“This sets a new low in a long line of irresponsible, disturbing decisions
made of late by the Bush administration,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark,
a spokesman for Defenders of Wildlife and former director of the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service.
Missoulian (MIssoula, Montana, U.S.)
March 11, 2008
Government denies protected status
for wolverines in mainland U.S.
By JOHN CRAMER of the Missoulian
Wolverines in the contiguous United States were
denied federal protection Monday at a time when
new studies suggest they could become extinct
within 45 years if climate change eliminates the
snow zone they depend upon.
Scientists say they are still puzzling out new
revelations and investigating unanswered
questions about wolverines’ year-round dependence
on remote mountains that have a deep spring
snowpack, from denning, foraging and mortality to
traveling “superhighways” in search of mates.
But just as salmon, polar bears and other species
are tied to the landscape in ways that are both
obvious and mysterious – and increasingly
affected by humans – the wolverine has found its
niche threatened as snow coverage diminishes.
“Unless wolverines show great adaptability, they
will be gone,” said Kevin McKelvey, a research
ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky
Mountain Research Station in Missoula and one of
the studies’ lead authors.
Wolverines are among the rarest and
least-understood mammals in North America. The
largest member of the weasel family, their
reputation for ferocity belies a delicate
reliance on subapline regions of North America
Wolverines’ range has been greatly reduced in the
Lower 48 states due to trapping, poisoning and
habitat destruction in the early 20th century,
but no historical or current population estimates
are available because too little is known about
the species, researchers say.
Environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service in 1995 and 2000 and filed a
lawsuit in 2006 in an effort to list wolverines
in the Lower 48 states under the Endangered
The agency said Monday that wolverines do not
warrant federal protection because they aren’t
geographically or genetically separated from
wolverine populations in Canada and Alaska and
thus aren’t significant to the species’ survival.
Conservation groups criticized the decision,
which is to be published Tuesday in the Federal
“This sets a new low in a long line of
irresponsible, disturbing decisions made of late
by the Bush administration,” said Jamie Rappaport
Clark, a spokesman for Defenders of Wildlife and
former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service. “The Endangered Species Act was designed
to protect and preserve imperiled wildlife
populations – not so that we can pass our
responsibilities off onto our border neighbors,
who may not have the resources or protections
that we have here.”
Jeff Copeland and other Rocky Mountain Research
Station scientists, who have pioneered wolverine
research for the past two decades, recently
completed several studies in cooperation with
other institutions that suggest wolverines’
survival could be jeopardized by global warming.
In one study, biologists looked at wolverine
denning and the spring snowpack in North America
and Eurasia. Female wolverines tunnel deep into
the snow, where they rear their kits until late
After overlaying more than 600 den sites with
satellite images of snow coverage from 2000 to
2006, the researchers found that 99 percent of
the dens were located in areas that still had
snow in mid-May.
The study also found that the wolverines, which
had global positioning system collars, spent 91
percent of their time year-round in the
high-elevations areas that had a deep spring
In two other studies, the Research Station
ecologists looked at projected temperatures and
spring snow coverage.
The projections indicated that much of the
world’s traditional spring snowpack could vanish
by mid-May by 2050, meaning suitable habitat for
wolverines – and other snow-dependent mammals –
could decline by up to 95 percent in the
contiguous United States.
Wolverine refuges could persist in the high
mountains of Colorado and California, but
wolverines have disappeared from those regions.
In another study, Research Station scientists
used GPS collars and computer modeling to look at
wolverine gene flows and the potential impact of
Results showed that wolverines move along routes
dictated by spring snow coverage, often following
long and circuitous paths year-round rather than
a straight line while mating, denning and
If climate change eliminates these
“superhighways” and “Grand Central Station”
meeting points – one of which is at Lolo Peak,
just south of Missoula – it is unclear whether
wolverines will become genetically isolated or
find new ways to move about, the researchers said.
In the meantime, Western wildlife biologists and
land managers could use the findings to help
maintain critical habitat for wolverines, the
Wolverines, which have low reproductive rates,
have one of the lowest densities of any carnivore
in the world with territories that cover hundreds
The new studies, which are being prepared for
peer-review publication, follow earlier work by
the Research Station.
The station’s ecologists have analyzed more than
100 years of scientific records, anecdotal
reports and DNA samples from museum specimens in
an effort to determine wolverines’ historic range
in the Lower 48 states.
More information is available at
Copyright © 2008 Missoulian