The North American wolverine will receive long-delayed threatened species protections under a Biden administration proposal released Wednesday in response to scientists warning that climate change will likely melt away the rare species' snowy mountain refuges and push them toward extinction. Across most of the US, wolverines were wiped out by the early 1900s from unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns. The animals resemble small bears and are the world's largest species of terrestrial weasels. Sometimes called "mountain devils," they thrive in harsh alpine environments: About 300 surviving animals in the contiguous US live in fragmented, isolated groups at high elevations in the northern Rocky Mountains.
In the coming decades, warming temperatures are expected to shrink the mountain snowpack wolverines rely on to dig dens where they birth and raise their young. The decision Wednesday by the US Fish and Wildlife Service follows more than two decades of disputes over the risks of climate change and threats to the long-term survival of the elusive species. Protections under the Endangered Species Act were rejected under former President Trump. A federal judge in 2022 ordered the administration of President Biden to make a final decision this week on whether to seek protections, reports the AP.
Republican lawmakers in Montana had urged the administration to delay its decision, claiming the scientists' estimates were too inaccurate to make a fair call about the dangers faced by wolverines. The lawmakers, led by hard-right conservative Rep. Matt Rosendale, warned that protections could lead to future restrictions on activities allowed in wolverine habitats, including snowmobiling and skiing. Rosendale said Wednesday he would seek to revoke threatened species status for wolverines at the earliest chance if it's finalized. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said in documents released Wednesday that they were "not concerned" about the effects of existing developments such as ski resorts since wolverines likely already avoid those areas.
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But winter recreation could hurt wolverines in the future, they said, as activities like backcountry skiing and snowmobiling have become more popular in some areas. The scientists added that some of those losses could be offset if wolverines are able to recolonize areas such as California's Sierra Nevada and Colorado's Rocky Mountains. Wolverine populations live in remote areas of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington state. The Washington Post reports there are healthy wolverine populations in Alaska; the new protections will only apply to wolverine in the Lower 48. (The AP has much more here.)