BILLINGS, Mont. — State officials in the Northern Rockies on Monday lined up against a federal proposal to give new protections to the carnivorous wolverine, as climate change threatens to melt the species' snowy mountain strongholds.
A pending U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal would declare the rare, elusive animal a threatened species across the lower 48 states.
That could end trapping for the ferocious member of the weasel family sometimes called the "mountain devil." And it would pave the way for Colorado to reintroduce wolverines in portions of the southern Rocky Mountains as part of a strategy to bolster their numbers ahead of future declines.
But Montana, Idaho and Wyoming officials insist federal protections aren't necessary for the estimated 250-300 wolverines that live across the West. Despite their uncertain future prospects, state officials said wolverines are doing well now and don't need federal intervention.
"There is no evidence suggesting that wolverines will not adapt sufficiently to diminished late spring snowpack (assuming there is any) to maintain viability," Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead wrote in a Monday letter to federal officials.
Wolverines depend on deep mountain snows, typically in remote mountainous areas, to build dens and raise their young.
Once found throughout the Rocky Mountains and in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range, wolverines were wiped out across most of the U.S. by the 1930s because of unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns.
The population rebounded dramatically during the last century and wolverines are now found in the Northern Rockies, the North Cascades Range of Washington and the Wallowa Range of Oregon. Individual animals also have appeared in California and Colorado. Larger populations persist in Alaska and Canada.
Yet biologists say warming temperatures could shrink the wolverine's mountain habitat in the lower 48 by as much as 60 percent over the next 80 years.
"You have a population that is expanding even as it's at risk. That looks strange to a lot of people," said Shawn Sartorius, lead wolverine biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "But what people miss is listing (a species as threatened or endangered) is about projecting threats in the future."
He said he would not be surprised if other states also came out in opposition to the government proposal as the government works toward a final decision early next year.
In Montana, Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department director Jeff Hagener said Monday there is no imminent threat to wolverines. He accused federal officials of making a decision based on a hypothesis of what might happen instead of using the best available science. And in Idaho, the office of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter questioned how the federal government would help the wolverine in the Rockies if its primary threat is a global issue.
"We just question whether the Endangered Species Act is the proper mechanism through which we can regulate climate change," said Sam Eaton, legal counsel for Idaho's Office of Species Conservation.
Sartorius said his agency used the most up-to-date science it had, and added that there was no intention to use wolverines as leverage to regulate greenhouse gases.
Even if the animals were not listed, Colorado still could move forward on its own with a potential reintroduction program.
The state's timber and ski industries in the past have raised worries about wolverine reintroductions dampening development due to new land-use restrictions. However, officials said the federal proposal would exclude most human activities from new regulations, potentially avoiding a fight between wildlife advocates and business interests.
Any reintroductions in Colorado would require approval from state wildlife commissioners and the Legislature, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said.
Environmentalists want the federal government to act even more aggressively than what's been proposed, by designating wolverines as endangered, which affords more protections than a threatened listing.
Proponents of that view, including a coalition of wildlife advocacy and conservation groups, contend the danger of extinction has been understated.
Matthew Bishop with the Western Environmental Law Center said the government's population estimate masks the fact that only a fraction of the total population of 250-300 wolverines is capable of breeding.
"When you throw in the effects of climate change, which is already occurring and certain to occur in the future, they certainly warrant an endangered listing," he said.