Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Federal protection sought for wolverines

As few as 500 of the elusive predators may exist in the lower 48 states

Express Staff Writer

Conservationists say wolverines are at risk from climate change, because they depend on areas that maintain deep snowpacks from February through early May, when the pregnant females dig dens to give birth. Shown here is a wolverine "kit." Photo by Mountain Express

Wolverines living in the lower 48 states, including a local population documented in the Smoky Mountains west of Ketchum, are endangered and deserve federal protection, a coalition of conservation groups contends.

Last week, 10 organizations filed suit in U.S. District Court in Missoula to require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider an earlier decision that denied protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. They say the agency's decision in March was a case of politics' trumping scientific findings. As few as 500 of the elusive predators may still exist in the lower 48 states, they say.

In a press release, the groups claimed that documents they obtained through the Freedom of Information Act indicate officials in the upper echelons of the Interior Department overruled regional Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who determined that wolverines are "warranted" for protection under the ESA, in part because of the impacts of climate change.

They contended the Bush administration wanted to prevent a second listing under the ESA related to climate change. In May, the administration listed the polar bear as threatened, largely due to the loss of Arctic sea ice.

The conservationists said wolverines are also at direct risk from climate change, because they depend on areas that maintain deep snowpacks from February through early May. That is when the pregnant females dig their dens to give birth and raise their young.

The groups noted that snowpacks are already in decline in the western U.S. mountains, a trend they said is predicted to worsen. Trapping, human disturbance and fragmentation of their habitat also threatens wolverine populations, they said.

"The wolverine is facing serious threats to its survival in the lower 48 states, yet the Bush administration made a political decision not to protect this species," said attorney Tim Preso of Earthjustice, which is representing the groups in the lawsuit.

Wolverines once roamed across the northern tier of the U.S. and as far south as New Mexico and southern California. Conservationists say the wolverine is now reduced to small, fragmented populations in Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming. According to the groups, wolverines in the lower 48 states represent a distinct population that is only tenuously linked to the Canadian population and are in desperate need of habitat and other protections.

Wolverines are rare, wide-ranging members of the weasel family associated with remote alpine areas.

The wolverine's preference for remote forests and high-mountain cirques makes the Smoky, Sawtooth, Boulder and White Cloud mountains some of the species' best habitat in Idaho. Conservationists first petitioned to have wolverines listed nearly a decade ago.

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