Rare mammal on the brink of extinction
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering endangered species status for wolverines, the rare animals can still be trapped legally in Montana — but that may soon change, as a coalition of environmental groups has petitioned the state’s game agency to put a stop to the practice.
Montana is the only state where it’s still legal to capture wolverines, the largest animal in the weasel family. Wolverines are well adapted to rugged and snowy backcountry, often denning in remote avalanche chutes. Their large, crampon-clawed feet are designed for digging, climbing, and walking on snow, and they may face extinction because of global warming.
“Authorizing the trapping of wolverines under these circumstances is making a bad situation worse,” said Matthew Bishop, a Montana-based attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, who is representing the petitioners. “Wolverines are the polar bear of the Lower 48 and need all the help they can get right now in the face of a warming planet, shrinking habitat, and increased isolation. Montana shouldn’t be kicking them when they’re down,” Bishop said.
Biologists estimate the wolverine population in the Lower 48 could be down to no about than 250-300 individuals. Montana has the highest concentration of wolverine in the Lower 48, but still only about 100-175 individuals. A substantial number of the remaining wolverines in Montana are likely unsuccessful breeders or non-breeding subadults. This means Montana’s “effective population” of individuals who are able to breed is significantly smaller, perhaps less than 40, according to some estimates.
The USFWS has already determined that the small and vulnerable population of wolverine in the lower 48 will continue to decline in the face of climate change, which is causing a reduction in suitable wolverine habitat in Montana (wolverine depend on late spring snow and cold temperatures).
“Authorizing the trapping of wolverines under these circumstances is making a bad situation worse,” said Matthew Bishop, a local attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, who is representing the petitioners. “Wolverines are the polar bear of the Lower 48 and need all the help they can get right now in the face of a warming planet, shrinking habitat, and increased isolation. Montana shouldn’t be kicking them when they’re down,” added Bishop.
Trapping is a major source of wolverine mortality in Montana and has had significant negative effects on wolverine inhabiting Montana’s small, isolated island ranges. In one study, of the 14 wolverines tracked in the Pioneer Mountains during a three-year period, 6 were killed in traps, including 4 adult males and two pregnant females. As a result of trapping, the wolverine population in the Pioneers was reduced by an estimated 50%. In another study of wolverine on the Flathead National Forest, trapping killed five times more wolverine than natural causes in a population that can ill afford it, killing nearly two-thirds of the wolverines being studied in just five years.
“We’re lucky to see wolverine on rare occasions here in the Swan Range of Northwest Montana, where they were first studied back in the 1970s,” said Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition. “Trapping must stop if these rare and wonderful animals are to return from the brink of extinction,” he said.
The groups want the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission to close the wolverine trapping season now, before the 2012 trapping season begins on December 1, 2012, and to not reopen it until wolverine populations have recovered enough to no longer need protection of the Endangered Species Act.
“This is the right thing to do – morally, scientifically, socially, and ecologically – for the future of wolverine and the future of trapping in Montana,” said Gary Ingman, a board member of the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, a local sportsmen’s group and petitioner. “The biological models show that the current population levels simply are not self-sustaining,” Ingman said.
The following organizations and individual joined WELC’s petition: Friends of the Wild Swan, Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, Montana Ecosystem Defense, Native Ecosystems Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Swan View Coalition, WildEarth Guardians, Footloose Montana, and George Wuerthner.