A coalition of environmental groups—including the Idaho Conservation League—filed suit against U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services on Monday, arguing that the agency’s Oct. 8 decision to deny long-sought protections to the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act heralds grim consequences for the mountain-dwelling mammal.
The lawsuit contends that wolverines could face accelerated habitat loss and potential extinction in the continental U.S. without a “threatened” or “endangered” listing to unlock further recovery efforts.
Fewer than 300 wolverines live in Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming today, according to a Monday statement from Earthjustice, the environmental nonprofit representing the ICL and nine other conservation groups in the suit.
Found in high, remote terrain, the North American wolverine—also known as the “skunk bear” or “carcajou”—is a solitary carnivore that requires a particularly large territory of up to 300 square miles. Some key threats to the animal in Idaho include commercial and residential development—such as new ski resorts—and motorized recreation, with recent studies showing that heli-skiing and snowmobiling can push wolverines out of their territories.
Current research also suggests that earlier-in-the-season snowmelt periods could lead to the wolverine’s extirpation from Idaho and the contiguous 48 states. That’s because the animals depend on deep, lasting snowpack starting around February, when females build dens in the snow to raise their young. For successful rearing, the snow shelters need to hold up through May.
“Scientists estimate that 78 percent of wolverine habitat will be lost by the end of the century unless steps are taken to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming,” Idaho Conservation League spokesman Brad Smith wrote in a previous email to the Idaho Mountain Express.
Smith wrote in Monday’s press release that he was “heartbroken” when Idaho’s last remaining mountain caribou herd went extinct in 2019.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service must act soon to ensure that Idaho’s wolverines do not share the same fate,” he stated.
In 2016, District Court of Montana Judge Dana Christensen ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service had violated the Endangered Species Act by withdrawing its 2013 proposal to list the wolverine as threatened, writing that its susceptibility to climate change “cannot really be questioned.”
Agency officials maintained then—as today—that wolverines are not threatened by climate change in the lower 48 states. That assertion is based on a status assessment of the wolverine that Fish and Wildlife completed in 2018, which argues that snowpack in high elevations should remain consistent over the next few decades.
“If wolverines need snow, we think that there’s going to be enough snow out there for them,” said Jodi Bush, Fish and Montana project leader with FWS, in an earlier statement.
Environmental attorneys Amanda Galvan of Earthjustice and Katie Bilodeau of Idaho-based Friends of the Clearwater expressed strong disagreement Monday.
“The wolverine is a famously tough creature that doesn’t back down from anything, but even the
wolverine can’t overcome climate change by itself,” Galvan stated.
“It’s hard not to initiate this round of litigation without a certain level of indignation towards our government,” Bilodeau said. “Yet here we are again, one entire generation later, with the wolverine’s future bleaker than ever. Our window of opportunity to save the wolverine is closing.”