The Biden administration has released a proposal to provide threatened species protections to the North American wolverine, which has been delayed for a long time. This is in response to warnings from scientists that climate change is causing the species’ snowy mountain habitats to disappear, putting them at risk of extinction.
In many parts of the United States, wolverines were eradicated by uncontrolled trapping and poisoning efforts by the early 1900s. There are currently only around 300 wolverines remaining in the contiguous U.S., living in isolated groups at high altitudes in the northern Rocky Mountains.
According to experts, Wolverines are just one of many species, including polar bears and crocodiles, that are facing a growing threat due to rising temperatures, changing snow patterns, and higher sea levels.
Over the next few decades, rising temperatures are projected to decrease the size of the mountain snowpack that wolverines require for creating dens to give birth and care for their offspring.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a decision on Wednesday after over 20 years of disagreements regarding the dangers posed by climate change and the potential harm to the continued existence of the elusive species. In their proposal, officials stated that safeguards under the Endangered Species Act were necessary “mainly due to the ongoing and growing effects of climate change, as well as habitat deterioration and fragmentation.”
These creatures look like miniature bears and are the biggest type of land-dwelling weasels in the world. They are also known as “mountain devils” and are well-adapted to survive in harsh, mountainous habitats.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, protections were denied. In 2022, a federal judge mandated that President Joe Biden’s administration must make a decision by the end of this week on whether to pursue protections.
Jeffrey Copeland, a former researcher at the U.S. Forest Service, stated that preserving the remaining habitats of wolverines provides them with a better chance of survival.
Listing wolverines as threatened “means that we have not paid enough attention to this critter to give it what it needs,” he said.
This is a setback, but in these circumstances, it is our only solution.
Montana’s Republican legislators had requested for the government to postpone its ruling, arguing that the assessments made by scientists were not precise enough to make an unbiased decision regarding the potential hazards faced by wolverines. Led by conservative Rep. Matt Rosendale, the lawmakers cautioned that safeguarding the species could result in limitations on recreational activities such as snowmobiling and skiing in wolverine habitats.
On Wednesday, Rosendale announced his intention to remove the endangered status of wolverines as soon as possible once it is confirmed.
According to the speaker, any restrictions on the use of land, regardless of its ownership (private, state, or federal), would constitute a violation of property rights. They question whether the federal government would provide compensation to the state for limiting the use of state-owned land. They express doubt that this would be the case.
In September, government experts acknowledged some ambiguity regarding the rate at which mountain snowpacks may disappear each spring in regions with wolverines. They also stated that the loss of habitat due to climate change, along with other issues such as greater development of homes and roads, will likely have a negative impact on wolverine populations.
The researchers concluded that the loss of habitat due to climate change and other factors will most likely have a negative impact on the survival of wolverines in the contiguous United States for the rest of the 21st century.
According to documents published on Wednesday, officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service are not worried about the impact of current developments, such as ski resorts, on wolverines as they are likely to avoid those areas. However, they expressed concern about the potential threat of winter recreation, such as backcountry skiing and snowmobiling, which have grown in popularity in some regions.
The researchers also mentioned that the decrease in numbers may be balanced out if wolverines are able to re-establish themselves in regions like California’s Sierra Nevada and Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
Environmental activists have filed numerous lawsuits against the Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming that wolverines are at risk of localized extinction due to climate change, habitat fragmentation, and limited genetic diversity.
According to Timothy Preso, a lawyer for Earthjustice involved in the legal effort, the proposal to safeguard them will increase the wolverine’s chances of survival.
Another attorney said he had concerns that trapping would be allowed to continue for other species in areas where wolverines live. The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal would allow some accidental killing of wolverines as long as trappers report any captures within five days and use “best practices” to avoid the animals.
Matt Bishop, of the Western Environmental Law Center, expressed uncertainty about the feasibility of this. He stated that wolverines are scavengers who have a widespread diet.
Wolverines can be found inhabiting remote regions of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington state.
In the past few years, single animals have been recorded in California, Utah, Colorado, and Oregon. However, officials stated in Wednesday’s proposal that there is “no proof” that these animals are settling and reproducing in these states.
In 2000, a petition was submitted to the wildlife service requesting protection for wolverines. The agency suggested implementing protections in 2010. However, President Barack Obama’s administration initially proposed protections but then attempted to retract them. This attempt was halted by a federal judge in 2016, who stated that wolverines, which rely on snow, are directly affected by climate change.
In 2020, safeguards were denied during the Trump administration due to findings indicating that wolverine populations were actually growing instead of decreasing. At that time, experts from the federal government anticipated that there would be ample snow cover at higher altitudes for wolverines to use as dens in the mountains every spring.
In September, they published a revised analysis that stated wolverines were “less secure” than previously described, causing them to change their stance.
One study states that adult wolverines need large areas of wilderness, with their home ranges covering up to 610 square miles (1,580 square kilometers).
Scientists state that wolverines require safeguarding from trapping. Over the last 20 years, wolverine populations in southwestern Canada have decreased by over 40% due to excessive trapping by humans. This could potentially have consequences in the United States as well.
At one point, it was legal to trap wolverines in states like Montana.
Since trapping regulations were implemented in 2012, there have been a minimum of 10 recorded instances of wolverines being unintentionally caught in Montana. Out of those, three were fatally harmed while the remaining were safely released. In Idaho, there have been 11 accidental captures of wolverines since 1995, with three resulting in death.