March 18, 2020
Feisty, Rare Mountain Mammal Threatened by Loss of Snowpack, Winter Recreation
MISSOULA, Mont.— Conservation groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for failing to protect wolverines as required by the Endangered Species Act.
There are fewer than 300 wolverines left in the contiguous United States. The animals are severely threatened by climate change, which reduces the spring snowpack they need for denning, and habitat loss caused by snowmobiles, roads and other development.
Today’s lawsuit, in U.S. District Court in Montana, is the latest step in a 20-year effort to save the species, one of the rarest in the country. Protection under the Act would trigger new conservation efforts for wolverines.
The groups successfully sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 for withdrawing a proposed wolverine listing. In that case a Montana federal district judge directed the Service to take action on requests to grant legal protection to the wolverine “at the earliest possible, defensible moment in time,” stressing that “[f]or the wolverine, that time is now.”
Despite the federal court’s admonition in 2016, the Service has failed to take any steps to protect the species. In November 2019 the agency missed its own internal deadline for a wolverine listing decision. The lawsuit filed today asks a federal judge to set a deadline for the Service to make this long-delayed decision.
“The wolverine is an icon of our remaining wilderness,” said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Galvan, who is representing the coalition of nine groups. “We’re taking action to ensure that the wolverine gets a fighting chance for survival.
Earthjustice filed today’s lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Clearwater, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Rocky Mountain Wild.
“We hope this lawsuit can help put these ferocious and wonderfully wild animals back on the road to recovery,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Trump administration needs to move quickly to protect wolverines.”
“Wolverines are legendary for the ferocious spirit that we all need to embody in order to protect our ecosystems and communities,” said Skye Schell, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. “So it pains us to know that wolverines are ever-more threatened by habitat loss and now climate change. We call on the Fish and Wildlife Service to put science over politics and finally give wolverines the protections they deserve under the Endangered Species Act.”
“If you’ve ever seen a wolverine in the wild, you’re one of a very lucky few,” said Brad Smith of the Idaho Conservation League. “We’re fortunate to have them in Idaho, but their numbers are critically low. Let’s not lose these iconic wild animals when we have the means to ensure they receive the protections they need to survive.”
“Climate change and habitat fragmentation are pushing wolverines to the brink,” said Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains program director at Defenders of Wildlife. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has a moral and legal obligation to protect these animals, and we are here to ensure it performs its duty without further delay.”
“The decline of the wolverine on the West Coast is telling us that we must take bold action to stop climate change,” said Joseph Vaile of the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center. “Without deep snowpack, the wolverine’s range will continue to retract until it winks out entirely.
“The Clearwater Basin is prime wolverine habitat and has a population of this rare species, yet it is threatened by global warming and the actions of the Forest Service,” said Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater. “The newly released Nez Perce – Clearwater National Forests draft forest plan would endanger security habitat for wolverines.”
“While wolverine are as tough and rugged as their wilderness home, they face dire threats from a warming climate, shrinking snowpack, and an increasingly fragmented habitat,” said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest. “Endangered Species Act protections will help marshal the resources and recovery actions to ensure wolverine have a future in the west’s wild country.
BACKGROUND: Wolverines, the largest land-dwelling members of the weasel family, once roamed across the northern tier of the United States and as far south as New Mexico in the Rockies and Southern California in the Sierra Nevada range. After more than a century of trapping and habitat loss, wolverines in the lower 48 today exist only as small, fragmented populations in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and northeast Oregon.
With no more than 300 wolverines remaining in these regions, the species is at direct risk from climate change. Wolverines depend on areas with deep snow through late spring. Pregnant females dig their dens into this snowpack to birth and raise their young. Snowpack is already in decline in the western mountains, a trend that is predicted to worsen with a warming climate.
Wolverine populations are also at risk from trapping, human disturbance, extremely low population numbers resulting in low genetic diversity, and fragmentation of their habitat. Without federal protection the dangers faced by wolverines threaten remaining populations with localized extinctions and inbreeding.