Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The state of Montana intends to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its Endangered Species listing of the wolverine.

On Friday, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks announced that it had notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of its intent to sue over the agency’s Nov. 29 decision to grant Endangered Species protection to the wolverine. Under the Endangered Species law, challengers have to give 60 days notice of their intent to sue.

The FWP announcement said wolverines are doing well in Montana, and that federal protection would interfere with state conservation work. It didn’t elaborate on what conservation work would be affected.

Notably, on Nov. 10 just prior to the Service's listing decision, Fish, Wildlife & Parks wardens received a report of a wolverine carcass found on a U.S. Forest Service road northwest of Wisdom. A warden located the carcass and confirmed the animal had been shot, skinned and abandoned.

In a release Friday, Governor Greg Gianforte called the wolverine listing decision “illogical.”

“In Montana, we’ve worked hard to manage and conserve the wolverine population and have partnered with neighboring states on research and monitoring efforts to ensure the future conservation of the species,” Gianforte said. “Adding a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy does nothing for conservation but does everything to undermine our responsible management of this species.”

The FWP announcement raised a question about whether wolverines in the lower 48 U.S. states should be treated as a population unto itself, also called a distinct population segment because wolverines also exist in Canada.

However, in September, the US Fish and Wildlife Service issued a 70-page species status assessment of the wolverine, which found that the U.S. population is dependent on gene flow from Canada, but no gene flow has occurred since the Trans-Canada Highway was built in the 1960s. The Trans-Canada Highway is about 150 miles north of the Montana border and runs east-west, so it fragmented the North American wolverine population.

FWP said it also questions the wolverine’s need for snow for winter denning as climate change continues to cause winter snowpack to decline. FWP says wolverines are adaptable, “able to den and reproduce without snow.”

However, in both the 2023 and 2018 species status assessments, the Fish and Wildlife Service identified the effects of climate change as the most significant stressor for wolverines, because warming temperatures and snowpack loss meant the loss of denning habitat. But in the September update, the agency also analyzed how climate change affects wolverine connectivity and population structure.

Shorter winters and higher temperatures mean snowy habitat is going to shrink as it moves farther north and higher in elevation. And some years, as with this year’s El Nino, could be worse than others. According to the addendum, “climate change will continue to negatively affect persistent spring snowpack in the western U.S., further restricting and fragmenting wolverine habitat.”

Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso has repeatedly challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the 20 years it balked at listing the wolverine and supports the listing.

“Wolverines need the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a listing decision that fully justified the threatened determination for the wolverine,” Preso said. “We’ll examine whatever Montana has to say, but we believe the listing was well supported by the available science.”

Most recently, 20 environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2022 after the agency under Trump administration said concerns found in a 2013 species status assessment weren’t as significant as what the assessment said and claimed wolverines weren’t separate from those in Canada. Now, Montana seeks to make the same claim.

“There’s a very real danger that wolverines will disappear from the lower 48 states without strong federal protections,” said Andrea Zaccardi, the Center for Biological Diversity’s carnivore conservation legal director. “Montana continues to demonstrate that it can’t be trusted to protect its imperiled wildlife. We won’t let Montana strip wolverines of the Endangered Species Act protections they desperately need.”

Prior to January 2013, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks allowed trappers to kill five wolverines a year.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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