With less than 300 individuals surviving in the lower 48 states, the North American wolverine has been proposed for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. On Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened a 90-day comment period to gather suggestions and guidance from the scientific community and the public on how to best preserve this top-of-the-foodchain predator that secretly roams the West's high country.
The protection would not prohibit skiing, snowmobiling and logging in alpine terrain where wolverines have historically lived, according to the proposal posted Friday in the Federal Register.
While some environmentalists disagree, Fish and Wildlife contends these activities do not threaten the wolverine, a member of the weasel family that was extirpated from Western mountain ranges a century ago by poisoning and trapping designed to rid public lands of predators.
"Wolverine is a species that doesn't have a lot of controversy around it, especially with a [proposed] listing that would not curtail human activity except for trapping. A lot of its habitat is already protected in federal hands. It won't change a lot of management," said Kylie Paul, a regional representative with Defenders of Wildlife which has long advocated for listing the wolverine.
Wolverines are now confined to parts of the North Cascades and the Northern Rockies, along with a pocket in the Wallowa Mountains in northeast Oregon, according to Fish and Wildlife. These animals have been gone from their historic range in the southern Rockies and Sierra Nevada, but biologists have tracked a lone male that migrated into Colorado in 2009. There have been sporadic sightings in Utah's Uinta Mountains, but last documented wolverine in Utah was shot near Dinosaur National Monument in 1979.
Along with the proposed listing, Fish and Wildlife proposed allowing Colorado to re-introduce wolverines as "an experimental non-essential population." That state has yet to devise a plan, which would require sign off from the state's fish and wildlife commission and legislature before any animals are released, according to Randy Hampton, spokesman for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Friday's proposed rule change would ban trapping and poisoning, which have been tightly regulated for years. Wolverines face a more serious threat from climate change, biologists say, because they need snow cover persisting through May to raise their young in dens. By melting mountains snowpacks earlier, warmer temperatures could push wolverine up slope, further isolating them. Defenders of Wildlife supports a Colorado re-introduction, arguing wolverines must reclaim previously occupied habitat to help the species endure a warming climate.
"It is predicted they could lose two-thirds of the snow covered habitat by the end of this century. It is tough to consider what can be done to protect the species in light of climate change being the primary threat, but listing provides resources and attention to the animal," Paul said.