Wolverine threatened but won’t be protected, agency says

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo—Higher-priority species need to be addressed with its limited resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday in determining that the wolverine, a member of the weasel family that resembles a small bear, will not receive federal protection as an endangered species.

Climate change could undo a hundred years of recovery by the wolverine in the Lower 48 states, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review concluding the animal warrants but is precluded from receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The agency said Monday it is designating the wolverine as a candidate for protection under the act, and its status will be reviewed annually. But for now, listing it under the act is precluded by the need to address higher-priority species with limited resources, the agency said.

A petition from conservation groups prompted the decision. It means the wolverine — a high-alpine omnivore that’s the heaviest member of the weasel family and is said to resemble a small bear — will remain a state-managed species, at least for now.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife on Monday already was meeting with agriculture, ski industry, environmental and other interests to evaluate what the Fish and Wildlife Service decision means for the state’s ongoing consideration of a wolverine reintroduction program.

“The big unknown out there was always what’s going to happen with this federal listing petition, so we now have that answered,” said DOW spokesman Randy Hampton.

Hampton said the possibility of an eventual federal decision to list the wolverine “plays into our (reintroduction) decision but is not the driving force behind it.” The agency has been interested in reintroducing the animal since the 1990s, when it also was working on what turned out to be a successful lynx reintroduction program.

Should wolverine reintroduction proceed, some of the funding would come from Great Outdoors Colorado, which receives state Lottery revenues.

One wolverine is known to be in the state. It’s a radio-collared male that headed south from Grand Teton National Park. The last previously confirmed wolverine sighting in the state was in 1919.

Also found in North America in Canada and Alaska, the animal probably was all but eliminated at one point from the contiguous United States by means such as trapping and poisoning, Fish and Wildlife Service officials say. Now it’s back in the Lower 48 at what are thought to be the highest levels in 100 years. But that still means perhaps not many more than 200 wolverines in the contiguous states, mostly in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, said Shawn Sartorius, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

The concern for the future is driven by the fact that female wolverines dig tunnels into snowpack to keep their offspring warm and safe from predators, and require that snowpack to linger into May. Though climate change isn’t known to have affected wolverine numbers yet, or pose an imminent threat, nearly a quarter of Lower-48 habitat could be lost by 2045, and nearly two-thirds by the end of the century, Fish and Wildlife Service officials say.

“This habitat reduction is expected to result in reduced numbers of wolverines and reduced connectivity among wolverine populations to the point where maintenance of the wolverine population in the contiguous United States is unlikely,” the agency said in a supporting document released Monday.


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