The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined today that wolverines warrant protection under the federal Endangered Species Act but that those protections will be withheld indefinitely due to the backlog of other species awaiting an official listing.
The finding reverses a March 2008 determination made under the Bush administration that said wolverines did not warrant protection since adjacent populations in Canada are sufficiently healthy. However, a coalition of conservation groups reached a settlement with the Fish and Wildlife Service in June 2009 to revisit that determination since the decision was at odds with protections for other imperiled American wildlife also present in Canada, including grizzly bears, wolves and bald eagles. The revised status acknowledges that wolverines deserve protection because of their low numbers in the western United States and the threats posed to their habitat by global warming.
“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. We will continue to work to make sure that the wolverine remains a living, breathing part of our nation’s wildest landscapes.”
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, putting the species at risk of extinction. These rare alpine scavengers, the largest members of the weasel family, inhabit remote wilderness regions of the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest where heavy snowpack persists into spring. 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.
“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 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 14th 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 fourfold 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 12-month finding
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolverine webpage
- Wolverine Network, a new site dedicated to wolverine research and conservation
- PBS Nature’s wolverine documentary, Chasing the Phantom