By Derek Goldman
Northern Rockies Representative
Endangered Species Coalition
Although I’ve skied, hiked and climbed extensively through wolverine country in the Northern Rockies over the years (think: mountainous terrain, above and below treeline), I’ve never actually been fortunate enough to spot one of these fearsome critters. Once, while skiing in the Tetons in western Wyoming, I came across a researcher who was setting a wolverine trap in order to live-capture and collar a wolverine for research. The trap was constructed of small logs and thick branches, and looked like a miniature log cabin about the size of a doghouse. I’ve since heard that wolverines’ teeth and claws are so sharp and strong, that they have been known to chew and tear their way out of these timber fortresses.
Two years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared that the last few wolverines in the continental United States should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, but that the Service had higher priorities at the time. Thus, these ferocious members of the weasel family earned the dubious designation of “warranted, but precluded” from federal protection.
The fate of the wolverine changed on February 1st, when the USFWS declared that the wolverine would finally be protected throughout its range in the lower 48 states.
Although wolverines are plentiful in Canada and Alaska, scientists believe there are fewer than 300 of these animals left alive in the entire contiguous U.S., with most of them inhabiting Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington.
The scientific name for wolverine is Gulo gulo, meaning “glutton.” Wolverines are the largest member of the weasel family, and the home range of single wolverine may span several hundred square miles.
Wolverine populations have declined, primarily due to recreational trapping. The species now faces another, more ominous threat, however: global climate change. Wolverines require a persistent, deep spring snowpack in order to maintain the dens that offer protection for their kits. Global warming is now beginning to reduce the spring snow levels in the mountainous areas of the U.S., though, and scientists now believe this may impact wolverine behavior. In some cases, mothers and kits may even be forced to abandon their melting dens before the kits are ready for out-of-den survival.
With Friday’s announcement by the USFWS, there is new hope for wolverines, as the agency must now begin the process of drafting a recovery plan for the species, including steps to protect habitat that is essential for wolverine survival. Of course, protecting places for wolverines will be only a temporary and partial solution as long we continue to ignore the warming of our planet. Without a concerted effort to reduce emissions of heat-trapping air pollutants, the places that wolverines can survive will continue to shrink.