Wolverines receive protection under Endangered Species Act as climate change threatens their habitat

The North American wolverine has officially been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and will receive long-anticipated federal protections, US officials announced Wednesday, as the climate crisis melts away their snowy mountain habitats.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to list the wolverines as threatened in the contiguous US comes as scientists warn that warming temperatures are rapidly diminishing the mountain snowpack that the species rely on for food, reproduction and ultimate survival.

“Current and increasing impacts of climate change and associated habitat degradation and fragmentation are imperiling the North American wolverine,” Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Regional Director Hugh Morrison said in a statement. “Based on the best available science, this listing determination will help to stem the long-term impact and enhance the viability of wolverines in the contiguous United States.”

Adding wolverines to the list triggers legal protections for the threatened species under various environmental laws, preventing the population from further declining. It also encourages better conservation efforts and more scientific research to better understand the vulnerable species.

The wolverines’ habitat spans vast swaths of North America, from the Northern Rocky Mountains and the North Cascades in the lower 48 states to the boreal forests and tundra regions of Alaska and Canada, where the populations remain relatively healthy.

But these snow-adapted species have been rather elusive in recent years.

Most recently, a rare trio of wolverines were sighted in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains last summer – one in Yosemite National Park and two in the Inyo National Forest. The last time the species had been sighted in the region was between 2008 and 2018, according to scientists, though they have already been listed as threatened species under California’s Endangered Species Act.

Federal scientists in 2018 projected a massive decline in spring snow due to climate change and found that predicted losses in the wolverine population will be much greater in the coming decades. Another study in 2020 found that higher temperatures could affect their ability to store food resources by decreasing the storage life of the cached food and increasing competition from pilferers that are more adapted to warmer climates.

Conservationists and scientists have been calling for federal protections for years now, with some environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity even taking legal action.

Despite the new science and growing calls for federal protections, initial proposals to protect the species were rejected in 2020 under former President Donald Trump. In 2022, a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to reach a final decision on the proposal.

“I’m thrilled that the Fish and Wildlife Service is finally following the science by granting wolverines the federal protections they need to survive and recover,” Andrea Zaccardi, carnivore conservation legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told CNN in an email. “Like so many other species, wolverines waited far too long for federal protections, but I’m overjoyed that they’re finally on the path to recovery.”

Separately, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking public comments on an interim rule that would make exemptions for cases where humans may accidentally harm the species through lawful trapping, research-related activities or forest management activities to reduce wildfire risk.

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