MT Groups Petition Montana to Halt Trapping of Rare Wolverine

Photographer Chad Harder captured these images of a rare wolverine running across a snowfield on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest earlier this summer.

The Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of eight local conservation groups and one individual, submitted a formal petition Tuesday to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission (“MFWP”) to halt the trapping of wolverine in Montana – the only state in the contiguous U.S. that still allows the imperiled animal to be trapped.

Wolverines resemble a small bear that is custom built for high-elevation, mountain living.  They have large, crampon-clawed feet designed for digging, climbing, and walking on snow, and an extremely high metabolic rate. Its double fur coat includes a dense inner layer of wool beneath a cover of frost-shedding guard hairs and is the reason trappers target the animal.

Once prolific across the West, the wolverine population in the Lower 48 is now down to no more than 250-300 individuals. Montana has the highest concentration of wolverine in the Lower 48, but still only about 100-175 individuals.  A substantial number of the remaining wolverines in Montana are likely unsuccessful breeders or non-breeding subadults.  This means Montana’s “effective population” of individuals who are able to breed is significantly smaller, perhaps less than 40.

So rare are these native carnivores that in December 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“Service”) designated the wolverine a species that warrants protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, but the level of protection has not yet been determined.  The Service determined that an already small and vulnerable population of wolverine in the lower 48 will continue to decline in the face of climate change, which is causing a reduction in suitable wolverine habitat in Montana (wolverine depend on late spring snow and cold temperatures) and increasing the speed by which isolated populations vanish. Warming temperatures are also increasing the distance, and thus fragmentation, between islands of suitable habitat.

“Authorizing the trapping of wolverines under these circumstances is making a bad situation worse,” said Matthew Bishop, a local attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, who is representing the petitioners. “Wolverines are the polar bear of the Lower 48 and need all the help they can get right now in the face of a warming planet, shrinking habitat, and increased isolation. Montana shouldn’t be kicking them when they’re down,” added Bishop.

Trapping is a major source of wolverine mortality in Montana and has had significant negative effects on wolverine inhabiting Montana’s small, isolated island ranges. In one study, of the 14 wolverines tracked in the Pioneer Mountains during a three-year period, 6 were killed in traps, including 4 adult males and two pregnant females.  As a result of trapping, the wolverine population in the Pioneers was reduced by an estimated 50%.

In another study of wolverine on the Flathead National Forest, trapping killed five times more wolverine than natural causes in a population that can ill afford it, killing nearly two-thirds of the wolverines being studied in just five years.

“We’re lucky to see wolverine on rare occasions here in the Swan Range of Northwest Montana, where they were first studied back in the 1970s,” said Keith Hammer, Chair of petitioner Swan View Coalition. He asserted, “Trapping must stop if these rare and wonderful animals are to return from the brink of extinction.”

Arlene Montgomery, Program Director of petitioner Friends of the Wild Swan, stated, “Trapping adds insult to injury for the wolverine.” She added, “They are already teetering on the brink from climate change and other threats. Trapping them is unnecessary and not sport.”

The petitioners are asking MFWP to close the wolverine trapping season now, before the 2012 trapping season begins on December 1, 2012, and to not reopen it until wolverine populations have recovered enough to no longer need protection of the Endangered Species Act.

“This is the right thing to do – morally, scientifically, socially, and ecologically – for the future of wolverine and the future of trapping in Montana,” said Gary Ingman, a board member of the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, a local sportsmen’s group and petitioner. “The biological models show that the current population levels simply are not self-sustaining,” concluded Ingman.

The following organizations and individual joined WELC’s petition: Friends of the Wild Swan, Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, Montana Ecosystem Defense, Native Ecosystems Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Swan View Coalition, WildEarth Guardians, Footloose Montana, and George Wuerthner.