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Wolverines are one of the rarest mammals to see in the Rocky Mountains.

BILLINGS – A coalition of groups trying to halt wolverine trapping in Montana filed a lawsuit Thursday that aims to provide new protections for an animal scientists warn will be imperiled by climate change in coming decades.

Montana is the only state in the Lower 48 to allow wolverine trapping. As many as five can be trapped annually, a level state officials said is sustainable.

But eight wildlife advocacy and conservation groups represented by the Western Environmental Law Center want state District Judge James Reynolds in Helena to halt the practice. They said trapping should not resume until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determines whether new protections are warranted for the animal.

“You’ve got a low population that’s going to continue to get smaller, and if you throw trapping on top of that, that’s making a bad situation worse,” said Matthew Bishop, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the case.

Wolverines, the largest members of the weasel family, are fierce predators that keep to high elevations with deep snow and can fight off a grizzly bear when cornered.

Federal wildlife officials said in December 2010 that future threats including climate change made it eligible for potential protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the time declined to list the animal as endangered or threatened, citing higher priorities.

The agency said the wolverine population currently is stable or expanding. But it said the warming trend was expected to reduce the snowpack wolverines depend on for habitat and denning.

Suitable habitat for the animals in the contiguous U.S. is expected to decrease by 23 percent by 2045 and 63 percent by the end of the century, according to federal biologists.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 250 to 300 wolverines in the continental U.S. Most are in Montana and Idaho, but a few animals have ranges that include portions of Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming and Colorado. There are larger populations in Alaska, where trapping also is permitted, and as many as 20,000 wolverines in Canada.

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FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said Montana’s quota of five wolverines a year is reasonable, and the state has no intention to harm the overall wolverine population. The quota was last adjusted in 2008, when it was cut in half from 10 animals annually.

“It’s conservative, and we think it’s sustainable and a reasonable season,” Aasheim said. “It was based on the best science we have.”

The groups involved in Thursday’s lawsuit petitioned the state to halt trapping in August, but the request was denied.

A decision on whether to list the animal as threatened or endangered and provide federal protections is due by the end of next year under the terms of a settlement in a separate lawsuit, Bishop said.

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