Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) After more than two decades of consideration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act.

On Wednesday morning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it will protect the wolverine population in the lower 48 states as threatened. The announcement will appear in Thursday’s Federal Register.

The listing decision appeared likely in late September, when the agency issued a 70-page update that reversed a number of conclusions the agency had reached in its 2018 Species Status Assessment of the wolverine. They based the addendum on research that has occurred since 2017, which produced new data and better computer modeling that showed wolverine populations are probably more isolated and individuals are more dependent on consistent spring snow and habitat free from human interference than the agency had assumed.

In 2018, the assessment estimated that 318 wolverines roamed mountains of the western U.S., but the statistical confidence was low because what data the agency had was sparse or lacking. Now the agency says “the true population size in the contiguous U.S. is unknown, as is the effective population size; best available estimates suggest populations are relatively small (~300 in the western U.S.).”

“Overall, future wolverine populations in the contiguous U.S. may be less secure than we described in our 2018 SSA. Uncertainty over the wolverine’s future condition in the contiguous U.S. is relatively high,” the addendum said. “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.”

Recent reports of dead wolverines illustrate how people add to those stressors. For example, a wolverine that had been shot and skinned was discovered on Nov. 10 along a closed Forest Service road on the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest. The Center for Biological Diversity, Trap Free Montana, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have offered rewards for information on the killing.

In May 2022, Missoula Federal District Judge Donald Molloy ruled the Service’s previous decision in 2020 not to list the wolverine was flawed and likely manipulated by political pressure. He ordered the agency to reconsider and issue a new decision within 18 months. Wednesday’s announcement is the result.

Wildlife advocates cheered the listing overall. Over the past decade, 20 organizations have fought court battles to hold the agency to its 2013 conclusion that wolverines qualified for protection.

“The science is clear: snowpack-dependent species like the wolverine are facing an increasingly uncertain future under a warming climate,” said Michael Saul, Defenders of Wildlife Rockies and Plains Program director. “The protections that come with Endangered Species Act listing increase the chance that our children will continue to share the mountains with these elusive and fascinating carnivores.”

However, some questioned one part of the decision that exempts the “take” of threatened wolverines by incidental trapping as long as the trapping is “conducted in a manner that uses best practices to minimize the potential for capture and mortality of wolverines.”

"We appreciate that the Fish and Wildlife finally listed wolverines as threatened, but their 4(d) rule, which allows wolverines to be trapped, is a road map for extinction, not recovery," said Mike Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "A state district court in Montana ruled in our favor in 2012 that wolverine trapping was illegal because there are so few wolverines. The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to follow the law like all Americans are required to do and come up with a plan to recover wolverines.”

Prior to 2012, recreational wolverine trapping in Montana killed about a dozen wolverines a year. Since wolverine trapping was banned in 2012, 12 wolverines have been accidentally trapped in Montana, leading to three mortalities. In Idaho since 2017, nine wolverines have been trapped resulting in two deaths.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Species Status assessment issued in 2018 said trapping wasn’t a big stressor and didn’t create a barrier to wolverine movement between the U.S. and Canada. But the agency changed that in its 2023 addendum based on new information and recent regulation changes in Montana and Idaho.

Since 2021, Montana has liberalized its wolf trapping regulations, allowing snares, baiting and a longer season, upping the chance of accidentally trapping wolverines.“These regulation changes may increase the amount of wolf trapping and the risk of incidental trapping of wolverines because of the use of snares, extended trapping seasons, and financial incentives,” the addendum said.

Last week, that risk was temporarily reduced by an injunction on wolf trapping, also issued by Molloy, to reduce the possible take of grizzly bears.

Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who has been involved with the wolverine lawsuits since 2002, said that, over the 60-day comment period, attorneys would be scrutinizing the “take” exception and what is entailed in trapping best-practices related to wolverines.

“I have some serious questions, like are the reported incidental trapping occurrences the sum total of all that are occurring or is there some under-reporting occurring?” Preso said. “I don’t have the information to know whether this is good or not good.”

The multi-decade effort to protect wolverines started in 2000, when wildlife advocates petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service due to the threats of climate change and habitat fragmentation. In 2008, under the George W. Bush administration, the agency refused to list the wolverine, saying the U.S. population wasn’t distinct from that of Canada. Two years later, the agency pivoted, saying the population was distinct but that wolverines had to take a backseat to all the other species awaiting protection.

Spurred by a court ruling to prioritize Endangered Species assessments, the agency concluded in 2013 that the U.S. wolverines were effectively separate from those in Canada and they were much more vulnerable. But a year later, USFWS director Dan Ashe balked at the listing, saying his agency agreed climate change had an effect but it couldn’t prove a strong correlation between dwindling snowpack due to climate change and wolverine survival.

Twenty environmental groups sued, providing several scientific reports that supported the connection to climate change. In 2016, Missoula Federal District Judge Dana Christensen sent the Fish and Wildlife Service back to take another look at the evidence.

After a number of delays, the agency came out with the 2020 decision not to list based on the 2018 assessment, again stating that the U.S. population wasn’t distinct and climate change isn’t as big of a problem as the 2013 decision said.

The plaintiffs in the most recent lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service included WildEarth Guardians, Friends Of The Bitterroot, Friends Of The Wild Swan, Swan View Coalition, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Alliance For The Wild Rockies, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, George Wuerthner, Footloose Montana, Native Ecosystems Council, Wildlands Network, Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Clearwater, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club, and Rocky Mountain Wild.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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