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US Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges wolverine face extinction

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Washington State plays important role in providing habitat

After years of wrangling, the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined today that wolverines warrant protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, but that protections will be withheld indefinitely due to the backlog of other species awaiting official action.

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Bellingham, WA Dec 13, 2010

After years of wrangling, the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined today that wolverines warrant protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, but that protections will be withheld indefinitely due to the backlog of other species awaiting official action.

These rare alpine carnivores, the largest upland members of the weasel family, were once widespread across North America and now are constrained to remote wilderness regions of the Cascade and Rocky Mountain where heavy snowpack persists well into spring. Wolverines have a keen sense of smell which allows them to find food, for example animals killed by avalanche, deep beneath the snow.  Female wolverines rely on deep snow for their dens, digging eight or more feet into the snow to provide warmth and shelter for their kits.

While Washington State has experienced a flurry of wolverine activity in recent years, fewer than 500 wolverines survive in the lower 48, and a recent study found that just 35 individuals are breeding successfully in the western United States. Since 2005, federal researchers have been tracking seven wolverines in the North Cascades, and have learned that Washington’s wolverines have significantly larger home ranges than wolverines elsewhere. Other sightings have been reported from Mount Baker near Bellingham to Mount Adams in southern Washington.

“Wolverines find ideal habitat in the remote, rugged and snowy North Cascades, and it’s no wonder that they have persisted here for decades,” said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director with Conservation Northwest, “protection under the Endangered Species Act will help the wolverine survive a future of a warming climate and shrinking snowpack, and increasingly fragmented habitat.”

In his book, The Wolverine Way, journalist and author Doug Chadwick points out that, "Wolverines are emerging as a far more sensitive and more important indicator of global warming than wildlife managers were aware of before."

“Important and powerful new research techniques show that wolverines need reliable snowpack, and that consistently snowy areas are declining and increasingly isolated in the western U.S.,” said Dave Gaillard, Rocky Mountain representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Similar to the polar bear, the wolverine needs our immediate help to compensate for this significant decline in their effective range.”

The finding replaces a March 2008 determination made under the Bush administration that wolverines did not deserve protection since adjacent populations in Canada were considered healthy.  A coalition of conservation groups contested that finding, and eventually reached an agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to revisit their decision.  Today's determination acknowledges that wolverines deserve protection because of their low numbers in the western US and the threats posed to their habitat by climate change, ski area development, snowmobiles, and other disturbances to their high elevation habitat. 

“This decision finally reverses years of official denials that the wolverine faces a significant threat of extinction in the lower 48 states,” said Tim Preso, an attorney with Earthjustice.  “Unfortunately, the decision still fails to give the wolverine the legal protections that it needs and deserves.  We will continue to work to make sure that the wolverine remains a living, breathing part of our nation’s wildest landscapes.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s “warranted but precluded” finding means that the status of wolverines will be reviewed annually until a final determination is made to officially list the species as threatened or endangered. On a scale of 1 to 12, where 1 is the highest priority level, the wolverine received a listing priority number of 6 due to “threats that are of high magnitude but that are not imminent.”

“The wolverine is in desperate need of protection, but rather than provide that protection the Obama administration is shuffling papers,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The wolverine has been put in line along with hundreds of other species, many of which have been waiting decades for protection.”

The wolverine is the fourteenth species declared to be “warranted, but precluded” for an ESA listing under the Obama Administration.  In addition to the wolverine, there are currently 251 species that are waiting for protection under the government’s candidate list.  This backlog continues despite a nearly four-fold increase in funding for listing species between 2002 and 2010. 

Earthjustice signed the legal settlement that led to the revised wolverine status review on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, 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 Wyoming Outdoor Council.



U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolverine webpage

Visit the Wolverine Network, a new site dedicated to wolverine research and conservation

Watch PBS Nature’s documentary on wolverines, “Chasing the Phantom.”

The Wolverine Way by Douglas Chadwick

  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service reversed a Bush-era finding and has now determined that wolverines warrant Endangered Species Act protections, but the protections are delayed by other conservation priorities.
  • Wolverines are threatened with extinction in the western U.S. due to their low numbers and the decline of areas with persistent spring snowpack.
  • The Fish and Wildlife Service assigned the wolverine a listing priority number of 6—on a scale of 1 to 12 where 1 is the highest priority—finding it faces “threats of high magnitude but that are not imminent.”


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