The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday it is adding wolverines in the Lower 48 to the list of species threatened with extinction. As temperatures rise, the voracious carnivore will lose much of the deep mountain snow it needs to dig its dens and protect its young during colder months, officials say.
The decision puts an end — at least for now — to a legal battle dating back to the 1990s over the fate of the bushy-tailed, round-eared creature in the contiguous United States. It also touches on the debate over how people should live alongside animals and how much power the federal government should have to protect all sorts of species.
“It’s unfortunate that it has taken this long,” said Andrea Zaccardi, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group that petitioned to protect the animal. “There’s really no excuse for it.”
Once ranging from Maine through the Great Lakes to Washington state, the wolverine was nearly wiped out in the Lower 48 a century ago as farmers put out poison to protect livestock and as hunters depleted its prey, according to Jeff Copeland, a biologist and director at the nonprofit Wolverine Foundation.
The population has crept back up to around 300 in the northern portions of the Rocky and Cascade mountains, though robust populations persist throughout Canada and Alaska as well as in Russia and Scandinavia.
‘A dangerous combination of ferocity and curiosity’
With large paws for trudging through snow and sharp teeth for biting frozen meat, wolverines consume just about anything they get their claws on — porcupines, beavers, rabbits and even the occasional moose. The wolverine has such a reputation for eating that it goes by the nickname “glutton.”
Though it looks a bit like a bear, the wolverine is actually part of the weasel family. “They are a dangerous combination of ferocity and curiosity,” Copeland said.
Wolverines often live high in the mountains, away from people. But as temperatures go up because of human-caused climate change, wolverines will lose much of that secluded, snowy habitat, with nearly a quarter of it gone over the next 30 years and nearly two-thirds of it over the next 75 years, according to the wildlife agency.
“As global warming starts to move the snow line up the mountain, it begins to expose some of these wolverine dens,” Copeland said.
Among other pressures on wolverines are skiers and snowmobilers encroaching into their Alpine territory as well as an overall lack of genetic diversity. “It’s one of the things I’ve always admired most about it,” he added. “It lives in these incredible rugged habitats.”
The question of whether the wolverine should be protected under the Endangered Species Act has gone back and forth between the agency and federal court system for years.
In 2013, the Obama administration proposed protecting the species in the Lower 48, but decided against going through with the protections the following year over uncertainty about the impact of climate change. After the Trump administration withdrew the proposed listing in 2020, environmentalists sued and a federal district court sent the decision back to the Fish and Wildlife Service for reevaluation.
Farmers and snowmobilers resisted past efforts to protect wolverines over concerns about the way the protections would restrict the way people can use land. Opponents noted that the species is doing fine north of the Canadian border.
Charles Yates, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm, said the government lacks the legal authority to split the Northern American population and protect only those wolverines in the Lower 48.
“Generally speaking, when a species is listed,” said Yates, “all manner of restrictions on ordinary land use” come into effect.