BILLINGS, Mont. – The North American wolverine will receive long-delayed threatened species protections under a Biden administration proposal released Wednesday in response to scientists warning that climate change will likely melt away the rare species’ snowy mountain refuges and push them toward extinction.
In the coming decades, warming temperatures are expected to shrink the mountain snowpack wolverines rely on to dig dens where they birth and raise their young.
The decision Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service follows more than two decades of disputes over the risks of climate change, and threats to the long-term survival of the elusive species. Officials wrote in the proposal that protections under the Endangered Species Act were needed “due primarily to the ongoing and increasing impacts of climate change and associated habitat degradation and fragmentation.”
Republican lawmakers in Montana had urged the administration to delay its decision, claiming the scientists’ estimates were too inaccurate to make a fair call about the dangers faced by wolverines. The lawmakers, led by hard-right conservative Rep. Matt Rosendale, warned that protections could lead to future restrictions on activities allowed in wolverine habitats, including snowmobiling and skiing.
“Whether it’s private property, state property or federal property, if we are limited on the use of that land based upon this status, that’s a taking,” he said. “Is the federal government going to compensate the state for lack of use on state-owned lands? …. I don’t think so.”
“The best available information suggests that habitat loss as a result of climate change and other stressors are likely to impact the viability of wolverines in the contiguous U.S. through the remainder of this century,” they concluded.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials said in documents released Wednesday that they were “not concerned” about the effects of existing developments such as ski resorts since wolverines likely already avoid those areas. But winter recreation could hurt wolverines in the future, they said, as activities like backcountry skiing and snowmobiling have become more popular in some areas.
Environmentalists have argued in multiple lawsuits against the Fish and Wildlife Service that wolverines face localized extinction from climate change, habitat fragmentation and low genetic diversity.
Another attorney said he still had concerns over legal trapping 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.
In recent years, individual animals have been documented in California, Utah, Colorado and Oregon. However, there’s been “no evidence” that the animals are becoming established and breeding in those states, officials said in Wednesday’s proposal.
Protections were rejected in 2020 under Trump, based on research suggesting the animals’ prevalence was expanding, not contracting. Federal wildlife officials at the time predicted that despite warming temperatures, enough snow would persist at high elevations for wolverines to den in mountain snowfields each spring.
The animals need immense expanses of wildland to survive, with home ranges for adult male wolverines covering as much as 610 square miles (1,580 square kilometers), according to a study in central Idaho.
They also need protection from trapping, according to scientists. Wolverine populations in southwestern Canada plummeted by more than 40% over the past two decades due to overharvesting by trappers, which could have effects across the U.S. border, scientists said.
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 including three that were killed.