A Big Win for Wolverines

A Big Win for Wolverines

The following piece was first published in the Planet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Craig Benjamin.

An even bigger win for wildlife management based on science, facts, and data

Wolverines are the ultimate Jackson Hole animal.

Their wide, flat, snowshoe-like feet and frost-resistant fur make them adept at living in high alpine environments. Though they weigh in at less than 40 pounds, and usually hunt snowshoe hares, marmots, and squirrels, they are deceptively ferocious. They have been known to take down elk and moose, and even fight off wolves and bears. A male’s typical territory is comparable to half the size of Rhode Island.

There’s a story of one wolverine that smelled a dead mountain goat carcass under 20 feet of avalanche debris and dug down, through the concrete-packed snow to get to it. Another was tracked climbing 5,000 vertical feet in Glacier National Park in 90 minutes. When mountain climbers attempted to retrace this route, they spent an entire day trying to figure it out before giving up; it was too burly a path for humans. A male was first tracked in Yellowstone headed to the Red Desert where it eventually turned up in Rocky Mountain National Park—500 miles away in Colorado.

Its Latin name is Gulo Gulo, which means gluttonous glutton. It’s also known as the mountain devil, the quickhatch, the carcajou, and the skunk bear. Naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton in the 1920s described wolverines as having, “a personality of unmeasured force, courage and achievement.” A Wyoming Game and Fish Department research biologist recently gave them a one-word description: badass.

The wolverine is the largest land-dwelling member of the weasel family. It once roamed across the Northern tier of the United States, as far south as New Mexico in the Rockies, and into Southern California’s Sierra Nevada range. Unfortunately, their unique pelts made them prized by trappers. Trapping, combined with habitat loss, has reduced the number of wolverines in the continental United States to no more than 300, most living in small, fragmented populations.

The wolverines’ fragile future is inextricably linked to the greatest challenge of our time: climate change.

Like most of us who thrive in Jackson Hole, wolverines depend on snow. They select areas that maintain deep snow through late spring, when pregnant females dig their dens into the snowpack to birth and raise their young. Every one of the 562 verified wolverine den sites in North America and Scandinavia were spotted in snow. Further, 95 percent of worldwide summer wolverine observations, and 89 percent of year-round wolverine observations, fell within areas characterized by persistent spring snowpack.

As a result of climate change caused by our burning of fossil fuels there is less snow in the Rockies, and researchers forecast that in the coming decades wolverines in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming may disappear with the snowpack altogether. It is anticipated that wolverines’ denning habitat will shrink 63 percent by 2080.

This is why in 2013 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed wolverines receive threatened status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). They explained that “climate warming over the next century is likely to significantly reduce wolverine habitat,” and that without interventions, the wolverine’s survival “is in doubt.”

Then everything went catawampus. Officials in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho vigorously objected to listing wolverines under the ESA. They raised questions about the science, while warning that listing wolverines could have dire economic effects on recreational activities, development, and trapping on large swaths of alpine terrain already locally managed for wolverines in their respective states.

In response to these objections, and to ensure its decision was based on the best available science, FWS convened a nine-person independent panel that looked at the science, facts, and data, and recommended wolverines be listed as threatened.

With this recommendation in hand, FWS inexplicably reversed course and withdrew the proposed listing for wolverines, citing uncertainties about the science. In response, over 20 conservation and wildlife organizations, including the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, filed legal challenges against this decision. We pointed out that FWS disregarded well-established scientific evidence, including the recommendations of its own scientists, in reaching this decision.

Then on April 4, 2016—in a huge victory for wolverines and wildlife management based on science, facts, and data—U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen overturned the FWS decision to not list the wolverine under the ESA. Christensen ordered FWS to reconsider its position, saying the agency had “unlawfully ignored the best available science by dismissing the threat to the wolverine” due to “immense political pressure.”

Christensen described the wolverine as a “snow-dependent species standing squarely in the path of global climate change,” and that, “if there is one thing required of the service under the ESA, it is to take action at the earliest possible, defensible point in time to protect against the loss of biodiversity within our reach as a nation. For the wolverine, that time is now.”

This is about more than protecting a “badass” animal, or managing wildlife based on science, facts, and data instead of political pressure. This is about our moral obligation to protect our children, which means preparing for and tackling climate change now.

The science is settled. Climate change is happening, we are causing it, and it is already having devastating consequences like monster wildfires, super storms and historic droughts. Instead of ignoring science and sticking our heads in the sand, let’s fight ferociously (like wolverines) for a better future where we’ve broken our addiction to fossil fuels.

Let’s take charge of our future and show the millions of people who visit our home every year that if cold, isolated, fossil fuel-dependent Jackson Hole can live in balance with nature, the rest of the world can do it, too. If a wolverine can dig through 20 feet of snow for a meal, and climb 5,000 vertical feet in 90 minutes, then anything is possible.

You can have your honey badger. In Jackson Hole, we’ll take the wolverine. PJH

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Email comments to editor@planetjh.com.

Phone: (307) 733-9417
685 S. Cache St. PO Box 2728
Jackson, Wyoming 83001