The wolverine is not going on the threatened species list after all. Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced federal protected status for the fierce and rare carnivore is unwarranted at this time.
The wolverine is making a slow comeback from the brink of extinction in the Lower 48 states. But shrinking mountain snow packs caused by global warming could reverse those gains.
Wolverines build their dens in deep snow. That was the main reason government field biologists proposed giving the wolverine threatened species protection. But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe decided this step is premature.
"There is no conclusive information that wolverines are currently habitat limited or that that the availability of den sites currently is limiting the population growth,” he said during a conference call with reporters.
Some environmentalists immediately decried Ashe's decision. They argue that climate change presents an imminent threat to wolverine survival.
"Blatantly ignoring extensive science showing wolverines are in real trouble in order to bow to political pressure from states is precisely the kind of recipe for extinction that prompted passage of the Endangered Species Act in the first place," said Noah Greenwald, the Portland-based endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
A coalition of nine groups - including Greenwald's - say they will now challenge the decision in court.
Idaho and Oregon were among the state governments who questioned whether federal protection under the Endangered Species Act was necessary.
Comments submitted by the Idaho governor’s office to the USFWS strongly objected to the use of climate change as grounds for a listing, which is reminiscent of an earlier national debate about whether to give endangered species protection to polar bears for the same reason.
“Listing the wolverine based on climate change does not comport with ESA regulations and does not provide a path towards recovery,” Dustin Miller from the governor’s Office of Species Conservation wrote.
“In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the ESA does not provide the wolverine with any additional substantive protection that cannot be provided by the states," he added.
In the early half of the last century, wolverines were more or less wiped out across the West by trapping and deliberate poisoning. Adults are about the size of a lanky bear cub, although the wolverine is actually the largest member of the weasel family.
"The wolverine is really a symbol of the fact that we are at risk of losing our winters. Winters as we know them in the Lower 48 are changing and are going to continue to change. The wolverine is really a bellwether for that problem," said Greenwald, by way of explaining his passion to protect the elusive animal.
The feds estimate there are between 250 to 322 wolverines on their current range in eight Western states including the North Cascades of Washington, Oregon's Wallowa Mountains and the Idaho Rockies.