Kylie Paul, Rockies and Plain Representative
Wolverines are enigmatic, wide-ranging members of the weasel family (think otters, mink, and marten) that exist in high-altitude ‘islands’ of mountain ranges in the West. Wolverines mostly disappeared from the landscape in the 19th and 20th centuries in part due to human activities like trapping and poisoning, and they are slowly recolonizing their former territory in the northern Cascades and Rocky Mountains.
Defenders and our colleagues have been fighting for nearly two decades to federally protect wolverines in the lower 48 states, where climate change threatens their future. We filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 2000 requesting protection for the species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and took legal action in 2005 and 2008 when the agency did not move forward to protect the species. Then in 2010, FWS determined that wolverines did in fact warrant ESA protections, but the agency was precluded from taking further action due to higher priorities. Thankfully, on February 1, 2013, FWS finally proposed to protect wolverines in the contiguous U.S. as a ‘threatened’ species under the ESA!
The wolverine population in the lower 48 has long been a conservation concern for Defenders of Wildlife for many reasons:
- Wolverines are few in number. Biologists estimate there are fewer than 300 wolverines in the contiguous United States, and wolverines have one of the lowest successful reproduction rates known for mammals.
- Wolverines need snow. Female wolverines need deep snow that lasts through spring for dens in which they raise their young, but researchers predict wolverines in the lower 48 could lose two-thirds of their snow-covered habitat by the end of this century due to climate change.
- Wolverines need connections to other wolverines. The contiguous U.S. population of wolverines is small and fragmented, and is therefore vulnerable to a reduction of suitable habitat. To give the species a chance of adapting to the warming climate in the lower 48, they need a well-connected, robust population, including wolverines reclaiming currently unoccupied habitat.
- Some areas still allow wolverine trapping. Trapping of wolverines has been allowed in Montana, where up to five wolverines statewide could be trapped legally each year. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but trapping one reproducing female from a small mountain range could reduce the reproductive potential of that local population.
Protecting wolverines under the ESA would benefit wolverines in many ways. A ‘threatened’ status prohibits killing or harming wolverines, so it will stop trapping of wolverines in Montana, giving them a better chance to expand into unoccupied habitat. It will help identify and designate habitat critical to long-term species survival. It requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a comprehensive recovery plan that discusses what specific actions need to be taken in order to restore the species. It brings public attention and hopefully public resources to wolverines – once folks get to know how impressive wolverines are, they’re that much more likely to help protect them! It also brings to light the complex challenges of climate change that wolverines and other species face. Listing the wolverine should provide additional resources necessary for research and monitoring.
The USFWS has one year to decide whether to follow through and publish a final listing rule. They are holding a public comment period from February 4 to May 5, 2013, to give folks the opportunity to provide additional information on the proposal. Click here to review the proposal and submit a comment!
Here are some important points to mention:
- Wolverines need deep snow that lasts through spring for dens in which the females raise their young, but wolverines in the lower 48 could lose two-thirds of their snow-covered habitat by the end of this century due to climate change!
- Federal protection will help wolverines survive a warming world by removing threats such as trapping, giving them a better chance to expand into unoccupied habitat.
- Federal protection will provide the resources and attention needed for research and monitoring to better understand threats and help sustain wolverines into the future.
- To give the species a chance of adapting to the warming climate in the lower 48, they need a well-connected, robust population, including wolverines moving into quality former habitat that is currently vacant. Wolverine reintroduction in high-alpine Colorado will help increase the chances of the species surviving in the lower 48 in a warming future.
Together we can speak up to make sure the wolverine gets the protection it deserves.