On Nov. 29, 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that wolverines will now be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The ruling was hailed by conservation groups which have been advocating to protect wolverines in the contiguous U.S. for more than 20 years, including suing the agency twice. There are roughly 300 wolverines spreading across Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. The new federal listing does not apply to wolverines in Alaska. Wolverines are already listed as a threatened species in Oregon, where hunting or trapping of the animals is prohibited. Earlier this spring, several wolverine sightings were reported along the Columbia River and in the Central Cascades, most likely of the same animal. Bethany Cotton is the conservation director for Cascadia Wildlands, a conservation group based in Eugene. She joins us to talk about the impact of this ruling, and ongoing threats to the survival of wolverines in the West.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that wolverines will now be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The agency cited current and increasing impacts of climate change and the associated loss of habitat in its decision. The ruling has been hailed by conservation groups which have been advocating and litigating to protect wolverines in the contiguous U.S. for more than 20 years. One of those groups is Cascadia Wildlands. Bethany Cotton is the conservation director for the Eugene-based nonprofit and she joins us now. Welcome to the show.
Bethany Cotton: Thanks.
Miller: You’ve been working on a wolverine listing for a number of years now. What went through your mind yesterday when you heard this news?
Cotton: A mixture of being totally thrilled that at long last, this iconic species is receiving these protections, and relieved. We didn’t know for sure that the agency would at long last do the right thing, and some sadness that it took so long and that we lost that time to really help this animal move toward recovery.
Miller: What went into the last 20 years or so? We don’t have time for the entire back and forth, but can you give us the short version of that history?
Cotton: Sure. So the first petition to list wolverines under the Endangered Species Act dates back to 1995 and I will absolutely not take credit for that because I was in middle school in Southern Oregon then. And then there was a long process where the agency was considering that petition, and there was quite a lot of political interference under the George W. Bush administration. And there was quite a backlog of species that were awaiting protection under the law and then, through some litigation that logjam was broken and the agency caught up and made listing decisions on over 250 imperiled species. And ultimately, that led to an initial decision to propose listing in 2013, and I have been working on this issue since then.
But then, unfortunately, the agency turned around and reversed itself and withdrew its decision and that was challenged in court. And in 2016, the court said, nope, you did not follow the best available science and you failed to follow the law, and told the agency to make a new decision. And the agency again, recommended listing and then would reverse itself again and went back to court, and then asked the court to give it a little time to revisit. And so that did not lead to another court decision. It led to the agency going back and taking another look and producing what’s called a species status assessment that looks at the state of the science, and that resulted in yesterday’s listing where at long last the agency acknowledged that wolverine are in significant trouble, largely, as you mentioned, due to climate impacts, to essential habitat, as well as other factors including habitat fragmentation by roads and logging, and impacts caused by trapping.
Miller: You mentioned the phrase, “best available science,” which is a sort of a regulatory phrase in a lot of ways. How much more do we know about wolverines than when the listing effort first started?
Cotton: Certainly more than we did in 1995. The science of climate change has evolved and clarified significantly. But if you talk to wolverine scientists, they’ll tell you that we knew plenty in 2013 to have justified the listing and that that science has only gotten stronger and more stark since then.
Miller: What is the preferred habitat of wolverines?
Cotton: So, the essential habitat that they absolutely need to survive is high alpine, deep springtime snowpack. And that’s because they den, basically they create caves in snow. And den in that and have and rear their young that way. So it’s quite essential that they have that late spring snowpack and that’s why they’re so sensitive to climate. But they will disperse across lots of other types of habitat, like we saw with the wolverine who showed up along the Columbia back in April.
Miller: What is the estimate for their population in the lower 48 states right now?
Cotton: Our best guess is about 300 individuals.
Miller: Do you have a sense for what it would have been historically?
Cotton: I don’t think we really have a great historic estimate, but we do know that they were in a lot of places where they haven’t been for quite some time. So, for example, the last wolverine was trapped in Oregon in 1968 and then they were gone for decades. And then one in 2011 showed up in the Wallowas and that one individual animal has been documented there in the Wallowas every year since. And then we had our first Western Oregon wolverine just this spring who was spotted in several places, but we do think it’s probably that same individual.
So at this stage, we have two wolverines that we know of in Oregon. They’ve returned to California, but again, very few individuals and then the core population are in the Northern Rockies, in Montana and Wyoming and we’ve got a few in Washington state as well.
Miller: This listing, if I understand correctly, is only for the contiguous 48 states. And really, it seems like it’s, as you just noted, about very few particular western states. Are wolverine populations healthier in Alaska? Are they in Alaska?
Cotton: Yes, to both.
Miller: So, and this ruling will not affect those populations?
Miller: So, how significant is it that the wolverine was seen in Western Oregon? I mean, is that just a kind of a little bit of a blip or is it more meaningful?
Cotton: We certainly hope that it’s a harbinger of this species returning to the last, but still suitable, habitat in Oregon and in Washington state. That is a normal behavior for a young animal after it no longer needs to be with its mom, to then disperse and try to find a habitat of its own. So in all likelihood, that was a dispersing individual the same way you see that happen with wolves and other relatively solitary carnivorous species. So it’s certainly a hopeful sign.
Miller: You wrote in a press release yesterday that “the Service prepared a mostly strong interim rule.” What do you mean by that?
Cotton: So this is a little wonky piece, but the Endangered Species Act contains a provision that allows for what are called 4(d) rules. And historically, those were used by the service to actually afford all the same protections that species that are listed are endangered, which is a higher level of imperilment to species that were threatened. More recently, it’s sometimes used to frankly excuse some actions that may impact the species. And we are concerned that there’s language in this interim 4(d) rule that actually could undermine the safeguards of the listing itself. And the agency did open a public comment period, so we will be engaging in that public comment and encourage those in the public who are interested to do so as well. Specifically, that concerning language was excusing trapping of wolverines and given that trapping is one of the threats and that we know that at least 20 wolverines were caught in traps in the last decade in Montana and Wyoming, that’s not an insignificant number when you’re talking about a population of just around 300 individuals.
Miller:. Am I right that what you’re worried about is the incidental or accidental trapping of wolverines, because doing that on purpose would go against the rule?
Cotton: That’s right. And it’s not allowed in Oregon anyway, because wolverines have actually been protected by the State Endangered Species Act. So it’s long actually been illegal to trap or hunt wolverines in Oregon. But that is not true in some of the states and that is one prohibition that is afforded by this listing.
Miller: Well, are there things that trappers say that are going for bobcats or something that they could do to make it less likely that wolverines would find themselves trapped?
Cotton: The best thing to do that would be to not trap in wolverine habitat because wolverines are scavengers and so they’re kind of trap junkies. They’re pretty likely to be attracted to a baited trap or a scent lure, so there’s definitely some risk associated with that. And that’s something that’s happened in other contexts, where certain forms of traps are prohibited, in parts of Montana that are known Canada lynx habitat, to prevent trapping of lynx.
Miller: So that’s your critique of this interim rule. But I understand there are aspects of it that you are in favor of. The agency is going to be preparing a wolverine recovery plan. What do these plans normally entail?
Cotton: They really outline what the primary threats are and then what the plan is to address those threats and what steps it would take to do that. So we analogize that to, if you think of the Endangered Species Act list as the emergency room for threatened and imperiled plants and animals, that this is basically the plan that the doctor writes to help you recover from your injury or your illness. And so it’s the steps that the agency is going to take, and work with other federal and state agencies to take, to help put the species on a path to recovery.
Miller: To stick with the ER analogy, if the biggest medical issue here is climate change induced lack of habitat - there are others, I mean, we’re talking about trapping, for example. But, if the biggest overall thing is that there isn’t just going to be, say, enough deep spring snowpack for them to make their dens, then what can any agency do about that?
Cotton: Sure. Well, we have to confront the existential threat, not just to wolverines, but to all of us, that is anthropogenic climate change, climate change caused by humans. And so that needs to happen at every agency, at every level of government and with all of us. And that if we help prevent catastrophic climate change impacts, that doesn’t just benefit wolverines, it benefits you and me, it helps with the impacts that we’re all feeling around climate, smoky summers and record heat domes. But it also means that it’s really important to not further fragment habitat. So for example, you’d want to be really careful to not allow a clear cut logging project in core high elevation wolverine habitat or think carefully about whether there’s a proposed road that would provide more threats to the species or result in more threats to the species.
So one thing that is really helpful about Endangered Species Act protections is that all other federal agencies have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about the potential impacts of their proposed projects. And so that will be true across the wolverine range going forward. And we can hopefully prevent some of the contributing factors to those impacts.
Miller: What’s the time frame for that? I mean, how long before critical habitat areas are identified and protections for those areas are actually fully on the books?
Cotton: Well, I would love to know that for sure. But in general, the agency does that within a year. So we’re quite hopeful the agency will do that, go ahead and propose critical habitat and then finalize it and there’d be a public comment process for that. I also hope that the agency will work quickly to write that recovery plan and publish that as well.
Miller: You noted that the trapping of wolverines has already been outlawed at the state level in Oregon. Will this federal listing change anything about wolverines in Oregon?
Cotton: That issue around consultation that we were talking about, so if there are proposals by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management or other federal agencies or connected actions that might impact wolverines themselves or wolverine habitat, then the agency is gonna have to consider that and talk to the Fish and Wildlife Service about ways to mitigate that or whether those impacts are so severe that the proposed project cannot move forward.
Miller: What might happen in terms of the reintroduction of wolverines in different states?
Cotton: Sure. So there was a fairly advanced proposal to reintroduce wolverines in Colorado and Colorado is great wolverine habitat. They have really high peaks. So you probably heard the term “fourteener,” there’s more 14,000ft. peaks in Colorado than any other state. And that was unfortunately delayed and stalled out around when the service pulled that 2013 proposed listing and changed course, then reversed itself. So there’s a lot of hope that that will restart and that we’ll see wolverines return to Colorado in the next few years.
Miller: What does this listing mean for you personally?
Cotton: I grew up in rural Southern Oregon, and I think a lot about all the wildlife that is missing, that should have been there, that I should have had a chance to see as a kid, and a lot of those animals I didn’t see until I was in my thirties and I traveled to Yellowstone and to Glacier National Park and it’s where I first saw wolves and grizzly bears and I think a wolverine, although it wasn’t a great sighting, so I’m still waiting for a really great one. And I think about my niece and others who are younger than I am who, if we don’t do something about this, might never get a chance to see these animals in the wild and outside of captivity. And I was part of those initial lawsuits because I fundamentally believe that wolverines have a right to exist and have intrinsic value. And I also believe that protecting habitat and addressing the risk of extinction to these species that is caused by humans is a duty that we have for this and future generations.
Miller: Bethany Cotton, thanks very much.
Cotton: Thank you.
Miller: Bethany Cotton is conservation director for the Eugene-based nonprofit Cascadia Wildlands. She joined us to talk about yesterday’s announcement that wolverines will now be federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
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