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Saving Our Wild Places: Protecting the Wolverine

(This is the fourth in a series of Q & A's on the Crown of the Continent, a 10-million-acre expanse of land in northern Montana and southern Canada. Earthjustice is currently working to protect several wild creatures in the Crown like the wolverine. To learn more about this wild place and how Earthjustice is working to protect it, check out our Crown web feature.)

EJ: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently listed wolverines as endangered, but they're still not being protected, correct?

TP: That's right. The FWS determined that although the species qualifies for listing under the Endangered Species Act that they were basically going to put wolverines in administrative limbo and not actually list them. Obviously we're not satisfied with that result and we're continuing to examine ways to move the wolverine up to the top of the list. The Crown of the Continent is one of the largest undeveloped landscapes remaining in our country and it's really the stronghold for wolverines in the lower-48 states. The wolverine only persists in places that are really and truly wild, and the Crown is the last place that they're remaining in any significant numbers.

EJ: Why did Earthjustice decide to focus on wolverine protections?

TP: There are a number of reasons. One is just that the wolverine has a lot of amazing characteristics that make it a particularly cool animal to work on. Wolverines are extremely tough and they live in extremely harsh environments at high elevations. When grizzly bears, which we think of as a tough animal, are sleeping in their hibernation dens for the winter, the wolverine is out there on those snow-blasted slopes trying to eke out a living, covering 160 square miles over some of the most rugged country in the lower 48 states. It takes a tremendously large landscape for them to find enough food to stay alive, so these animals need extremely large home ranges.

One anecdote from Glacier National Park talked about a wolverine that scaled basically a 1,500-foot vertical shaft on a ridgeline that's called the Iceberg Notch in 20 minutes. So, they're just really an amazing critter, but they're also a living symbol of the wilderness. If the place is not sufficiently wild, it will not have wolverines. The presence of the wolverine tells us that the landscape is productive not only for the wolverine but for other creatures that also require that kind of landscape: fish, smaller mammals and ultimately us, who need clean water and places to get away from industrial society from time to time. (Learn more about wildlife in the Crown.)

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EJ: How is climate change impacting wolverines?

TP: The wolverine is really a canary in the coal mine on the impacts of climate change. We think about the polar bear when we think about the poster child for climate change and that's appropriate. But the wolverine is also unfortunately in the same boat. A pregnant female wolverine tunnels into the snow in the spring and gives birth to kits that they raise in a series of snow tunnels, so they're really dependent on areas that have maintained snow pack into the spring period. Increasingly in the Rocky Mountains that's a dwindling landscape because of warmer temperatures, which is one reason why scientists believe climate change is the single greatest threat to the wolverine.

EJ: How is Earthjustice working to protect the wolverine?

When we started this campaign 10 years ago we brought our first case to try to force the protection of the species. Montana had an unlimited trapping season, so the state was losing about ten wolverines a year. Over the course of our work, the pressure of our advocacy has caused a number of conservation measures to be put in place. Now, Montana allows only five wolverines to be trapped annually. It also imposes limits on female mortality, which is extremely important for a slow-reproducing species like the wolverine. The FWS estimates that the entire lower 48 population is about 250 individuals, so when you start about taking 10 animals out of the population every year, it's going to have a very significant impact.

We've also focused on trying to remove disturbances from some of the most important parts of the wolverine's range. Female wolverines do not like to have any kind of disturbance in their denning area, probably because there are some species that will go in and try to kill the kits in the den. So if a snowmobile comes blasting through a wolverine denning area, that's a huge disturbance and typically the wolverine will either abandon the area or move the kits to another site. All of those things are extremely costly to a species that's probably living on chewing up bones left from a mountain goat carcass that was killed by an avalanche. That's why we've focused on vehicle planning in the national forest and we've succeeded in significantly reducing snowmobile use in a wolverine range north of Yellowstone National Park called the Gallatin Range. We've also succeeded in cutting back on helicopter skiing activity in an area south of Jackson Hole, Wyoming called the Palisades Range, which is also an important area for wolverine range expansion. So we've had some successes in trying to address the threats to the wolverines' continued survival.

Keeping advocacy for the listing front and center and the pressure on to protect the species has provided a lot of resources for scientific research. Ten years ago the Fish and Wildlife Service said we couldn't possibly protect the wolverine because we didn't know anything about it. Now the FWS knows about the species and that it is threatened. We just need to get the last step over the hurdle to actually get it listed.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.