The government is trying to decide whether to extend endangered species status to wolverines.
Such a listing would trigger new protections for this hardy member of the weasel family that’s actually making a comeback in the U.S. — but perhaps not for long.
Wolverines weigh about 30 pounds and look sort of like miniature black bears with bushy tails. In the early part of the 20th century predator poisoning campaigns and habitat degradation reduced their numbers to near extinction. But in the past 50 years or so, wolverines have come back especially in cold snowy sections of the Rocky Mountain West, including Idaho, as well as in parts of Oregon and Washington.
In Montana’s Glacier National Park, wolverines have been radio-collared to track their movements. Here’s a video of one female in a log trap before her collar was put on, contributed by Jeff Copeland with The Wolverine Foundation.
Scientists believe there are between 250 and 500 wolverines in the U.S. now. That may not seem like a lot, says Shawn Sartorius, lead wolverine biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but it’s a significant improvement.
“This is a case, one of the few cases where things are looking pretty rosy right now but the future scenario is one that doesn’t look good,” Sartorious says.
Wolverines tend to stick to high elevations where snow piles thick and stays late into the spring. They need the snow to make their dens. That’s why climate change poses a major threat to these animals. Warming temperatures are predicted to shrink the available habitat for wolverines in the future. Sartorius says that if they are listed as threatened or endangered that could mean more funding for monitoring and reintroduction of the species.
“We think that if wolverines can be reestablished in as many places as possible that will give them the best chance to hold on once the significant effects of climate change occur.”
Wolverines are mainly scavengers that stick to extremely harsh territory so they don’t pose a problem for livestock.
Researchers are also concerned about the lack of genetic diversity in the recovering population.
In 2010 the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the wolverine merited protection under the Endangered Species Act but due to lack of funding, no further action was taken until a lawsuit filed by environmental groups required the FWS to release a recommendation by Jan. 18.
A lawsuit in Montana halted the annual wolverine trapping season on Monday, perhaps permanently, depending on whether or not the animal is given federal endangered species status.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will begin deliberating this month whether to include wolverines on the list of species protected under the Endangered Species Act.