BILLINGS, Mont. — The North American wolverine will receive long-delayed endangered species protection under a Biden administration proposal released Wednesday in response to scientists’ warnings that climate change will likely melt snow-covered refuges mountains of this rare species and will push them towards extinction.
In most of the United States, wolverines were exterminated in the early 1900s following unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns. About 300 surviving animals in the contiguous United States live in fragmented, isolated groups at high altitudes in the northern Rocky Mountains.
Wolverines join a growing number of animals, plants and insects – from polar bears in Alaska to crocodiles in South Florida – that authorities say are at increasing risk as rising temperatures cook the planet, alter snowfall patterns and raise sea levels.
In coming decades, warming temperatures are expected to reduce the mountain snowpack that wolverines need to dig dens where they give birth and raise their young.
Wednesday’s decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service follows more than two decades of dispute over the risks of climate change and threats to the long-term survival of these elusive species. Officials wrote in the proposal that protections under the Endangered Species Act were needed “primarily because of the ongoing and increasing impacts of climate change and associated habitat degradation and fragmentation.” is associated “.
Protecting the last bastions of wolverine habitat gives the animals a fighting chance, said Jeffrey Copeland, a former U.S. Forest Service biologist.
Classifying wolverines as threatened “means we haven’t paid enough attention to this creature to give it what it needs,” he said.
“It’s a failure. But in this kind of situation, it’s the only tool we have.”
Montana Republican lawmakers urged the administration to delay its decision, saying scientists’ estimates were too inaccurate to fairly rule on the dangers facing wolverines. Lawmakers, led by far-right conservative Rep. Matt Rosendale, warned that the protections could lead to future restrictions on activities allowed in wolverine habitats, including snowmobiling and skiing.
Rosendale said Wednesday he would seek to revoke the endangered species status for wolverines as soon as possible if it is finalized.
“Whether it’s private property, state property, or federal property, if we’re limited in the use of that land based on that status, that’s a taking.” , did he declare. “Will the federal government compensate the state for the lack of use of these lands? state land?…I don’t think so.”
In September, government scientists acknowledged some uncertainty about how quickly mountain snowpack could disappear each spring in areas with wolverines. They also said habitat loss due to climate change — combined with other issues such as increased development, including homes and roads — would likely harm wolverine populations.
Habitat loss due to climate change and other stressors will likely “impact the viability of wolverines in the neighboring United States through the end of this century,” they concluded.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials said in documents released Wednesday that they are “not concerned” about the effects of existing developments such as ski resorts because wolverines likely already avoid those areas. But winter recreation could harm wolverines in the future, they said, as activities like backcountry skiing and snowmobiling have become more popular in some areas.
The scientists added that some of these losses could be offset if wolverines manage to recolonize areas such as the Sierra Nevada in California and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
Environmentalists have argued in multiple lawsuits against the Fish and Wildlife Service that wolverines face localized extinction due to climate change, habitat fragmentation and low genetic diversity.
The proposal to protect them “gives the wolverine a chance to survive,” said Timothy Preso, an attorney with the group Earthjustice who participated in the legal effort.
Another attorney said he was concerned that trapping would be allowed to continue for other species in areas where wolverines live. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal would allow the accidental killing of wolverines provided trappers report any capture within five days and use “best practices” to avoid the animals.
“I’m not sure that’s possible. Wolverines are scavengers: they go everywhere and eat everything,” said Matt Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center.
Wolverine populations live in remote areas of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington.
In recent years, individual animals have been documented in California, Utah, Colorado and Oregon. However, there is “no evidence” that the animals are establishing and breeding in these states, officials said in Wednesday’s proposal.
The Wildlife Service received a petition to protect wolverines in 2000 and the agency recommended protections in 2010. President Barack Obama’s administration proposed protections and later sought to remove them, but was blocked by a federal judge who ruled in 2016 that snow-dependent animals were “squarely on the path to climate change.”
The protections were rejected in 2020 under Trump, based on research suggesting populations were expanding, not contracting. Federal wildlife officials predicted at the time that there would be enough snow at high elevations for wolverines to rest in mountain snowfields each spring.
They reversed course in a revised analysis released in September that found wolverines were “less secure than we had described.”
The animals require large wildlands, with home ranges for adult wolverines covering up to 610 square miles (1,580 square kilometers), according to one study.
They also need protection from trapping, scientists say. Wolverine populations in southwest Canada have fallen by more than 40% in the past two decades due to overharvesting by trappers, which could have effects beyond the U.S. border, scientists say .
Wolverine trapping was once legal in states like Montana.
At least 10 wolverines have been accidentally captured in Montana since trapping was restricted in 2012. Three were killed and the others released unharmed. In Idaho, trappers have accidentally captured 11 wolverines since 1995, killing three.