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American wolverine

Daily Camera, March 16, 2013

Timid steps won't recover wolverines in Colorado or anywhere
By Noah Greenwald

The recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposal to protect wolverines as a threatened species will encourage the secretive high-mountain predator's reintroduction to Colorado and protect their highly fragmented populations across Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

The questions is, amid 21st century climate realities, will 20th century-style protections be near enough to make any long-term difference?

With a heightened sense of smell that allows them to sniff out carrion buried beneath several feet of snow, massive climbing-friendly paws armed with semi-retractable claws and powerful jaws able to rip apart frozen carcasses, wolverines are among nature's most gifted survivalists.

Yet, for all their ferocity, the last remaining 250 to 300 wolverines that live in the wild in the lower 48 can't defend themselves against global warming, which is robbing them of the deep mountain snows they need to survive.

It's entirely possible that within this century wolverines - which once roamed mountains from Colorado to the Sierra Nevada in California and north through Washington and Montana - could be gone in the conterminous United States.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision last month to propose long-overdue Endangered Species Act protection for these reclusive mammals is an important step that would provide an immediate safety net.

As proposed, recognition as a threatened species will provide opportunities for the wolverine's return to Colorado and likely put an end to plans by the state of Montana to allow wolverine trapping. But the protections stop there.

Activities such as snowmobiling and development of roads and ski areas are specifically excluded from the prohibitions of the Endangered Species Act despite their likely impacts on the wolverine.

Federal scientists say that wolverines need persistent, deep spring snowpack of at least five feet for denning -and that warming temperatures are putting those snow-bound homes in jeopardy. In fact, they say, climate--caused habitat destruction is the single greatest threat to wolverines.

But just as was the case when Endangered Species Act protections were extended to polar bears in 2008, federal wildlife managers declared that protections extended to the wolverine would preclude the regulation of greenhouse gas pollution, the leading driver of rising global temperatures.

Our own short history of environmental regulation shows us that whenever we demonstrate the discipline to do that, we accomplish remarkable things. And many of the tools needed for the job are right there in the Endangered Species Act.

This year marks the 40th birthday of the Act, which has consistently demonstrated an unparalleled ability to protect and recover our most imperiled plants and animals: To date, a full 99 percent of the more than 1,400 species placed under the Act's care have been saved from extinction. And a study last year of more than 100 of those species shows the great majority are on the road to recovery.

But the Act only works when we follow what science tells us needs to be done.

The bald eagle wouldn't be America's greatest recovery story had we been unwilling not only to protect the national bird, but to ban DDT and other pesticides that had turned many of our waterways into life-killing chemical soups.

We can save wolverines too but not if we don't address what's truly putting them in danger. They are fierce fighters known to take on bears and capable of preying on moose and caribou many times their size. But it's been us humans who have hemmed these solitary predators into smaller and smaller stretches of habitat. And now climate change may push them over the edge.

Yes, the Fish and Wildlife Service deserves credit for taking the first step toward protections that will encourage conservation programs and prohibit trapping.

But it's only buying us a little time.

Meanwhile, the snowpack will continue to shrink. And the clock will continue to tick, for all of us.

Noah Greenwald is an ecologist at the Center for Biological Diversity where he serves as director of the Endangered Species Program. Email ngreenwald@biologicaldiversity.org

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton