It’s furry, it’s fierce – and it’s served as inspiration for sports mascots in Michigan and beyond.

But now in much of the United States, the wolverine is at risk of disappearing as the climate warms, prompting federal wildlife officials to protect the animal under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday it is adding wolverines in the Lower 48 to the list of species threatened with extinction. As temperatures rise, the voracious carnivore will lose much of the deep mountain snow it needs to dig its dens and protect its young during colder months, officials say.

Wolverine Protections

A male wolverine is seen on a hill in the Helena-Lewis and Clark of western Montana in 2021. Scientists say climate change could harm populations of the elusive animals that live in alpine areas with deep snow. Kalon Baughan via AP

“It’s unfortunate that it has taken this long,” said Andrea Zaccardi, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group that petitioned to protect the animal. “There’s really no excuse for it.”

The decision puts an end – at least for now – to a legal battle dating back to the 1990s over the fate of the bushy-tailed, round-eared creature in the contiguous United States. It also touches on the debate over how people should live alongside animals and how much power the federal government should have to protect all sorts of species, with some Republicans in Western states already concerned about federal officials taking decision-making away from states.

“Once again, the Biden administration is trying to control Montana and I won’t stand for it,” Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., who led the Interior Department under President Donald Trump, said earlier this month as the agency prepared to announce its decision.


Once ranging from Maine through the Great Lakes to Washington state, the wolverine was nearly wiped out in the Lower 48 a century ago as farmers put out poison to protect livestock and as hunters depleted its prey, according to Jeff Copeland, a biologist and director at the nonprofit Wolverine Foundation.

The population has crept back up to around 300 in the northern portions of the Rocky and Cascade mountains, though robust populations persist throughout Canada and Alaska as well as in Russia and Scandinavia.

The final rule from Fish and Wildlife makes it illegal to harm or collect wolverines in the wild in the contiguous United States. But in an interim rule also issued Wednesday, the agency made exceptions for researchers studying the animal as well those who unintentionally kill a wolverine while legally trapping for other animals or managing forests to reduce the risk of wildfires.

With large paws for trudging through snow and sharp teeth for biting frozen meat, wolverines consume just about anything they get their claws on – porcupines, beavers, rabbits and even the occasional moose. The wolverine has such a reputation for eating that it goes by the nickname “glutton.”

Though it looks a bit like a bear, the wolverine is actually part of the weasel family. “They are a dangerous combination of ferocity and curiosity,” Copeland said.

Wolverines often live high in the mountains, away from people. But as temperatures go up because of human-caused climate change, wolverines will lose much of that secluded, snowy habitat, with nearly a quarter of it gone over the next 30 years and nearly two-thirds of it over the next 75 years, according to the wildlife agency.


“As global warming starts to move the snow line up the mountain, it begins to expose some of these wolverine dens,” Copeland said.

Among other pressures on wolverines are skiers and snowmobilers encroaching into their high-attitude territory as well as an overall lack of genetic diversity. “It’s one of the things I’ve always admired most about it,” he added. “It lives in these incredible rugged habitats.”

The question of whether the wolverine should be protected under the Endangered Species Act has gone back and forth between the agency and federal court system for years.

In 2013, the Obama administration proposed protecting the species in the Lower 48, but decided against going through with the protections the following year over uncertainty about the impact of climate change. After the Trump administration again rejected protections in 2020, environmentalists sued and a federal district court sent the decision back to the Fish and Wildlife Service for reevaluation.

Timothy Preso, an attorney at the environmental law group Earthjustice, said the decision to list the wolverines as threatened means states such as Montana won’t be able to resume recreational wolverine trapping and that new development in the animal’s habitat will undergo close scrutiny.

“There is now hope for this icon of our remaining wilderness,” he added.

Farmers and snowmobilers resisted past efforts to protect wolverines over concerns about the way the protections would restrict the way people can use land. Opponents noted that the species is doing fine north of the Canadian border.

Charles Yates, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm, said the government lacks the legal authority to split the Northern American population and protect only those wolverines in the Lower 48. Wildlife officials, he added, are granting little leeway for those living alongside wolverines.

“Generally speaking, when a species is listed,” said Yates, “all manner of restrictions on ordinary land use” come into effect.

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