The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision to withdraw its proposal to list the wolverine as an endangered species indicates two things. First, it shows the federal agency can listen to state biologists. Second, it shows that to call an animal endangered, one must know more about how close to extinction the species may be.
To the first point, Fish and Wildlife’s decision came after a key meeting of state wildlife biologists in Salt Lake City last fall. At the meeting, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies came together on a request to delay listing the wolverine, in part because its population may be bigger now than at any point since Europeans arrived in North America about 500 years ago. The agencies also noted that the effect on wolverines from climate change — a growing threat to many species — has not been determined, and the feds agreed.
Which brings up the second point: The wolverine is a rare and exceedingly elusive creature that sticks to high mountain snowfields. As a result, less field work (tracking collars, etc) has been done by biologists than with other species, and more data is needed. Withdrawing the proposed listing does not prevent the feds from bringing it back if the data supports it.
There may be only about 250 or 300 animals in the lower 48 states — a number that on the face of it sounds low enough to be considered endangered. But historic wolverine populations are difficult to determine, and it appears the population, however small, has been growing in recent times — despite the presumed challenges of climate change.
In Utah, the wolverine population may be anywhere from zero to a few. There was a confirmed sighting on a trail camera in the Uinta Mountains last winter. Like wolves, there is no evidence that wolverines have set up dens here, although that’s at least possible.
Unlike wolves, even a healthy population in the Uintas would pose little threat to livestock. Related to weasels, wolverines are omnivores that rely heavily on carrion during winter months. They are quite strong for their size and even have been known to win a fight with a bear. But their small numbers, and their tendency to stay hidden at high elevations, make them less likely barriers to development even if they are listed.
So admittedly the wolverine decision is not the high-stakes game posed by other species like the Greater Sage Grouse, whose listing could significantly affect the amount of fossil fuel production in eastern Utah. But it does reinforce a belief that good science has a place in good government.
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