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Wolverine may be listed as threatened

February 2, 2013
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday, in response to a court-ordered deadline, that it is seeking information from the scientific community and the public on a proposal to protect the North American wolverine as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The Service is also seeking comment on two proposed special rules designed to facilitate management and recovery of the species should it receive protection.

An estimated 250 to 300 wolverines now occur in the lower 48 states, where the species has rebounded after broad-scale predator trapping and poisoning programs led to its near extinction in the early 1900s. This was in part due to the states protecting the species from unregulated trapping.

Currently, wolverines occur within the North Cascades Range in Washington and the Northern Rockies of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and a small portion of Oregon (Wallowa Range).

Populations once existed in the Sierra Nevada of California and the southern Rocky Mountains in the states of Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Currently, one individual male wolverine is known to inhabit the Sierra Nevada and one male wolverine resides in the southern Rocky Mountains. Both are recent migrants to these areas.

Extensive climate modeling indicates that the wolverine’s snowpack habitat will be greatly reduced and fragmented in the coming years due to climate warming, thereby threatening the species with extinction. Wolverines are dependent on areas in high mountains, near the tree-line, where conditions are cold year-round and snow cover persists well into the month of May.

The Service does not consider most activities occurring within the high elevation habitat of the wolverine, including snowmobiling and backcountry skiing, and land management activities like timber harvesting and infrastructure development, to constitute significant threats to the wolverine. As a result, the Service is proposing a special rule under Section 4(d) of the ESA that, should the species be listed, would allow these types of activities to continue.

“This proposal would give us the flexibility to tailor the protections for the wolverine provided by the ESA to only those things that are necessary,” said Noreen Walsh, director of the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.

“Scientific evidence suggests that a warming climate will greatly reduce the wolverine’s snowpack habitat. We look forward to hearing from our state and local partners and members of the public and scientific community on these proposals as we work to ensure the continued recovery of the species.”

Under the proposed 4(d) rule, take of wolverines associated with hunting and trapping would be prohibited if the species is listed. The Service is seeking input on the appropriateness of prohibiting incidental take of wolverine in the course of legal trapping activities directed at other species.

In support of ongoing federal and state agencies to protect the wolverine from extinction, the Service is simultaneously proposing a special rule under Section 10(j) of the ESA to facilitate potential reintroduction of the species its historical range in Colorado. The reintroduction effort, which is still under consideration, would be led by the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife.

Most wolverine habitat in the contiguous U.S. – more than 90 percent – is located on federally-owned land, with the remainder being state, private or tribally owned.

If the proposed listing rule is finalized, the Service will add the wolverine to the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. The listing would protect the wolverine as a threatened species in the contiguous (or lower 48) states as a distinct population segment under the ESA. A DPS is a portion of a vertebrate species that is geographically discrete from the rest of its kind and also is significant to its survival.

The Service committed to publishing the proposed listing for the North American wolverine in Fiscal Year 2013 as part of the Service’s efforts to implement a court-approved work plan that resolves a series of lawsuits concerning the agency’s ESA listing duties. The intent of the agreement is to significantly reduce litigation and allow the agency to focus its resources on the species most in need of the ESA's protections.

The Service will open a 90-day comment period beginning Feb. 4, to allow the public and stakeholders an opportunity to provide information or comments regarding the proposed listing and 4(d) rule and the proposed 10(j) rule. A draft Recovery Outline will also be available for comments.

During that time, the agency will also seek peer review of the proposed listing and proposed rules from the scientific community. Comments will be accepted until May 6.

For more information about wolverine conservation, copies of the proposals, and details on public meetings and hearings, visit the Service’s web site at

If finalized, the move will focus resources on wolverine recovery that will include helping the species survive the impacts of climate change, according to Earthjustice and Defenders of Wildlife, organizations that have been pushing for the listing for more than a decade.

“This proposal at long last gives the wolverine a fighting chance of survival in the lower 48 states,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso. “The most immediate need is to stop the threats to the species that we can control, including direct killing of wolverines through trapping.”

In Montana, for instance, the state allowed five wolverines to be trapped during winter seasons until a district court judge issued a restraining order in November blocking the trapping season the day before it was to begin.

According to Earthjustice, wolverines are becoming increasingly isolated in their mountain strongholds.

“For wolverines to survive over the long run, they need to be able to reclaim habitat they once occupied,” said Kylie Paul, Rockies and Plains representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

“Federal protection should provide resources to help ensure that wolverine populations can expand, remain connected, and are resilient enough to overcome the looming impacts of climate change as well as other threats.”

Female wolverines use deep snow that persists through mid-spring for dens to raise their young. Researchers estimate that the extent of areas with persistent spring snowpack are likely to recede 33 percent by 2045 and 63 percent by 2099.

“We see the impacts of a changing climate all around us,” said Chris Colligan of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “The best buffer against these species impacts are large intact ecosystems and we see the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as being a stronghold for wolverines.”
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