On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced it was no longer considering listing wolverines as threatened species. The listing would have been made primarily due to the threat of climate change melting the snowpack they rely on for breeding and food storage. The stocky, shaggy haired animal was proposed for placement on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) 14 years ago and last year the USFWS proposed adding safeguards to protect the 300 or so wolverines left in the contiguous U.S. Now the Service has decided to withdraw that consideration because there is uncertainty about how and when the effects of climate change might affect this population of wolverine.
In the announcement, Service Director Dan Ashe said that while “climate change is a reality” the consequences of a warming planet on the wolverine, which lives in mountains where small changes in elevation and topography make a big difference, was too ambiguous to merit an ESA listing at the moment. Had the wolverine been listed, trapping would be banned and restrictions on winter recreation in their specific habitats restricted.
The wolverine, a large, hardy, and solitary member of the weasel family found in the mountains of the West, neared extinction early last century after hunting and trapping dwindled its numbers even lower than they are today. They rely on deep, consistent snow that lasts late into the spring for breeding. While scientists may not have been able to pinpoint that climate change threatens their immediate breeding grounds the overall evidence is stacked heavily against them in the coming decades as snowpacks across the country diminish. Already this is evidenced in Glacier National Park in northern Montana, which may end up glacier-less in the next couple decades as only about 25 of the 150 glaciers around at the park’s founding in 1910 remain.
Conservation groups considered the USFWS’s decision a cop out, and a coalition of conservation groups are already preparing a federal lawsuit to challenge the decision.
“This is another example of the Service and Director Ashe caving to political pressure from the special interests preventing sound wildlife management in the western states,” said Western Environmental Law Center’s Rocky Mountain office director Matthew Bishop. “It is obviously time for the Service to employ the precautionary principle and protect a clearly imperiled species before it’s doomed to extinction.”
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the proposal to put the wolverine on the ESA received strong support from five of seven peer reviewers as well as a separate, nine-person independent science panel convened in April to review the science underlying the proposal. The proposal came under strong opposition from some states in the wolverines’ range, including Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, that argue that they are doing a good job on their own. Next year Montana will decide on reinstating a limited Wolverine trapping season after it was discontinued several years ago due to conservation efforts.
The polar bear is the only species that has been added to the ESA due to threats from climate change. The American pika and black-footed albatross were found to not be threatened enough and the Pacific walrus is under consideration. According to the USFWS the major difference between polar bear and wolverine is the lack of certainty about specific climate-affected habitat changes. Arctic ice is definitely disappearing, but Rocky Mountain snowpack may have some time yet.
While most Western states have state-level protections for wolverines, the challenges for this tenacious species will only continue to mount as greenhouse gas emissions rise. Snow melt in the Rockies is occurring about two weeks earlier now than it did in the 1960s and over the next 75 years climate change is projected to wipe out 63 percent of the snowy habitat wolverines they need to survive, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. A U.S. Geological Survey study last year found that warming temperatures have caused a 20 percent decline in spring snow cover throughout the Rockies since 1980.
So what we do know is that while wolverines may currently be caught up in a partisan bureaucratic hubbub, the real long-term threat is that from human activities — especially those that cause greenhouse gas emissions.