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After 20 Years of Lawsuits, Wolverine Listed as Threatened

Wolverines face numerous threats and only 300 exist in the Lower 48. Their supporters are finally notching a win.

Approximately 300 wolverines lives in the Lower 48. With massive habitats ranging up to 500 square miles, they face a multitude of challenges. Here, MacNeil Lyons in March of 2022 photographed one of an estimated six wolverines in 2.2 million-acre Yellowstone National Park. Photo by MacNeil Lyons/Yellowstone Insight
Approximately 300 wolverines lives in the Lower 48. With massive habitats ranging up to 500 square miles, they face a multitude of challenges. Here, MacNeil Lyons in March of 2022 photographed one of an estimated six wolverines in 2.2 million-acre Yellowstone National Park. Photo by MacNeil Lyons/Yellowstone Insight
by Johnathan Hettinger

Doug Chadwick was dancing in his living room in Whitefish when he got the news: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be protecting the wolverine as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Only about 300 wolverines exist in the Lower 48, mostly in the Northern Rockies and Northern Cascades, and the snow-dependent species is threatened by climate change, low genetic diversity, habitat fragmentation and an increasing human footprint, the service found in its November 29 decision.

The designation comes with federal protections for the species, and Chadwick, a wildlife biologist who authored a book called The Wolverine Way in 2012, has spent countless hours of his life trying to raise awareness for them.

“I’m delighted,” he told Mountain Journal.

Wolverine advocates across the country are celebrating the decision as a long time coming. For more than two decades, conservation groups have filed lawsuits
Wildlife biologist and author Doug Chadwick during field research work with the Glacier Wolverine Project in Glacier National Park. Photo by Rick Yates
Wildlife biologist and author Doug Chadwick during field research work with the Glacier Wolverine Project in Glacier National Park. Photo by Rick Yates
seeking to protect the species, while the federal government has failed to make a decision. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the species deserved protections under the ESA but changed its mind just a year later. Then, in 2018, the Trump administration conducted a new species status assessment that found wolverines were not threatened with extinction and ruled in 2020 that the species did not need protections.

In the most recent lawsuit challenging that decision, a federal judge found the Trump administration decision unlawful and ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service back to the drawing board. The judge gave the service until the week of November 27 to make a decision on whether to list wolverines.  

Tim Preso, managing attorney at the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, said that he first filed a lawsuit on behalf of conservation groups to grant wolverines federal protections in 2002. “It's taken six lawsuits to get to this point because the [Fish and Wildlife] service used everything in its bag of tricks to avoid making this decision over the years,” Preso said.

The conservation groups who have worked to protect the species have never lost a challenge for wolverines.

“Overall, I’m pretty thrilled with this long-awaited listing decision,” said Andrea Zaccardi, carnivore conservation legal director at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “I’m pretty relieved. It’s been a long-fought battle. I’m happy for the wolverine to get the protection they need.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service updated the species status assessment in September with new science and found that wolverines are, in fact, threatened—largely by climate change. The species predominantly lives in snow-dominated landscapes, where wolverines can use their agility and strength to find food more quickly than other animals. In the Lower 48, they’re known to exclusively den in areas that have snow until at least May 15. And their ranges are massive: Male wolverines have territories of up to 500 square miles to themselves, while female wolverines can range up to 300 square miles.
“It's taken six lawsuits to get to this point because the [Fish and Wildlife] service used everything in its bag of tricks to avoid making this decision over the years.” – Tim Preso, managing attorney, Earthjustice
But a warming climate threatens that snowy habitat, the service said on November 29.

“Current and increasing impacts of climate change and associated habitat degradation and fragmentation are imperiling the North American wolverine,” Hugh Morrison, pacific regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement. “Based on the best available science, this listing determination will help to stem the long-term impact and enhance the viability of wolverines in the contiguous United States.”

Threats extend beyond climate change, the listing rule said. The Fish and Wildlife Service raised concerns about genetic diversity for the species, which according to the most recent study has fewer than 50 individuals contributing to the gene pool in the U.S. In addition to having low population numbers, wolverines also struggle with species connectivity because of roads, habitat fragmentation and increased trapping in Canada.

And then there’s human development. Sprawl in valley bottoms across the species’ habitat is also impacting wolverine populations by limiting dispersal and connectivity, the Fish and Wildlife Service found. It also expressed concerns about winter recreation, including snowmobile use and backcountry skiing and snowboarding, and the potential of these activities to disturb denning wolverines.

The listing of wolverines has been opposed by the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, as well as industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, the Western Energy Alliance and the Utility Air Regulatory Group.

“FWP does not believe the listing is warranted,” said Greg Lemon, a spokesman for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in a November 29 email to Mountain Journal. “According to FWP biologists, wolverines in Montana are in habitat we expect them to be in, and the population isn’t declining.”

Wolverines were extirpated from the Lower 48 by the 1920s and naturally migrated back from Canada in the second half of the 20th century. Since then, the species has increased in number and distribution, but nailing down exact numbers is difficult.
The dark green areas on this map indicate where wolverines have recently been found. Lighter green areas show habitat they could possibly reinhabit though many projections are offset by diminishing snowpack levels, important to a wolverine's life history. Map courtesy FWS
The dark green areas on this map indicate where wolverines have recently been found. Lighter green areas show habitat they could possibly reinhabit though many projections are offset by diminishing snowpack levels, important to a wolverine's life history. Map courtesy FWS
Rebecca Watters, executive director of the science-based Wolverine Foundation, said that the listing will likely lead to increased awareness about wolverines, as well as more funding for research. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will likely create a recovery plan for wolverines, she said.

“They’re so difficult to research. They’re a naturally rare, wide-ranging species with enormous territories, and they live in some of the most inaccessible habitat. It makes them difficult to find, difficult to follow and difficult to track over time,” said Watters, whose nonprofit organization was not a part of any lawsuits and focuses on supporting wolverine research.

Watters added that while increased verified wolverine sightings indicate their presence in Yellowstone National Park and in its surrounding mountain ranges, little recent information exists about wolverine populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which she said is “surprisingly not heavily populated by wolverines.”
“I really hope that people use this as an opportunity to see that the things we all love about living in the Western U.S. are the same stuff the wolverine depends on to survive.” – Rebecca Watters, executive director, Wolverine Foundation
Matt Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, which has sued the Fish and Wildlife Service numerous times over the listing of wolverines, called the decision a “big first step.”

“I'm looking forward to having them do recovery planning, critical habitat designations and exploring reintroduction [to new areas],” Bishop said. “I hope this species has a chance to make it.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service announced an interim 4(d) rule that exempts take, or harm, to the species.      
 
“The Service is … issuing an interim rule under section 4(d) of the ESA to exempt the take of wolverines related to research activities, incidental trapping mortality, and forest management activities reducing the risk or severity of wildfire in the contiguous U.S.,” the service announced. That rule is open for public comment until January 29, 2024.
Male wolverines have territories of up to 500 square miles to themselves, while female wolverines can range up to 300 square miles.
Watters said that humans and wolverines live in the Western U.S. for the same reasons, including wide-open spaces, fewer people, snow, water, and clean air. “I really hope that people use this as an opportunity to see that the things we all love about living in the Western U.S. are the same stuff the wolverine depends on to survive,” she said. “This is a matter of a shared common interest. They deserve to be protected and so do the habitats we all depend on.”

As he was celebrating last Wednesday, Chadwick said he was hit with a key question: How do you protect a naturally elusive, wide-ranging species like the wolverine?

Threats to wolverines are existential, and not easy to defend against. The species relies on deep snow in a warming world, and its biggest threat comes from the increasing number of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

“I don’t think simply saying it’s listed now means we will watch [the wolverine] come back,” Chadwick said. “It’s going to take a bit more than that.”


Visit https://yellowstoneinsight.com/ for more information about lead image photographer MacNeil Lyons and his guide services.

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FWP Offering $21k Reward for Information on Illegal Wolverine Killing
In a Dec. 7 press release, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced that a cash reward of $21,500 will be awarded to anyone who has information about a wolverine that was killed illegally northwest of Wisdom, Montana, last month. "Game wardens received a report on Nov. 10 of a wolverine carcass found on U.S. Forest Service Road 7377 near Schultz Saddle and the Continental Divide, northwest of Wisdom," the press release stated. "A game warden located the carcass and confirmed the animal had been shot, skinned and abandoned.

"Anyone with possible information about the illegal harvest is encouraged to visit https://myfwp.mt.gov/fwpPub/tipmont to provide details or call the FWP violation reporting hot line at 1-800-TIP-MONT."

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Johnathan Hettinger
About Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston, Montana, writing about everything from agriculture to pet products to climate change. His work has appeared in InvestigateMidwest, USA Today, Montana Free Press, and InsideClimateNews, among others. He is currently communications director for the Park County Environmental Council.
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