Wolverines Are ‘Threatened’ with Extinction under Endangered Species Act
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists wolverines as ‘threatened’ under Endangered Species Act
A wolverine makes its way across a snowy landscape in Montana. In 2014, there were only 250 to 300 left in the Lower 48 states, and they’re limited to Idaho, Washington, Montana, Wyoming and northeast Oregon. (Getty Images)
After more than two decades of petitions by wildlife conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed wolverines as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The decision marks a win for conservation groups, who have petitioned for a federal listing since 1995 and have gone through six rounds of successful litigation to secure federal protections.
According to the Endangered Species Act, a “threatened species” is a species likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Whereas, an “endangered species” is a species in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
Under the new protections, Fish and Wildlife must prepare a wolverine recovery plan, identify protected critical habitat in the future and possibly plan for reintroduction of the species into Colorado.
“Biologists estimate a loss of more than 40% of suitable wolverine habitat in Idaho by 2060 if we fail to act,” Jeff Abrams, wildlife program associate for the Idaho Conservation League, said in a press release Wednesday. “This decision allows us to move forward on recovery actions to prevent such extensive loss of wolverine habitat and recover wolverine populations.”
Decision comes after decades of petitions, lawsuits
Wolverines were first petitioned to be listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1995, but Fish and Wildlife determined that the petition and the information within its records lacked evidence to suggest that listing the wolverine as threatened or endangered in the Lower 48 might be justified.
Then in 2014, Fish and Wildlife issued and then withdrew a proposal to list wolverines.
Western conservation groups then sued Fish and Wildlife in the District Court for the District of Montana challenging the agency’s decision to withdraw the proposal. In 2020, the groups went to court to compel the federal agency to complete a final Endangered Species Act listing determination on wolverines in the Lower 48.
As reported by WyoFile, Fish and Wildlife published a 100-page “species status assessment” on North American wolverines in September, which previewed the decision that federal wildlife managers had to make by the end of November — the deadline specified in the federal court order.
Wolverines in the Lower 48
Wolverines are medium-sized, solitary carnivores that live in high-elevation habitats. The species relies on deep snowpack for rearing their young, and they are adapted for digging, climbing and traveling long distances during the winter.
Wolverine populations are naturally small in high-elevation alpine habitats. However, Fish and Wildlife predicts that human disturbance and the main threat of climate change affecting spring snow will further shrink and fragment their habitats.
“The science is clear: snowpack-dependent species like the wolverine are facing an increasingly uncertain future under a warming climate,” Michael Saul, program director for Defenders of Wildlife Rockies and Plains, said in the press release. “The protections that come with Endangered Species Act listing increase the chance that our children will continue to share the mountains with these elusive and fascinating carnivores.”
Wolverines were once found across the northern tier of the U.S, stretching from states like Montana and Idaho to regions as far south as New Mexico in the Rockies and Southern California in the Sierra Nevada range.
But after more than a century of unregulated trapping and habitat degradation, wolverines in the Lower 48 only exist in small populations in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and northeast Oregon.
There is limited population data on wolverines, but in 2014, Fish and Wildlife estimated a population between 250 to 300 in the Lower 48. While the latest species status assessment does not include an updated population estimate, research indicates the species are widely spread and move across state borders.
Conservationists from across the West expressed gratitude at the decision, including Andrea Zaccardi, the Center for Biological Diversity’s carnivore conservation legal director.
“I’m thrilled that the Fish and Wildlife Service finally followed the science and granted wolverines the federal protections they need to survive and recover,” she said in the press release. “Like so many other species, wolverines waited far too long for federal protections, but I’m overjoyed that they’re finally on the path to recovery.”
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