Will wolverines go extinct? US offers new protections as climate change closes in

The North American wolverine has been listed as a threatened species because of impacts on its habitats by climate change, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday.

The designation will give the species federal protections under the Endangered Species Act designed to prevent the population from declining. It applies to the North American wolverine population in the contiguous United States, where scientists warn that warming temperatures in the coming decades are anticipated to shrink the mountain snowpack the animals rely on for food and reproduction.

“Current and increasing impacts of climate change and associated habitat degradation and fragmentation are imperiling the North American wolverine,” Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Regional Director Hugh Morrison said in a statement.

Threatened species are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Extinction happens because of changes to the Earth through natural causes or human activity that render a species unable to survive. There are over 1,300 endangered and threatened species in the U.S., the EPA says.

A wolverine in Montana's Glacier National Park.
A wolverine in Montana's Glacier National Park.

Climate change threatens snowy habitats

Wolverines are midsize carnivores, the largest terrestrial member of the weasel family. They resemble a small bear and mostly reside in Canada and Alaska; there are populations in the Rocky and Cascade Mountains. They've been documented in remote areas of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington state.

"Wolverines are snow-adapted, cold-climate, territorial animals with large home ranges," the Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday.

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Wolverines have also been spotted in recent years in other states such as California, Utah and Oregon, but officials say there isn't evidence they are multiplying there. A wolverine was spotted in three different locations earlier this year in California, where the animal was already classified as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act.

As few as 300 surviving wolverines in the contiguous U.S. live in fragmented, isolated groups at high elevations in the northern Rocky Mountains. A recent assessment noted uncertainties in population trends in the country.

"Wolverine habitat in the contiguous U.S. is projected to decrease ... and become more fragmented because of climate changes that result in increasing temperatures, earlier spring snowmelt and loss of deep, persistent spring snowpack, primarily at lower elevations," the Fish and Wildlife Service said in an updated assessment in September.

The agency also said winter recreational activities by humans could increase and become more constrained to areas with higher quality snow, while wolverines show "sensitivity" to human development.

The announcement comes after years of conservation groups advocating for wolverines to be listed as threatened species, and a back-and-forth by the Fish and Wildlife Service over whether the species should be considered. Last year, a federal judge vacated a 2020 decision under the Trump administration to withdraw a proposal listing wolverines as threatened and required the agency to reevaluate and make a final decision by the end of November.

"The wolverine is a famously tough wilderness species that is willing to take on anything, from fighting a grizzly over a food source to scaling a sheer mountain in mid-winter,” said Tim Preso, an attorney for the group Earthjustice, which has been part of the legal effort. “We had to take on a similar fighting spirit to achieve today's victory, as it required winning six consecutive lawsuits against the government over 21 years.  It was a long and tough fight – but the wolverine is worth it."

Montana Republicans earlier this year asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to delay its decision, saying not enough information was available to justify it. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale said the determination could be "disastrous for Montanans and their way of life."

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Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Wolverines have been listed as threatened under Endangered Species Act