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Wolverines gain federal protections under Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it’s moving forward with federal protections for wolverines, a reclusive and wide-ranging carnivore.

In a press release announcing the decision to add wolverines to the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, USFWS Regional Director Hugh Morrisson said the decision will enhance wolverine viability in the contiguous United States.

“Current and increasing impacts of climate change and associated habitat degradation and fragmentation are imperiling the North American wolverine,” Morrison said in the release.

USFWS issued the decision two months after it updated the wolverine species status assessment, a biological risk analysis, with more current and comprehensive information on climate change, habitat connectivity, trapping mortality, population density, and the intersection of snow cover and habitat suitability. Genetic diversity, regulatory changes and conservation strategy shifts were also considered in the assessment.

The agency noted that development may favor other carnivores more adept at adapting to the presence of people and that backcountry winter recreation, which is “likely to increase and become more concentrated in the future as snow-covered areas decline” will negatively impact wolverines. Models evaluating which areas are expected to retain deep springtime snow cover, which wolverines use to cache food and dig dens to rear their young, also point to difficulties ahead.

Conservation groups first petitioned USFWS to consider federal protections for wolverines, which are the largest terrestrial member of the weasel family, in 1994. As recently as 2020, the agency had deemed wolverines unfit for protection, arguing that habitat loss due to climate change was “not as significant as believed” when a proposed rule came out in 2013. 

In 2013, scientists estimated that 318 wolverines lived in the Lower 48. Wolverines also live in Alaska and will remain unprotected there due to their larger population. In the contiguous United States, they’re most concentrated in the alpine areas and boreal forests of Idaho, Washington, Wyoming and Montana. They’re a snow-dependent species.

Conservation groups that have been advocating for the species’ recovery for years — in some cases decades — celebrated the decision.

“I’m thrilled that the Fish and Wildlife Service finally followed the science and granted wolverines the federal protections they need to survive and recover,” Center for Biological Diversity carnivore conservation legal director Andrea Zaccardi said. “Like so many other species, wolverines waited far too long for federal protections, but I’m overjoyed that they’re finally on the path to recovery.”

Matt Bishop, an attorney with Western Environmental Law Center who has been working on wolverine conservation issues since 2005, said the decision is a “great first step.”

“Now we can think about recovery planning, critical habitat, maybe reintroduction in Colorado and California — doing what we can to give this species a chance.”

As is the case with other species protected under the Endangered Species Act such as Canada lynx, grizzly bears and bull trout, federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service will be required to ensure that activities they conduct and permit will not jeopardize wolverine viability or destroy or adversely modify its critical habitat — areas that contain biological features scientists deem essential to the species’ survival.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesperson Greg Lemon said the department disagrees with the listing decision based on what its biologists are finding in the field.

“We don’t think listing is warranted,” Lemon said. “FWP biologists have determined that we have wolverines in all of the appropriate habitat they would live in. We don’t see the population in decline here.”

Lemon added that since Montana has not established a season for hunting or trapping wolverines, those regulations are not anticipated to be impacted by the rule.

Publication of the listing rule gives USFWS a year to designate critical habitat. The agency will also prepare an initial conservation and management plan, which will be followed up with a full recovery plan.

The listing announcement opens a 60-day period during which interested parties — federal and state agencies, scientists and individuals with a stake in wolverine management — can weigh in on the interim rule. 

The interim rule shields an agency or individual from federal charges if they incidentally “take” — kill or injure — a wolverine in the course of conducting research, lawfully trapping another species, or engaging in forest management activities (logging, thinning or prescribed burning) to reduce wildfire severity.

In recent weeks, a wolverine poaching incident was reported to state wildlife officials. A reward of $11,000 is offered for information surrounding the discovery on Nov. 10 of a wolverine that was illegally shot and skinned in southwest Montana. 

The post Wolverines gain federal protections under Endangered Species Act appeared first on Montana Free Press.

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