Fewer than 300 wolverines are left in the PNW. Why aren’t they endangered?

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This wasn’t the first time wolverines were spotted in Washington’s southern Cascades. But researchers haven’t seen signs of the first wolverines in the area in years.

In Idaho, wolverines are listed as an “Idaho Species of Greatest Conservation Need.” Idaho’s Fish and Game Department said a threatened status is not warranted because there is “the high level of uncertainty related to climate change effects on wolverines and their habitat.” 

Pushed toward extinction

Wolverines were pushed toward extinction by the early 1900s from trapping and baiting for other predators. Trapping is still allowed in Canada. When conservation groups began petitioning to list wolverines, Montana still allowed anyone to trap one wolverine, according to Preso, the Earthjustice attorney. That is no longer the case, but he worries trapping could resume in Montana.

Conservation groups first filed a petition to add wolverines to the federal Endangered Species List in 2000. In April 2016, a judge ruled the federal government had to make a decision about the wolverines’ status, but didn’t set a deadline. The groups sued again in March 2020.

Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said threats to wolverines aren’t as significant as scientists believed in 2013, when it proposed to list wolverines as threatened. In a news release, the service said wolverine populations “remain stable.”

“In the time since our original proposal, the science on wolverine [sic] has been greatly advanced, thanks to the work of state wildlife agencies and researchers in the U.S. and around the world,” Noreen Walsh, regional director with the service, said in a statement.

The service also said wolverine populations in the lower 48 states are connected and “interact on some level” with those in Canada and Alaska. Therefore, it says, wolverines in the lower 48 do not qualify as distinct populations.

Preso says that reasoning doesn’t track. He points to other species protected under the Endangered Species Act that also have northern populations, such as bald eagles, grizzly bears and gray wolves.

“I don’taaidthink most Americans want a future in which we are fine with writing off wildlife in the lower 48 because they still exist in Alaska,” Preso said. “That’s certainly not the vision that was enacted into law in the Endangered Species Act.”

He said the pushback against listing the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act stems from the national debate over climate change. Peer-reviewed studies show that 97% of actively publishing scientists agree that the warming climate is extremely likely caused by human activities.

Other species won’t fare well with climate change, from Canada Lynx also losing snowy habitat to coral facing bleaching, he said. That lack of acknowledgement is contributing to a worldwide wave of biodiversity loss, Preso said, which a United Nations report has called “unprecedented.”

Conservation Northwest’s Werntz said the Trump administration is “giving up and walking away from protecting the wolverine.”

Conservation groups said wolverine populations are indeed in trouble, and will remain so decades into the future, as climate change threatens these high-elevation, snowy areas. That’s why Werntz believes it’s important to protect them now.

“When you protect the wolverine, you’re literally protecting that high country ecosystem and all of the plants and animals that depend on it,” he said.





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