later, I heard the girls rush to the other end of their fenced yard. I jumped up and went outside, only to see the same young deer again stalking the girls. Talk about role reversal! Clearly he had gone around the house to try a different approach, maybe take them by surprise. This time he came much closer, and I was imagining all sorts of crazy scenarios, most of them including some sort of mad deer disease. The girls started huffing and pacing, the deer kept approaching. until I heard a very loud huff - more of a snort, really - that didn't originate with the girls or the deer. The deer stopped and turned, looking uphill. I went to the far corner of the yard, from where I could see a larger deer about 400 feet up the hill. Aha - mom was finally putting an end to teenage son's shenanigans! Mom snorted; young buck snorted in response, and they exchanged several more snorts. Even I could tell the older deer was calling to the young one to give up the game and retreat.The young deer seemed to ponder disobeying, then capitulated, heading uphill to mama.

While fascinated by the display, I was hugely relieved.

I thought the evening's drama was over. I was wrong.

Another ten minutes later, and by now, just at dusk, the girls rushed - yet again - to the road and driveway side of their yard. I jumped up, anxious, because clearly this deer was crazy, but what I saw totally astounded me: two brown shapes, one small, one large, were running down the road a quarter mile away, from where it curves up and around the hillside above me. Because it was nearly dark I had a hard time discerning what the figures were until they came even with my driveway. The small brown shape was Muttley, a small dog belonging to neighbors two houses down the hill. The large brown shape was that same young deer, chasing Muttley and seeming to be having the time of his life! Muttley dashed toward his house, at which point the deer gave up the chase. He took his sweet time returning to the forest - and mama - by meandering across my lot, teasing the girls, munching a mouthful of grass every few steps.

At least he left my wildflowers alone.

That story came to mind this morning because of some unique footprints I saw in the snow on my driveway: wolverine.

A few weeks ago, a neighbor said she'd seen a dark, fur-covered critter moving up my driveway just at sunrise. She thought at first it was a dog, but looking more closely at its shape and movements (front feet landing in a sort of pigeon-toed fashion) decided it must be a wolverine, although she'd never seen one. She works for the forest service, and so asked the resident biologist about it. He agreed that it likely was a wolverine, adding that spotting one is quite rare.

Very early this morning - around 5:30 am - the girls woke me up by rushing to the side of the yard and huffing and pacing, much like they did with that juvenile (and crazy) deer. It was still dark out, so even though I went outside and tried to see what had them so worked up, I saw nothing. Then they started moving along the length of the yard, back and forth, huffing all the while, very excited. Whatever it was seemed to be moving across my lot, below the fenced yard. I felt blind - clearly there was something there, but even against the snow I couldn't discern what it was. Fearing another skunk encounter, I called both girls in.

Later this morning, I took the girls for a hike in the forest. As we walked down the driveway, I noticed some footprints along the edge that looked somehow different. Dog like, but the indentations left by the pads were elongated - not the nicely rounded pads of my dogs - and there were very distinct toenail prints. They were big - as big as Meadow's, and she has huge feet for a female malamute, or any dog for that matter. Bigger than the fox and coyote prints that are ubiquitous here. And deep - they made a much deeper impression that my 80-85 lb dogs were making in the hard, crusty snow. The girls found the footprints' scent very interesting. Finally, it all came together - the excitement at 5:30 am, starting with them focusing on something on the driveway that then moved across the lot below the house, and the sighting by my neighbor at nearly the same time of day a few weeks earlier.

A quick Internet search on wolverines taught me that they're the size of a medium dog, low to the ground yet very powerful - known to hunt and eat much larger animals, even deer and moose on occasion. Described and mean, vicious, and possessing long, bear-like claws. Smelly, too. One wolverine needs a huge mount of forested territory - from 50 to 500 square miles - which they guard zealously from other wolverines. Their range requirements are the largest for any carnivore their size, and explain why they're so rarely seen. (See, for example,, the Hinterland Who's Who site.) Apparently this wolverine is using my driveway and lot as a byway between sections of forest.

The Deer Highway. The Wolverine Byway.

I love it. Still, I'm glad I constructed a fence for my girls, for their safety as well as my own peace of mind. I'm also glad I listen to them, let their ears, noses and eyes be mine. Otherwise, I'd never know.