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Why isn’t the wolverine better protected in the Northern Rockies?

By Dennis Higman
New West

Feb 25 - New West writer Dennis Higman ruminates on the rare privilege of seeing a wolverine in the wild and wonders how we might better protect them.


Late last spring I had the rare privilege of seeing a wolverine in the wild while out riding on our ranch in the high mountain desert of southwest Idaho. It was one of an estimated 250-300 that still survive in the lower 48 states according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, mostly in the North Cascades of Washington State and Northern Rockies.  Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time.  In fact, the only wolverine I’d ever heard of was the mascot for the University of Michigan.

What I did know was that my steady old Paint, Keith Richards, got very tense when he saw a large, brown furry animal cross our path about 25 yards away at the edge of a steep avalanche chute.  It was like nothing I’d ever seen in 15 years up here at 7,200 feet. It was about the size of a small bear (or a big cub) but it didn’t move like a bear—more like a raccoon or badger but a lot faster.  And move it did, with all deliberate speed, so I only got one quick look at its long bushy tail, short legs, narrow face and funny little ears before it disappeared.

I didn’t have a camera, but the image stayed with me until I got back to the house and looked it up.  He wasn’t hard to find or identify. “Gulo gulo luscus”, the North American wolverine, largest member of the weasel family. I had no idea these magnificent creatures lived in Idaho but I’m no native son, so I asked a couple of friends and neighbors who are.

Jimmy Brown built a cabin on the North Fork of the Big Lost River in the late ’50s and has hunted and fished here all his life.  “I’ve never seen one alive, but they were definitely here, at least at one time,” he told me.  “I came across a dead one maybe 30 years ago that had been hit by a car just down the road from my place.”

His cowboy friend, Justin Howard, agreed.  He’d spotted a wolverine north of our ranch several years ago when he was a rider for the local cattlemen’s association.  “It was in up in the snow. He had a collar on, so I called Fish and Game.  I heard they tracked him down to Boise.”

That’s a long way from where we live, probably close to 300 miles as the crow flies.  While my friends are entertaining storytellers, I’ve found their tall tales tend to be true. (Jimmy claims he once killed a cougar with a bow and arrow when the animal was attacking his dog and he has a picture to prove it.) So I decided to find out more about this intriguing animal I had just seen.

The first thing I stumbled across on the web was a 2009 Research Summary of the Greater Yellowstone Wolverine Program which contained the account of a young male wolverine (designated M56) that had traveled336 miles from northwestern Wyoming to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

According to this well-documented report, M-56 crossed the Great Divide Basin, somehow got across nine major highways, including Interstate 80 on Memorial Day weekend, passed through six national forests, three Bureau of Land Management Districts and one national park while dodging numerous subdivisions and, in doing so, became the first verified occurrence of a wolverine in Colorado since 1919, nearly a century ago.

So what I had stumbled across was not only an endangered species on the brink of extinction, but a heroic, unbelievably tough, resourceful animal that clearly, despite all obstacles, was not ready to go quietly into the night without a fight.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has published a trove of information for those of us who know next to nothing about wolverines or the threats to their survival in the lower 48.  Adult males can weigh up to 46 pounds. Females are smaller, 17 to 26 pounds, and they look, as I had observed, like a small bear.  And wolverines move around with territories ranging from 50 to 500 square miles.

Primarily carnivorous scavengers of the carcasses of large animals like elk, deer and moose, they also prey on picas, marmots, grounds squirrels, porcupines and snowshoe hare.  With 38 strong teeth and leveraged jaws, they can crush the strongest of bones.

There are still a lot of wolverines in Canada (15,000-20,000) living in a variety of northern landscapes.  And sketchy historical records suggest they once lived in the Great Lakes region, but were “extirpated”— an obscure term favored by scientists meaning completely destroyed or eradicated. So the University of Michigan Wolverines would appear to be the only survivors there.

In Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, where the last of the wolverines in the lower 48 states survive in remote, high mountains so they can find deep snow in late winter and spring for their dens, females reproduce only every other year on average, giving them one of the lowest known reproductive rates for mammals. The 2009 Greater Yellowstone Wolverine Program, which followed following M56 across the west, also radio monitored 20 adult females and found a reproductive rate of approximately one cub every four years.

In addition to this low birth rate, Fish and Wildlife says the greatest potential threat to the North American wolverine is loss of habitat due to increased summer temperatures and reduced snowpack caused by global warming. This would cause even further loss of “connectivity” between the remote high mountain areas where this wide ranging animal lives, breeds, and gives birth in deep snow dens which, in turn, could threaten their genetic diversity.

Another potential threat to the elusive, seldom seen wolverine, is the recent dramatic increase in winter recreation in remote mountain areas, the use of powerful new snowmobiles and more back country skiing.

Given the disastrously low population level of wolverines in the contiguous United States (less than 500 is the most optimistic estimate I could find anywhere) it would seem to be a prime candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) but, surprisingly, this is not the case.

After evaluating all available information, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last December that while wolverines in the West warranted ESA protection, listing them would, at this time, be “precluded by the need to address other listings of higher priority.” It said, however, that wolverines would be “added to the list under the ESA and will be proposed for listing when funding and workload for other listing actions allow.”

Among other legalistic roadblocks, the Service noted that “while recreation has the potential to affect the wolverine, it does not currently seem to be suppressing populations…and the threat of climate change has not so far resulted in any detectable population-level effects to the species.”

This ruling leaves management of the wolverine in state hands where they are either classified as a state endangered species or protected from hunting and trapping as a non-game animal in every western state but Montana, which allows a very limited take. (This winter, state wildlife officials allow a total quota of five per year).

While the December ruling disappoints Jonathan Oppenheimer, Senior Conservation Associate at the Idaho Conservation League that was a party to the action, he points out that the ruling does at least reverse a 2008 determination under the Bush Administration that said wolverines did not warrant protection in the continental U.S. at all because of the large population in Canada.

Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, also a party to the legal settlement, is not so sanguine.  At the time of the ruling he was quoted as saying the Obama administration is just “shuffling papers” while wolverines are in desperate need of ESA protection.

I couldn’t agree more. There may be more deserving candidates in the current backlog of other species awaiting protection, but to me, a layperson not schooled in government or science, making our wolverine an endangered species without further delay seems like a no-brainer.

How much data do we need to ensure that this shy, elusive, mid-level predator survives another day among us?  Unlike the wolf, the wolverine doesn’t endanger domestic livestock or stand accused of decimating game animals. At worst, protecting it would only inconvenience a few snowmobilers and backcountry skiers, and the wolverine harvest in Montana, which doesn’t amount to much, anyway, would be closed.

Regulations and rules and bureaucracy and further studies aside, we really have no excuse not to protect this unique, magnificent animal in our so-called civilized society to the full extent of the law. If we can’t summon up the common decency to do this without further delay, I fear that we will be visiting the last of our native wolverines in zoos, along with the Bengal Tiger.

Dennis Higman is a freelance journalist and writer. He and his artist wife, Lee, own a small horse ranch in the mountains near Mackay, Idaho.eelance journalist and writer. He and his artist wife, Lee, own a small horse ranch in the mountains near Mackay, Idaho.

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