06/07/2012 02:06 pm ET

David Messa, Hiker, Snaps Photo Of Rare Wolverine In California (VIDEO)

One California hiker now has photo evidence of his brief encounter with a wolverine.

David Messa spotted the rare animal near Lake Spaulding in mid-May, KTXL-TV reports. He said the wolverine was scurrying across an iced-over lake and even came within close proximity to him, at which point he was able to snap a picture.

A wildlife biologist confirmed the animal in the photo was a wolverine, making it only the fourth documented sighting of a live wolverine in California in recent years, according the station.

In 2008, a motion and heat-detecting digital camera captured pictures of a wolverine in the northern part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, according to Fox News. Katie Moriarty, an Oregon State University student, had set up the equipment for a research project on weasels.

The photo was significant because it provided evidence that wolverines still inhabited that part of the state.

"The conventional wisdom was that they were pretty much gone from California," Bill Zielinski, a research ecologist for the Forest Service, told Fox News.

However, some scientists argue that the wolverines traveled into California from other areas.

Hairs collected from a male wolverine spotted in the state revealed the animal was related to wolverines found in the northern Rocky Mountains, USA Today reports.

It's also possible the animals could have been "accidentally or deliberately" transplanted into the state from an area where wolverine trapping is legal, such as Alaska or the Yukon Territory, Science Daily notes.

Wolverines, which are part of the weasel family, can weigh up to 70 pounds, according to Defenders of Wildlife. In the lower 48 states, the animals can be found in areas of Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Washington.

In 2010, the wolverine qualified to become a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, the approval process was to be delayed so that officials could "address other higher priority species," according to a press release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At the time, wildlife officials estimated that just 212 wolverines resided in the continental U.S., according to the Denver Post.