Government biologists must make an initial determination whether the wolverine should be protected under the Endangered Species Act by October 15, 2003, under a legal settlement announced today by conservationists. The settlement, which was approved Wednesday (July 30, 2003) by a Montana federal court, jump starts a process under federal law that could yield new legal protections for one of the rarest wilderness wildlife species in the lower-48 states.
"Wolverines need the protection of federal law," said attorney Tim Preso of Earthjustice, who represented a coalition of conservation groups (see header) in the lawsuit that yielded the settlement. "Montana persists in allowing the trapping of wolverines, and the wolverine faces ever-increasing intrusions on its remaining wilderness habitat."
"We are pleased that the wolverine will finally get the attention it deserves," added Mike Senatore of Defenders of Wildlife. "This is an important first step toward ensuring that the wolverine continues to be part of the American wilderness."
The largest member of the weasel family, the wolverine is a bear-cub-sized forest predator that persists in small numbers in the last remaining big wilderness areas of the lower-48 states. The powerful wolverine once ranged across the northernmost states from Maine to Washington, and south as far as the mountainous regions of New York, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Although sporadic, unconfirmed wolverine reports continue in Oregon and California, today the wolverine is known to exist only in the northern Cascades of Washington and the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
David Gaillard of Predator Conservation Alliance stressed the importance of protecting wolverines isolated within smaller ranges of the Rocky Mountains. "Here in Montana, we have several small groups of wolverines that live within 'island' ranges, like the Bridger and Crazy Mountain ranges. Losing a couple of females to trapping in these island ranges could doom that entire mountain range population."
Concerned about the wolverine's decline, conservationists in July 2000 submitted a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking that the wolverine be added to the federal endangered species list. Among other things, listing under the Endangered Species Act would mean that wolverines could no longer be trapped, and that federal agencies would have to consider the needs of the wolverine in their land management decisions. Despite the Act's requirement that the service make a preliminary finding on the petition at the latest within one year of submission, to date the service has failed to take any action while threats to the wolverine have mounted. The conservationists sued the service last October to force action on the petition.
The settlement announced today concludes that lawsuit by imposing deadlines on the Service. Under the settlement, the service must make an initial finding regarding listing of the wolverine by October 15. If that finding is positive, the service must undertake a full review of the wolverine's status, and must issue a final determination on listing the wolverine as an endangered species no later than February 2005.