Arguing that climate change may wipe out wolverines before any effort gets underway to save them, a coalition of environmental groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to add the animal to the Endangered Species List.
The lawsuit filed in Missoula’s federal district court office contends FWS has improperly withheld ESA protection from wolverines in the Lower 48 states since 2016, and over the objection of the agency’s own scientists. FWS officials have ruled that wolverines appear to be recovering without assistance.
Wolverines are ferocious and mostly antisocial carnivores that may claim individual territories up to 900 square miles in area. Female wolverines require deep snowfields to dig their birthing dens. The lawsuit argues that climate change and habitat loss have made it more difficult for wolverines to find suitable places to raise young, and that the federal agency hasn’t done enough to analyze how many of the elusive animals actually remain south of Canada.
"The wolverine is a famously tough creature that doesn't back down from anything, but even the wolverine can't overcome climate change by itself," said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Galvan in a press release.
Earthjustice is representing a broad coalition of groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Clearwater, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club and Rocky Mountain Wild.
"For years scientists have been sounding the alarm on how wolverines are severely affected by climate change," said Andrea Zaccardi, attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The future of the wolverine in the lower 48 now stands on a knife edge.''
The Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to protect the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act in 2000, and has fought the designation for years.
“We stand by our decision to withdraw the listing proposal,” FWS spokesperson Joe Szuszwalak wrote in an email on Monday. “The best available science shows that the factors affecting wolverine populations are not as significant as believed in 2013 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the wolverine found in the contiguous United States as threatened. New research and analysis show that wolverine populations in the American Northwest remain stable, and individuals are moving across the Canadian border in both directions and returning to former territories. The species, therefore, does not meet the definition of threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.”
The agency in the past has suggested the number of wolverines is expanding, not contracting, Its biologists predict that enough snow will persist at high elevations for wolverines to den in mountain snowfields each spring despite warming temperatures.
However, other wildlife experts say the wolverine’s unique characteristics make it easy to overestimate its presence. Biologist and author Doug Chadwick said solo males can range over such great distances, they can be mistaken for a phantom population. While some studies estimate at least 300 wolverines exist in numerous western states, other reports indicate that dispersing solo males may make up many of the observations.
“It’s a problem they’ve had forever,” said Chadwick, who’s written extensively about them in “The Wolverine Way” and for National Geographic Magazine. “They move around huge country, so people see wolverine tracks in every drainage and say, ‘Let’s keep trapping them.”
Montana still classifies wolverines as a furbearer, but has ended its legal trapping season in 2012. However, Chadwick said the wolverine’s scavenger tactics make it vulnerable to getting caught in traps set for other animals. That combined with the shrinking annual mountain snowpack put their continued persistence at high risk.
“You might have two breeding females in an entire mountain range,” Chadwick said. “Lose one of them and you’ve gone from just hanging on to a strong downward slope.”
Wolverines were wiped out across most of the U.S. by the early 1900s following unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns.