Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — New protections could be in store for one of North America's most elusive mammals after a federal judge gave U.S. wildlife officials 18 months to decide whether wolverines should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The ruling is the latest in a decadeslong effort by environmentalists to get stricter protections for the wolverine. Officials say there are roughly 300 of the animals scattered through remote areas of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Washington.
They're rare, but wolverines have also been spotted in Utah, California, Colorado and Oregon.
The U.S. Endangered Species Act allows groups to petition the government to list species as endangered or threatened — the petitions undergo a lengthy evaluation and public review before the listing is issued.
Once granted, the law directs federal, state, tribal, and local officials to coordinate on habitat protection and develop recovery plans.
Wolverine goes to court
Often denning in high-alpine, snowy areas, environmental groups have long claimed that climate change — in the form of warming temperatures and declining snowpack — poses a threat to wolverine populations.
"Female wolverines tend to den in places with a persistent spring snowpack. And with projection models, and changes in snow cover, a lot of what these petitions are resting on is that in the future, we'll see declines in wolverines," said Kim Hersey, mammal conservation coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife.
That argument was backed by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy on Friday, and runs counter to a Trump-era decision to withhold protections for the animal. For years, wolverines have been the subject of numerous court cases and pleas from environmentalists, who warned the federal government's inaction could lead to the species' extinction.
"They are putting the wolverine on the path to extinction," Andrea Zaccardi with the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Associated Press in 2020.
- In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to grant wolverines protection.
- In 2010, the service proposed protections under the Endangered Species Act, and in 2013 officials determined wolverines were eligible for safeguards under the act.
- In 2014, wildlife officials under the Obama administration reversed course and tried to rescind the proposal, claiming the impact climate change could have on wolverines was not yet clear. That contradicted what many of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's own scientists knew about the climate and wolverines at the time, according to the Associated Press.
- In 2016, a judge rejected the administration's move. "No greater level of certainty is needed to see the writing on the wall for this snow-dependent species squarely in the path of climate change," wrote U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, who ordered officials to act quickly to protect wolverine populations.
- Then in 2020, federal wildlife officials under the Trump administration withdrew proposed protections. Biologists said wolverine populations were expanding and predicted there would be enough snow in their alpine habitats going forward.
- Environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, challenged the decision, which was overruled on Friday on the grounds that climate change does in fact pose a threat to the wolverine's survival.
Are wolverines in Utah?
In March, crews flying in a U.S. Department of Agriculture plane noticed an animal feeding on dead sheep in northern Utah's Rich County.
Officials would later find 18 dead sheep, killed by a wolverine that was then trapped by wildlife biologists. It was the first time a wolverine had ever been captured in Utah.
On March 11, the animal — between three to four years old, weighing 28 pounds and measuring 41 inches long — was released onto public land on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains with a tracking collar.
Hersey, with the Division of Wildlife, says the wolverine went straight into the High Uintas, then reversed course to northern Utah back into Rich County before a software malfunction caused the tracker to stop transmitting.
"We were obviously really bummed," said Hersey. "We had probably half the division checking on it every day and anxiously following what it was doing."
That came on the heels of four confirmed wolverine sightings in 2021, including a video of the elusive animal trotting on the dry lakebed of the Great Salt Lake near Antelope Island. About a month later, doorbell cameras in Layton captured another wolverine running through a suburban neighborhood.
Still, wolverines in Utah are incredibly rare. From 1979 to 2016, there were only four confirmed sightings:
- In March 1979, a wolverine was shot and killed, illegally, northeast of Vernal along the Utah-Colorado border.
- In February 2014, a wolverine was caught on camera at a bait station in the Uinta Mountains.
- In December 2014, wolverine tracks were found in eastern Daggett County.
- In June 2016, a wolverine carcass was found by Utah Department of Transportation officials after it was killed by a vehicle near Bear Lake.
If the species is deemed endangered, little will change with how Utah manages wolverines. The authority will be handed over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, although coordination with state agencies is still required under the law.
Wolverines were nearly wiped out as the fur trade resulted in widespread trapping and poisoning in the early 20th century. The industry's unregulated practices contributed to massive declines in bear, beaver, wolf and wolverine populations.