Whither the wolverine? The only wolverines I’ve ever seen in real life were the football players at the University of Michigan. And no wonder: Actual four-legged wolverines aren’t creatures you run into on a daily basis.
There are only about 250 to 300 of them in the lower 48, with most living in cold sections of the Rocky Mountains. They tend to live at elevations greater than 7,000 feet, and they must have snow almost until summer, because snow is essential for making their dens. Obviously their habitat is rather limited in the U.S. because there aren’t many places like that there. Until recently, this hardy member of the weasel family had been recovering fairly well since being nearly decimated by predator poisoning campaigns in the 1930s. (They’re scavengers. What the heck?)
“This is a case, one of the few cases, where things are looking pretty rosy right now,” said Shawn Sartorius, lead wolverine biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). Unfortunately, the relative high may not last forever. “The future scenario is one that doesn’t look good,” Sartorious told KUOW.
There’s enough potential danger to the wolverines’ already small population, in fact, that on January 18 the FWS will start considering whether to protect the predators under the Endangered Species Act.
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One culprit: Climate change. There’s fear that those cold, snowy elevations will be far less so one day in the future. That could spell disaster down the road for these 30-pound creatures that resemble small bears with bushy tails.
The FWS predicts that within 30 years, about 30 percent of wolverine habitat will be gone. In 70 years, 60 percent of their habitat could be lost.
If wolverines end up on the Endangered Species List, they’ll be part of a very exclusive group. The only other species so far protected because of long-term threats from climate change is the polar bear.
But it’s not just climate change that’s messing with the wolverines. Jodi Hilty, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s North America Program, tells TakePart that another issue is “increasing backcountry human activities and development within mountains and between mountain ranges. This inhibits the connectivity of the naturally low-density population. More research is needed to understand the impact of these issues on long-term wolverine conservation.”
If wolverines do gain federal protection, then such research could be forthcoming. There could be more funding for monitoring and species reintroduction as well.
“We think that if wolverines can be reestablished in as many places as possible that will give them the best chance to hold on once the significant effects of climate change occur,” said Sartorius.
But will the government see the necessity for helping wolverines? Not if they’re like my former colleague, a mucky muck in the tech geek world. I told him about the wolverines being in possible trouble, and he said, “Sad to say, but who cares? They’re cute, but they’re almost extinct anyway. Just let nature take its course.” I asked him about polar bears. “No, they have to have help!”
Wolverines aren’t the big, striking mammals that draw such love and attention. They’re like strange-looking miniature bears. If one day they’re extinct, people like my colleague won’t even know or care.
Fortunately, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service isn’t known for just protecting the big, attractive species. Just ask the Kretschmarr cave mold beetle and the snuffbox mussel, who have also been granted federal protections.
Maybe with the right protections, the wolverines’ comeback won’t be so short-lived.
Should wolverines be granted federal protection even though they’re doing fine now? Or is that just premaure? By the way, have you ever seen a wolverine?
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Maria Goodavage is author of The New York Times bestselling book Soldier Dogs. She has been a staff writer at USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is a regular contributor at Dogster online magazine. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, daughter, and a big dog.