Wolverines Look Tough, but Climate Change Could Threaten the 300 That Remain

Environmental groups sue to protect the predator after the U.S. government refuses to list it as an endangered species.

(Photo: Tambako/Getty Images)

Oct 16, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Wolverines are fierce predators, but they’re not strong enough to fight climate change on their own. That’s what eight wildlife groups suing the United States Fish and Wildlife Service are claiming in a lawsuit to protect the animal under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The suit follows the U.S. government’s decision in August to deny a request to list the wolverine as an imperiled species. Only 250 to 300 wolverines—the largest land-based weasel—survive in the continental U.S.

The bear-like, bushy-tailed animals once roamed across the northern U.S. and as far south as New Mexico and California. But trapping, habitat destruction, and climate change have limited most of the remaining population to Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

“What we’re looking for is a science-based decision on whether or not to list the wolverine for protection under the Endangered Species Act,” said Earthjustice attorney Adrienne Maxwell.

The nonprofit law group is representing the Center for Biological Diversity and seven other conservation groups in the lawsuit, which argues that an FWS director didn’t take her own scientists’ findings on the wolverine into account in denying the environmentalists’ petition to protect the animal.

Female wolverines require thick spring snowpack to build dens. In February 2013, FWS biologists found that climate change could drastically shrink the wolverine’s natural habitat. They mapped areas in the states that currently provide prime wolverine habitat and looked at projections of rising temperatures and reduced precipitation in those regions.

“They quickly figured out the areas that provide good denning habitat are going to be shrinking,” Maxwell said.

But in August, Noreen Walsh, FWS regional director, denied the listing petition, claiming there was “insufficient evidence” that climate change would threaten the continued existence of the wolverine.

Ryan Moehring, an FWS spokesperson, said the service does not comment on ongoing litigation.

“While it is clear that the climate is warming, after carefully considering the best available science, the service has determined that the effects of climate change are not likely to place the wolverine in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future,” the agency said in a statement issued in August.

“This is bad for science and bad for the wolverine’s future,” Maxwell said. “Climate modeling is important to determine whether a species is threatened. If the Fish and Wildlife Service is just waiting to see if the habitat is reduced, it will likely be too late.”

“If they are forced to take into account the climate models, then they’ll most likely have to agree to protections,” she added.