A rarely spotted Idaho animal could see protections under the Endangered Species Act after a Montana court ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reevaluate the species’ status.
Wolverines, the largest member of the mustelid family that includes animals such as weasels and otters, have been the subject of conservation debate in Idaho and neighboring states for more than a decade. Experts estimate there are only a few hundred wolverines in the contiguous United States, but their vast habitats and secretive nature make them difficult to study.
Since the early 2000s, environmental groups have been in a tug-of-war with Fish and Wildlife to list wolverines in the Lower 48 states as an endangered species. The animals are widespread in Alaska and Canada, but conservation groups say their populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are threatened by habitat loss, isolation, trapping and climate change, among other factors.
In 2020, Fish and Wildlife walked back plans from 2013 to list wolverines as a “threatened” species. In response, a cadre of environmental groups, including the Idaho Conservation League, filed a complaint alleging that the federal agency “sidestepped its legal obligation” to protect wolverines.
On Thursday, Judge Donald W. Molloy, a U.S. District Court judge for the District of Montana, vacated the 2020 decision and ordered Fish and Wildlife to submit a new final decision on wolverines within 18 months. Conservation groups applauded the decision Friday, calling it a victory for the species.
Brad Smith, North Idaho director for the Idaho Conservation League, told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview that the “roller coaster of litigation” around listing wolverines has gone on far too long.
“It’s time to take action,” Smith said. “In my time working in conservation in Idaho, I’ve watched us lose our last caribou in the Lower 48. It would be tragic if we saw wolverines lost in the same way.”
Wolverines in Idaho
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has recorded only seven reported wolverine sightings this year, none of which are confirmed. The most recent reports were in the mountains near Stanley and McCall.
The species typically lives in rugged, mountainous terrain, which means their encounters with humans are few and far between. It’s not clear how many wolverines are in Idaho due to their shy behavior and wide-ranging habitats. According to the 2020 complaint, studies have shown male wolverines in Idaho can have massive territories that are, on average, about 587 square miles. Females have smaller territory ranges — about 150 square miles.
Idaho Fish and Game ranks the species in its category of most concern, which it says is reserved for “critically imperiled” species. Fish and Game spokesperson Roger Phillips told the Statesman in March that listing is a result of the small number of wolverines in Idaho, as well as the highly specialized environment they need to survive.
Female wolverines den and raise their kits in snow, and the animals need snowpack as part of their habitat. Smith said declining snowpack is likely to force wolverines into closer proximity and create more conflicts with humans.
“Studies in Central Idaho show that wolverines will avoid places with high levels of winter recreation,” Smith said. “As wolverines and winter recreationists compete for these shrinking areas, (it creates conflict).”
Endangered species protections
Conservation groups said Friday that wolverines will receive some protections as a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act, though it’s not clear what those would be. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says candidate species “receive no statutory protection” under the act, though the agency urges “cooperative conservation efforts” for them.
If wolverines are listed under the Endangered Species Act, the animals’ habitat will be protected, and it will prohibit people from harming or killing them. Importantly, Smith said, it means officials must create a recovery plan to help wolverines thrive.
In 2013, Fish and Wildlife agreed to list wolverines as “threatened” — a less dire distinction than “endangered,” though still warranting protection and recovery initiatives. Conservation groups say wolverine populations have continued to decline since then, though it’s not clear which category the animals would qualify for if they are listed.