Conservationists estimate there are between 250 and 300 wolverines left in the lower 48 states in the U.S. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services)
A Montana District Court judge has restored the wolverine’s status as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act following a court decision last month.
Montana District Court Judge Donald Molloy’s May 26 decision is the latest development in a 20-year effort to protect the wolverine, Idaho Conservation League North Idaho Director Brad Smith said.
The court decision gives U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services 18 months to reconsider its decision not to list the wolverine as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. In the meantime, the wolverine’s status as a candidate species means that the impact to wolverines and wolverine habitat must be considered in federal planning decisions that could affect that habitat, Smith said.
Smith hopes the Fish and Wildlife Services will list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act because that would grant additional protection to wolverine and require the creation of a recovery plan, which he said would deal with threats to the species and help reverse the decline.
Idaho has a stake in the debate too, given that wolverine’s range includes the high mountain terrain of Central Idaho where snow can linger late into spring, as well as the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains of the Idaho Panhandle. Smith did not have an estimate for the number of wolverines in Idaho, but he hopes protection and awareness will result in a more precise system for monitoring wolverine populations.
“Idaho has a substantial amount of wolverine habitat based on the fact that we have lots of mountains,” Smith said. “With all the wolverine habitat we have, Idaho is an important place to focus on wolverine conservation.”
In December 2020, a coalition of conservation groups filed a lawsuit over U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision not to grant Endangered Species Act protections to the wolverines. The dozen conservation groups in the suit — which include Idaho Conservation League, the Sierra Club, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Friends of the Clearwater and EarthJustice, estimate that there are between 250 to 300 wolverines remaining in the lower 48 United States. They say that global warming threatens the wolverine, which needs a persistent snowpack to build dens for its young. Without protections, the conservationists argue the wolverine will go extinct in the lower 48 and the public would have to travel to Canada or Alaska to see a wolverine.
“This decision is a victory for wolverines, paving the way for desperately needed protections,” Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains program director with Defenders of Wildlife, said in a written statement. “With Endangered Species Act protections, the wolverine might finally have a fighting chance at survival.”
Winter recreation, including snowmobiling and backcountry skiing, also threatens to displace wolverines from their mountain habitat, Smith said.
“We are in a kind of a make-or-break moment. And we have a chance to protect the wolverine and make sure future Idahoans can also see the wolverine when we recreate in the mountains of Idaho, but if we don’t act soon, our children and grandchildren may not get to have that chance,” Smith said. “I hope Fish and Wildlife Services sees the light and does what they need to do to protect the wolverine so it doesn’t suffer the same fate as the caribou.”
In 2021, what is believed to be the last surviving caribou in Idaho was trapped and removed from the Selkirk Mountains and sent to Canada, the Idaho Statesman reported. That meant the end of a 35-year effort to try to save the caribou in Idaho, which conservationists say will never again roam the mountains of the Gem State.
Wolverines live in snowy, mountain terrain and are rarely seen
Like the badger that it resembles and is often mistaken for, the wolverine is a fierce member of the weasel family.
The wolverine is a rarely seen animal that lives in remote mountain areas of the West and is seldom photographed. When confirmed sightings occur, it’s often newsworthy. On March 5, Yellowstone Insights operator and guide MacNeil Lyons took photos and captured video of a wolverine crossing the road in Yellowstone National Park, as the Daily Montanan reported.
Lyons was with a man and his 9-year-old daughter who wanted to see Yellowstone as a “bucket list” trip when the sighting occurred. On social media, Lyons said there are only an estimated six or seven wolverines in all of Yellowstone National Park, which is a nearly 3,500 square-mile protected national park that stretches into parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
Even when a wolverine isn’t seen, it makes news. In 2021, a photo of a badger on the Boise River Greenbelt went viral after Idahoans debated whether it was a badger or the more elusive wolverine when the photo went viral on the Idaho Nature Lovers Facebook group and NextDoor and was covered by the Idaho Statesman. After reviewing photos with a biologist, Idaho Fish and Game spokesman Roger Phillips told the Idaho Statesman that the creature was definitely a badger.
Smith, who got involved with conservation efforts to try to help protect species such as the caribou and wolverine, wants Idahoans to continue to have the chance to experience the excitement of seeing or photographing a wolverine.
“In my time, we lost the last caribou in the Selkirk Mountains, and it would be equally as tragic if we lost the wolverine in the lower 48 and have to tell future generations of Americans that they have to go to Canada, or at best Alaska, to see one of these critters,” he said.
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