By Ruffin Prevost
The ferocious wolverine is known for its ability to defend against predators several times its size and weight. But apparently there is little defense for the animal against rising winter temperatures, as federal wildlife managers have announced their intent to list it as an endangered species threatened by climate change.
Elusive and typically solitary except when breeding, wolverines are among the most rarely seen animals in the greater Yellowstone area, one of their last strongholds in the contiguous United States. A 2005-09 study found them in the southeast corner of Yellowstone and in the Gallatin National Forest, north of the park.
But citing dwindling snowpack in high elevations where female wolverines make their birthing dens, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service posted a notice Friday in the Federal Register of its plan to protect the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act.
“We have determined that habitat loss due to increasing temperatures and reduced late spring snowpack due to climate change is likely to have a significant negative population-level impact on wolverine populations in the contiguous United States,” the notice stated. “In the future, wolverine habitat is likely to be reduced to the point that the wolverine in the contiguous United States is in danger of extinction.”
Though large populations of wolverines exist in Canada and Alaska, as few as 275 may roam Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Washington state.
Known as a ferocious and elusive predator, the shaggy wolverine is the largest member of the weasel family, and is found in alpine and coniferous forests around Yellowstone National Park. Wolverines are among those Yellowstone animals that are active year-round, feeding on rodents, birds, eggs, whitebark pine nuts and other vegetation.
Federal wildlife officials stated in their filing that wolverines require persistent, stable snow greater than five feet deep for creating dens where they plan to give birth. The deep dens keep them secure from predators and insulated from the cold.
But snowpack at elevations of around 8,000, where wolverines begin to den, is not always sufficient, causing females to abandon their dens and move their young.
The notice stated that wolverine habitat is expected to “get smaller and more highly fragmented as individual habitat islands become smaller and the intervening areas between wolverine habitats become larger.”
Protected status for wolverines is unlikely to result in major, widespread limits on development or recreation, according to the federal notice.
The notice stated that “wolverines are somewhat insulated from impacts of human disturbances from industry, agriculture, infrastructure development, or recreation.”
“Although we can demonstrate that recreational use of wolverine habitat is heavy in some areas, we do not have any information to suggest that these activities have negative effects on wolverines,” the notice stated.
Snowmobile and foot traffic has been known to cause females to relocate their kits, the notice stated, but “this behavior appears to be rare, even under intense disturbance” related to a range a factors.
If you go…
Public hearings are planned for: March 13 at the Boise Centre on the Grove, 850 West Front Street, Boise, ID 83702; March 19, 2013, at the Hampton Inn, 137 Union Boulevard, Lakewood, CO 80228; and March 27, 2013, at the Red Lion Colonial Inn, 2301 Colonial Drive, Helena, MT 59601. At all three locations a public informational session will run from 2-5 p.m., followed by public speaker registration at 6 p.m., and then a public hearing from 7-9 p.m.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].