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Feds to protect U.S. wolverines, citing climate change as threat to habitat

The 40-pound wolverine, a fierce carnivore wielding razor-sharp claws and able to kill prey several times its size, is tough enough to stand up to grizzly bears and most other non-human predators, but woefully unequipped to battle climate change.

Only 250 to 300 wolverines survive in the contiguous United States, victims of a steady rise in temperatures melting their snowy habitats, along with centuries of uninhibited targeting by fur trappers. The animal relies on deep mountain snows to burrow dens and raise their young, and faces a declining range of environments where this is possible.

Now, federal wildlife officials are proposing to protect wolverines living in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act. The move was denied twice under the Bush administration and delayed by the Obama administration in 2010, assigning a higher priority to other endangered species.

The hardy carnivores persist in tiny isolated groups in the Western United States, concentrated in the Cascades and Northern Rockies of Washington, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Some of the wolverines’ habitats are expected to disappear entirely in the coming decades, including the increasingly warm interior of Idaho. Larger populations of the animal in Canada and Alaska appear to be stable and will not be subject to the new regulations.

Under the guidelines of the Endangered Species Act, trapping wolverines for their valuable fur will likely become illegal outside of Alaska. Montana is the only lower-48 state that still allows an annual trapping quota of 5 wolverines, though this year’s season was blocked by a state court order. According to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim, the state will review the federal proposal and had not yet settled on a response.

Other activities like snowmobiling, harvesting timber, and constructing ski resorts will continue without federal interference, since officials do not see significant evidence that such actions threaten the animals. Also notably absent from the federal response is any measure to curb planet-warming pollution, restrictions which wildlife advocates and environmentalists have been pursuing for years. In Friday’s proposal the Obama administration clarified that “listing the animal as threatened will not regulate greenhouse gas emissions.”

Many advocates see an unavoidable link between protecting species and addressing climate change, and do not think the administration should be exempting greenhouse gas emissions from the Endangered Species Act. Legal experts, however, do not foresee any change in the administration’s stance on regulating emissions in the near future.

The administration is not in denial about climate change, something Obama made clear with an explicit mention in his recent inaugural address. The proposed rule itself acknowledges the problem, reading, “Extensive climate modeling indicates that the wolverine’s snowpack habitat will be greatly reduced and fragmented in the coming years due to climate warming, thereby threatening the species with extinction.”

There may still be an opportunity to reinvigorate wolverine populations in their ancestral U.S. habitats. Federal officials mentioned certain measures under consideration, including a facilitated reintroduction of the species to the high mountains of Colorado. Wolverines once roamed throughout the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada range of California, but were virtually wiped out in the 1930s by unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns. Now only one male wolverine lives in the state of Colorado, a solitary beast that migrated over 500 miles from Wyoming’s Teton Range.

According to Bob Inman, a wolverine researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the high mountains of Colorado have enough territory to support at least 100 more of the animals. Such a boost would represent an estimated 30 percent increase in the species’ population. Former wolverine habitats in Utah, Oregon’s Cascade Range, Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, could also serve as future refuges.

The new federal protection was prompted by a lawsuit from the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, along with Defenders of Wildlife, which have been pursuing the legislation for over a decade. Wildlife advocates and naturalists throughout the country, fascinated by the animal’s unique biological mechanisms, received the news with enthusiasm. The wolverine’s singular evolutionary adaptations include an extra coat for insulation and supercharged thyroid capable of boosting metabolism during extreme cold temperatures, and powerful jaws capable of chomping through the frozen bones of their prey.

Whether more long-term policy solutions are proposed to combat the creeping effects of climate change, which pose risks to a wide variety of species across the country, the addition of the wolverine to the list of U.S. Endangered Species provides some welcome protection to the powerful and distinctive animal, and another small victory for wildlife advocates.