Feds: Wolverine numbers low, but not endangered | SierraSun.com

Feds: Wolverine numbers low, but not endangered

Matthew Brown
Associated Press Writer
AP Photo/Glacier National Park, Jeff CopelandThis undated photo shows a wolverine in Glacier National Park in Montana, taken by biologist Jeff Copeland. Federal officials say wolverines do not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, despite lingering concerns that populations of the rarely seen member of the weasel family could be imperiled, Monday, March 10, 2008.
AP | THE MISSOULIAN

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) ” Federal officials said Monday that wolverines do not warrant endangered species protections in the contiguous United States, despite lingering concern among government scientists that the rarely seen animal remains imperiled.

Once found from Alaska to Colorado, wolverines now survive in only a few strongholds in the lower 48 states. That includes an estimated 500 to 600 animals spread over thousands of square miles in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming.

But because wolverine populations retain strong connections to larger ones in Canada and Alaska, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday the species could survive even if it disappeared entirely from the contiguous United States.

Environmental groups vowed to challenge the decision in court.

“According to ESA (Endangered Species Act) guidelines, the U.S. population is not significant to the viability of the subspecies as a whole,” said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Diane Katzenberger, noting a 1997 policy requiring the agency to consider more than emerging threats or low numbers.

She said the agency must first determine whether losing part of the animal’s range would be enough to threaten the entire population. For wolverines ” which number an estimated 15,000 to 19,000 in Canada and share the same genetic qualities as their United States cousins ” their answer was no.

Last week, a graduate student studying another member of the weasel family, martens, got a photograph of a wolverine in the Sierra Nevada north of Truckee.

News of the picture surprised scientists, who thought wolverines, if they still inhabited the Sierra, would be found only in the southern part of the 400-mile-long range. They said they’ll try to determine if it’s a member of a long lost California wolverine population, a migrant from another state or a captive that was released into the wild.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former Fish and Wildlife Service director during the Clinton years, said the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision represented a sharp reversal from prior practice.

Clark, who now works for Defenders of Wildlife, pointed out that other species have been protected in the contiguous United States despite still-thriving populations in Canada and Alaska. Those include gray wolves, grizzly bears, woodland caribou, Canada lynx and bald eagles, she said.

“This country never shied away from protecting what’s in its borders,” Clark said. “This administration is punting that responsibility to countries north and south of us.”

A number of environmental groups planned a legal challenge.

“We don’t live in Canada. We live in Washington and Montana and Idaho, and it’s important that we have wolverines here,” said Joe Scott with the group Conservation Northwest.

Researchers who work with the animal describe it as one of North America’s least understood larger mammals. A member of the weasel family that can weigh up to 40 pounds, it feeds primarily on carrion and lives in high mountains where snow covers the ground much of the year.

The range of a single wolverine can cover up to 350 square miles, which contributes to its extremely low breeding rate.

Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Shawn Sartorius said wolverines likely hit their low point in the early 20th century, when they were virtually wiped out during a poisoning campaign directed against wolves and other large predators. He said the population has slowly rebounded in the decades since, but warned new threats could reverse that recovery.

“Their populations are still small enough that without those populations being connected to Canada, we wouldn’t expect them to be viable over the long term,” he said.

One of the biggest emerging threats to the animal is human development, particularly within the mountain valleys wolverines must cross to breed, Sartorius said. Also, researchers fear climate change could melt off many of the snow fields in which the animals typically den, causing a potentially drastic reduction in habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service review of wolverines was prompted by a federal court order last year that said the agency had erred in ignoring new evidence of a decline. The order came in a lawsuit filed against the agency after it turned down a 2000 petition to list the animal as threatened or endangered.

Katzenberger said the agency’s review did not fully investigate emerging threats as part of Monday’s finding. Once it was determined wolverines were not eligible for protection, she said, “that basically just stops the process right there.”