By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) - The North American wolverine, a fierce mountain predator closely related to badgers and skunks, gained U.S. protection as a threatened species on Wednesday under a Biden administration policy citing threats to the animal's snowy habitat from climate change.
The listing under the Endangered Species Act reverses a 2020 Trump administration determination that such a classification was unwarranted, leading to a federal court ruling in Montana last year requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider.
The agency under the Obama administration first proposed listing wolverines for protection in 2013.
The final rule issued by Fish and Wildlife on Wednesday classifies the reclusive animal as threatened in the contiguous United States, where only about 300 are believed to roam the high country of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington state.
A wolverine walks across the snow in a 2009 photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The North American wolverine, a fierce mountain predator closely related to badgers and skunks, gained U.S. protection as a threatened species on Wednesday under a Biden administration policy citing threats to the animal's snowy habitat from climate change. Steve Kroschel/USFWS via REUTERS
The designation does not apply in Alaska or Canada, where wolverines number in the thousands.
Viable populations once roamed expansive tracts of the northern Cascades, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada before widespread trapping and poisoning severely diminished their numbers and range.
In listing them for protection, government biologists warned that the few isolated populations remaining in the Rockies and Cascades were being pushed toward extinction primarily due to rising temperatures and declining snowpack that has increasingly fragmented wolverines' mountain habitat.
Environmental groups, which originally petitioned the government to list wolverines as threatened in 1994, hailed Wednesday's move as long overdue.
"This long-awaited decision gives the wolverine a fighting chance at survival," Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso said in a statement.
The wolverine is the largest land-dwelling species in the mammal family called Mustelidae, making it a close cousin of weasels, ferrets, skunks and badgers.
A muscular and solitary carnivore resembling small bears with bushy tails, the wolverine is known as a ferocious predator capable of taking down prey many times its own size, while also feeding on anything from birds to berries.
The creatures build their dens, reproduce and store food in high-elevation areas of deep snow. Fish and Wildlife biologists cited new science showing that backcountry winter recreation and human disturbance is likely to increasingly infringe on wolverine habitat as snow cover continues to dwindle.
New research also found that large highways in southern British Columbia appear to be restricting dispersal of female wolverines from Canada into the U.S., undermining genetic diversity, according to the agency.
Regulated trapping in southern Canada for wolverines, prized for their pelts, may have impaired their populations more than previously thought as well, the agency said.
Wolverines may cover more than a dozen miles (19 km) a day across rugged terrain in search of food, believed to be the main factor driving their movements and explaining the vastness of their natural home range, according to experts.
The Endangered Species Act generally outlaws killing or harming animals classified as threatened or endangered without a special permit.
But the wolverine listing makes exceptions on an interim basis for mortality caused by "incidental trapping," research activities or forest management designed to reduce wildfire risks.
As implemented, the wolverine listing gives the government one year to designate critical habitat where commercial activities will be restricted to further the animal's recovery.
Noah Greenwald, an endangered species program director for the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity, said the final listing marks an improvement over the original 2013 proposal, which would have allowed for broader exceptions and had ruled out critical habitat protections as climate change was considered the species' overriding threat.
Thumbnail courtesy of Getty Images-1250295925.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)