Kylie Paul, Rockies & Plains Representative
Wolverines may finally be getting the federal protections they need. In response to well over a decade of successful legal efforts by Defenders and a few of our partners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced in February its proposal to list the wolverine as a threatened species in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Alongside the proposed listing, FWS also announced its proposal to designate the southern Rocky Mountains (southern Wyoming, Colorado and northern New Mexico) as an experimental population area for wolverines, which opens up the possibility of a reintroduction of wolverines to Colorado.
If approved, these proposals will give wolverines a fighting chance for survival in a warming world. There are only an estimated 300 wolverines spread across the entire western United States, and scientists predict they could lose up to two-thirds of their suitable snowy habitat by 2099 due to climate change. That’s why we’ve been busy over the past few months educating wildlife enthusiasts about this amazing critter and encouraging them to support wolverine conservation through the public participation process on this proposal to protect wolverines.
Defenders of Wildlife collaborated with our conservation partners in Colorado and Montana to introduce the public to these mysterious, cold-loving critters through the PBS award-winning documentary, Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom. This informative documentary highlights the challenges facing the wolverine. These powerful carnivores are specially adapted for winter existence and survive in the rugged, snow-covered alpine environment by scavenging and storing food. Wolverines’ large paws act like snowshoes that allow them to stay on top of deep snow, and their crampon-like claws help them to climb up and over steep cliffs and snow-covered peaks. Unfortunately, these awe-inspiring creatures are not invincible – climate change is expected to melt away much of their snowy habitat over the next several decades.
Wolverines are incredibly rare, and even the researchers that dedicate their lives to studying this remarkable creature can go years without seeing a wolverine in the wild. Many biologists rely on wolverine tracks, scavenging sites and images they capture through remote cameras to learn more about this elusive critter. Fortunately, in Chasing the Phantom, the audience is offered a glimpse into the wolverine’s world through the eyes of researchers with the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project. Viewers also get up-close and personal, following the movements and behavior of two wolverines raised in captivity. They are beautiful, playful and ridiculously cute!
Almost 300 wildlife enthusiasts attended the film screenings in Denver, Bozeman, and Missoula. Each screening was followed by a panel discussion and Q&A session with experts from a variety of backgrounds. In Denver, the audience was especially interested in the potential reintroduction of wolverines into Colorado. Bridget Fahey with the FWS and Eric Odell with Colorado Parks and Wildlife explained that some climate models show that Colorado – with the highest average elevation of any state in the Lower 48, including 54 peaks over 14,000 feet – will likely retain the continuous cold temperatures and snow cover necessary for the wolverine to survive, even as the climate continues to change. All of the panel experts, including Caitlin Balch-Burnett with Defenders, emphasized that getting wolverines on the ground in Colorado could be one of the greatest steps we can take to ensure that wolverines survive the effects of climate change.
In Bozeman, the producer and filmmaker of Chasing the Phantom, Gianna Savoie, joined the panel to share her experiences working on the documentary and how she created a film on such a remote creature. Bob Inman with Wildlife Conservation Society discussed wolverine biology and research, and I talked about the proposed listing of wolverines under the Endangered Species Act. The event in Missoula offered Mike Schwartz, a leading wolverine conservation genetics team leader, who discussed many of the incorrect myths about wolverines.
FWS public hearings
The FWS hosted three public hearings on their wolverine proposals in the southern and northern Rocky Mountains: Boise, Idaho; Lakewood, Colorado; and Helena, Montana. We reached out to our supporters in the area and encouraged them to attend – many took the opportunity to speak directly to the federal officials and biologists that will be involved in the final decision to list the wolverine under the ESA.
There was widespread support for wolverines at the public hearings, especially in Boise and Lakewood, where nearly all of the public comments were positive. Alex Marks, a Defenders member who attended the Lakewood hearing, commented:
“I wanted to testify at the Fish and Wildlife hearing about the dual proposals for the wolverine because I wanted to let the agency know how important it was for these proposals to move forward .… The ESA was established to both “stabilize” and “revitalize” any species in need of its protections.”
We were thrilled with the amount of support and positive feedback we have been seeing for the listing proposal and the Colorado reintroduction – it all bodes well for the future of wolverines in the U.S.!