After decades of debates and disputes, the U.S. will designate wolverines as a threatened species, as the animal’s habitat — and survival — shrinks with climate change.
Rising temperatures are reducing the wolverine’s typical snowy mountain habitats, and risk pushing the species’ extinction to the brink again. In the early 20th century wolverines were wiped out by unregulated trapping. Last month, nearly two dozen species from the U.S.‘s endangered list were removed after they were determined to have gone extinct.
The Biden administration’s move follows years of rejections and contentious discussions over whether or not to provide wolverines with federal protections.
Researchers have long been debating over the actual impact of climate change on the species and whether humans should intervene to ensure the survival of the 300 that remain in the U.S. A 2013 proposal to give wolverines federal protection was withdrawn, the Guardian reported, because officials dismissed the threat of the climate crisis when they found that some female wolverines could den in less snow. Discussions of moving the declining populations to mountain refuges in Colorado or California have raised concerns from local skiing and timber industries. A veteran wolverine researcher said it was the job of policy makers, not scientists, to decide if the species should get protections. “And I want them to make their decision based on biology not based on politics,” he said.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was rebuked for doing just that: succumbing to “immense political pressure,” according to a Montana district judge. In a 2016 ruling, the judge ordered the agency to reconsider its decision to rescind protections for wolverines, ruling that they had “unlawfully ignored the best available science by dismissing the threat to the wolverine” because of politics, the Atlantic reported. “The reality is that, in some instances, species conservation is a political issue as much as it is a scientific one,” the judge wrote.
For years, researchers tracked one male, named M56, across the U.S. as he searched for a mate. In 2016, a farm hand — who wasn’t quite sure what M56 was — shot and killed him, after the wolverine wandered onto a ranch in North Dakota. The species is known to be elusive, prompting scientists to attach trackers to wolverines to better understand their nature. The challenges to locating wolverines in the wild means conserving them “has to be a multistate effort at the big landscape level,” Robert Inman, a wolverine conservationist, told The New York Times in 2009.