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Conservation groups push for wolverine protection
Despite recent sightings, Washington’s wolverines are under threat from climate change, shrinking snowpacks, and increasingly fragmented habitat
"The remote, rugged, and snowy North Cascades are ideal wolverine habitat,” said Dave Werntz, Science and Conservation Director with Conservation Northwest. “Protection under the Endangered Species Act will help our wolverine population survive an uncertain future with a warming climate, shrinking snowpack, and increasingly fragmented habitat.”
This summer a hiker in the North Cascades experienced the thrill of a lifetime, capturing photos of one of Washington’s most elusive creatures: the wolverine. But these legendary animals are under threat in our region from habitat loss, a changing climate and small populations isolated in their mountain strongholds.
Today, eight conservation groups joined forces to insist wolverines get the protections they need in the lower-48, where less than 300 individual animals remain, filing a legal challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (UFWS) decision to abandon proposed protections for the wolverine.
If the lawsuit is successful, a listing would bring new resources and greater habitat protections to help Washington’s wolverine population continue to recover.
“The remote, rugged, and snowy North Cascades are ideal wolverine habitat,” said Dave Werntz, Science and Conservation Director with Conservation Northwest. “Protection under the Endangered Species Act will help our wolverine population survive an uncertain future with a warming climate, shrinking snowpack, and increasingly fragmented habitat.”
Researchers and conservation organizations have been studying Washington’s wolverines since 2005. They’re tracking seven females and four males that inhabit the North Cascades transboundary region, and have located two natal den sites. Conservation Northwest’s Remote Camera Project has documented at least three additional wolverines in the Cascades using unique chest markings and DNA from hair snags.
Other wolverine sightings have been reported from Mt. Baker near Bellingham to Mt. Adams in southern Washington, including the photos taken by hiker Jake Gentry this August in the North Cascades. But while Washington state has experienced a flurry of wolverine activity in recent years, researchers estimate the state’s population is most likely limited to a few dozen animals.
In February 2013, the FWS proposed to list the wolverine as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act based on an analysis by the agency’s biologists who concluded that global warming was reducing critical deep-snow habitat for the species. Deep snow is important for wolverines because pregnant females require spring snow pack to dig out dens to give birth, store food, and raise their young.
But in May 2014, FWS Regional Director Noreen Walsh ignored her own scientists — even though a panel of outside experts confirmed that deep snow is crucial to the ability of wolverines to reproduce successfully — and ordered her agency to withdraw the listing because of political pressure from Rocky Mountain states. FWS formalized that withdrawal in a final decision issued on August 13, 2014.
“The wolverine is a famously tough creature that doesn’t back down from anything, but even the wolverine can’t overcome a changing climate by itself,” said Earthjustice attorney Adrienne Maxwell. “If the wolverine is to survive, it will need the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act.”
A coalition of eight conservation groups, including Conservation Northwest and represented by Earthjustice, is suing to reverse the USFWS decision. Today they filed their lawsuit in the federal district court in Missoula, Montana.
The groups bringing the lawsuit are the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Friends of the Clearwater, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and Rocky Mountain Wild.
BACKGROUND: The wolverine, the largest land-dwelling member of the weasel family, once roamed across the northern tier of the U.S. and as far south as New Mexico in the Rockies and southern California in the Sierra Nevada range. After more than a century of trapping and habitat loss, wolverines in the lower 48 have been reduced to small, fragmented populations in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and northeast Oregon.
With no more than 300 wolverines remaining in these regions, the species is at direct risk from climate change because wolverines depend on areas that maintain deep snow through late spring. That is when pregnant females dig their dens into the snowpack to birth and raise their young. Snowpack is already in decline in the western mountains, a trend that is predicted to worsen. Wolverine populations also are threatened by trapping, human disturbance, extremely low population numbers resulting in low genetic diversity, and fragmentation of their habitat.
The groups challenging the Service’s determination pointed out that the agency disregarded well-established scientific evidence, including the recommendations of FWS’s own scientists, in speculating that the wolverine might be capable of withstanding the projected loss of 63 percent of its snowy habitat in the lower-48 by the year 2085. Contrary to the Service’s speculation, every one of the 562 verified wolverine den sites in North America and Scandinavia occurred in snow and 95 percent of worldwide summer wolverine observations and 89 percent of year-round wolverine observations fell within areas characterized by persistent spring snowpack. Elimination of this snowy habitat due to warming temperatures presents a direct threat to the wolverine’s survival—a danger compounded by the increasing isolation and fragmentation of wolverine habitats that threatens remaining populations with localized extinctions and inbreeding.
Visit Conservation Northwest's wolverine page for more background.