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Protections for wolverines likely imminent

Endangered Species Act protections for wolverines likely imminent

State surveys don’t placate federal biologists who say the Lower 48 population is ‘less secure’ than previously thought.

A camera trap remotely captured this image of a wolverine in the Bonneville Pass area of the Absaroka Range in 2015. (Meghan Riley)

An analysis of wolverines in Wyoming and the rest of their Lower 48 range paints a grim picture of a low-density species that’s losing its habitat and facing an uncertain future.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a 100-page “species status assessment” for North American wolverines in late September. That document presages a final determination that federal wildlife managers must make by late November to satisfy a May 2022 federal court order.

The assessment’s closing paragraph hints at what’s likely to happen: Wolverines will no longer be a state-managed species, and instead will be entrusted to federal managers and the protective guidelines of the Endangered Species Act.

“Overall, future wolverine populations in the contiguous U.S. may be less secure than we described in our 2018 [assessment],” the document reads. “Uncertainty over the wolverine’s future condition in the contiguous U.S. is relatively high.”

Wolverine ecology is plagued by unanswered “key questions” about the population size, gene flow and dispersal corridors across the Canadian border, the assessment states.

“Nevertheless, the best available information suggests that habitat loss as a result of climate change and other stressors are likely to impact the viability of wolverines in the contiguous U.S. through the remainder of this century,” the document says in its closing sentence.

This map depicts potential wolverine habitat, observations and den sites. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In an email, Fish and Wildlife Service officials acknowledged that a jurisdiction change for wolverines is likely weeks away.

“The Service’s 2013 proposed rule to list wolverines as threatened in the lower 48 states is the current proposal,” Amanda Smith, a Fish and Wildlife public affairs officer, wrote. “Our final determination will be submitted to the Federal Register by November 27, 2023 as required.”

The wolverine is a 17- to 40-pound member of the mustelid family that is notoriously reclusive. That’s because the alpine critters often dwell amid rock, ice and snow at very low densities. The Teton Range, at one point, had a documented population of one, an animal nicknamed Jed.

Conservation advocacy groups have pushed for a federal wolverine listing for decades, and the species’ classification has been the subject of repeated litigation. States, including Wyoming, have opposed classifying Gulo gulo under the Endangered Species Act in the past, though the scarce mustelid’s whereabouts in designated wilderness and other highly protected lands suggests a listing would have a limited effect on federal land management.

Fish and Wildlife’s decade-old proposed listing rule, reignited by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy’s order, estimated a population of 250 to 300 animals in the Lower 48. The latest assessment, however, doesn’t make an estimate.

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