Federal Court Says Wildlife Agencies Must Protect Wolverine From Climate Change

Apr 5, 2016

A photo of a wolverine taken at a camera station in the Gros Ventre Range last winter. Wyoming Game and Fish are part of a multi-state effort to monitor the species.
Credit Wyoming Game and Fish

Wolverines have adapted to live in snowy climates with their snowshoe-shaped feet and alpine snow dens, and some scientists say a warming climate would affect them drastically. But in 2014 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dismissed such conclusions and withdrew a proposal to list the species as endangered. On Monday, a Montana judge ordered the feds to revive that proposal.

The Wolverine Foundation’s executive director Rebecca Watters says the Wildlife Service based their decision on the fact that wolverines have been moving back into the Rocky Mountains after being wiped out by trapping in the early 1900’s.

“There were a lot of claims being made that this historical colonization and range extension within the Rockies was an indication that the population was okay and would continue to expand into the future and that therefore we didn’t need to be worried about the wolverine population in the future,” she says.

But Watters says there are only 300 wolverines in the lower 48 states. There are probably less than five in the state of Wyoming. She says a better sign of a healthy population would be proof that more wolverine are surviving and raising young, and that would require much more data on this elusive species.

She says such data collection is already underway. Four states including Wyoming have been conducting intensive studies of wolverines since the Wildlife Service retracted its listing proposal. One issue Wyoming Game and Fish is studying is the effects of climate change on wolverines. Watters says global warming could keep them from building dens for their young since they require deep late-spring snow.

“The problem with climate change as a threat to a species like the wolverine is that this is a systemic threat,” she says. “It’s at a society-wide and global level so it’s really hard to know what the right management tool is to deal with a situation like that. And so I think we need to assess what the states are doing and look at how that turns out and then see if that's enough or whether there needs to be more.”

Like the full protection of the Endangered Species Act.

In the lower 48 states, only Montana still offers a trapping season, but that’s been put on hold pending a court decision on an endangered species listing.