Wolverine on hill (photo courtesy of Kalon Baughan).

Press Release: Wolverines listed as “threatened” under Endangered Species Act after 20-year conservation effort

November 29, 2023

Bethany Cotton, Cascadia Wildlands, 503-327-4923, bethany@cascwild.org
Matthew Bishop, Western Environmental Law Center, 406-422-9866, bishop@westernlaw.org
Larry Campbell, Friends of the Bitterroot, 406-821-3110, lcampbell@bitterroot.net
Keith Hammer, Swan View Coalition, 406-253-6536, keith@swanview.org
Lindsay Larris, WildEarth Guardians, 720-468-0842, llarris@wildearthguardians.org
Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, 406-459-5936, wildrockies@gmail.com

Today, after more than 20 years of advocacy by wildlife conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) found that wolverines warrant federal protections as a threatened species. Numbering only about 300 in the contiguous U.S., snow-dependent wolverine populations have suffered from climate change, habitat loss, trapping, and other anthropogenic pressures.

The Service prepared a mostly strong, interim Endangered Species Act 4(d) rule, which serves as a road map for the agency to aid in wolverine recovery and grants specific protections and exceptions for the species. The agency will also prepare a wolverine recovery plan and identify protected critical habitat in the future, and may prepare a plan for reintroduction into Colorado as well. Wildlife groups do have concerns about language in that rule allowing incidental wolverine “take” from trapping “conducted in a manner that uses best practices to minimize the potential for capture and mortality of wolverines.” This coalition isn’t sure this is possible for wolverines because they are scavengers and known as “trap junkies.” This coalition of groups will  thus provide feedback on this and other provisions in the interim 4(d) rule during the comment period.

Wildlife conservation groups have twice successfully challenged the Service in federal court for relying on flawed science to deny wolverines Endangered Species Act protections. The court most recently ordered the Service to make a new decision by Nov. 30, 2023, resulting in today’s threatened listing determination.

“I’m glad the Fish and Wildlife Service finally ignored the misplaced policy concerns raised by states like Idaho, Wyoming, and even Montana over the last decade, and made a listing decision based solely on the best available science,” said Matthew Bishop, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Wolverines can’t wait another year or two for the long-overdue protections they deserve. That said, we are concerned about  the allowances for trapping in wolverine habitat, and we will be taking a closer look at that. We doubt it’s possible to trap without the risk of take. Wolverines—a crucial species for many ecosystems throughout the western U.S.—deserve the fullest protections possible. Given the small population and climate change quickly shrinking the snowy habitat wolverines rely on to survive, time is of the essence.”

“The science and the law could not be more clear: Wolverines deserve Endangered Species Act protections,” said Bethany Cotton, conservation director with Cascadia Wildlands. “We are gratified that at long last, the Fish and Wildlife Service did its job by following the science and affording this iconic climate-impacted species essential safeguards.”

Attorneys from the Western Environmental Law Center represented WildEarth Guardians, Cascadia Wildlands, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, Footloose Montana, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Wild Swan, George Wuerthner, Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, Native Ecosystems Council, Oregon Wild, Wildlands Network, and the Swan View Coalition on previous litigation.

The groups involved in the court victories leading to this decision will engage in the Service’s process to ensure wolverines benefit from the full protections under the law and make a strong recovery.

“The wolverine has been clawing for survival for far too long,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director with WildEarth Guardians. “This decision is the first step towards the path for the wolverine to recover and reclaim their status as an icon of the Rocky Mountain West.” 

“We appreciate that the Fish and Wildlife Service 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.”

“In the face of climate change, along with greater recreational use of wolverine high-elevation winter habitat, the wolverine deserves immediate listing under the Endangered Species Act,” said ecologist George Wuerthner.

“This decision is huge for Helena Hunters and Anglers Association,” said board member Gary Ingman. “Wolverine are an icon of wilderness and an indicator species of secure wildlife habitat, with benefits to many other species. We have supported this effort from the beginning, recognizing the declining status of wolverine in Montana and the west, starting with our group’s petition to halt wolverine trapping in Montana in 2012. We’ve spent countless hours as volunteers conducting winter surveys of tracks, collecting hair and scat samples for DNA analysis, and coordinating with other researchers to document wolverine status. We’ve worked hard lobbying for protection of wolverine habitat in forest plans and through travel management on public lands. It’s gratifying to see the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledge the need for additional protection for wolverine in this uncertain and rapidly changing time.”

“Listing wolverine has been as elusive as the animal,” said Larry Campbell of Friends of the Bitterroot. “Thanks to the stamina and focus of citizen conservationists over many years it appears to be finally materializing before it’s too late.”

“A wolverine was recently found dead and skinned on a closed Forest Service road on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and I found a dead wolverine on a closed Forest Service road on the Flathead National Forest in 2021,” said Keith Hammer, Chair of the Swan View Coalition. “Wolverine need these Endangered Species Act protections to get more effective road closures and habitat security from the Forest Service and other land management agencies.”

Wolverine in the High Country
Wolverine behind tree
Wolverine on hill
Wolverine in Montana
Wolverine – The Survivor

Quote from judge’s order in 2016 decision:
“[T]he Service’s decision against listing the wolverine as threatened under the ESA is arbitrary and capricious. No greater level of certainty is needed to see the writing on the wall for this snow-dependent species standing squarely in the path of global climate change. It has taken us twenty years to get to this point. It is the [Court’s] view that if there is one thing required of the Service under the ESA, it is to take action at the earliest possible, defensible point in time to protect against the loss of biodiversity within our reach as a nation. For the wolverine, that time is now.” Opinion at page 83.

Wolverines number only about 300 individuals in the contiguous U.S. and are dependent on areas that retain persistent snow into the spring months. Every wolverine den ever detected in the lower 48 States was in snow. Wolverines are built for cold, snowy environments. They wear a double-fur coat and have large snowshoe-like paws with the crampon claws that allow them to travel easily over snow and mountainous terrain. One study found 98% of all wolverine den sites in places with persistent late spring snowpack.

Imperiled by climate change, habitat loss, small population size and trapping, wolverines were first petitioned for Endangered Species Act protections in 2000. The Service found the petition did not contain adequate information to justify a listing. A federal court overturned that decision in 2006. The Service then issued a negative 12-month finding in 2008, which many of the groups on this statement challenged in court, resulting in a settlement that led to a new finding that wolverines should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, but that other priorities precluded the listing at that time. A landmark settlement which resolved the backlog of imperiled species awaiting protections then guaranteed a new finding for wolverines. In February 2013, the Service proposed listing the wolverine as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In August 2014, however, the Service reversed course and issued a decision not to list the species, contradicting its own expert scientists’ recommendations. In April, 2016 the court overturned the Service’s decision not to list, reinstating wolverines’ status as a candidate species and requiring a new final rule. That court correctly noted that the Endangered Species Act directs the Service to make listing decisions based on the best available science, not the best possible science. In October 2020, the Service again decided not to list. A federal court rejected that decision in 2022, requiring the service to make a new determination by Nov. 30, 2023.