The wolverine, the elusive mammal that biologists believe was wiped out in the continental United States before re-establishing itself in the northern Rocky Mountains, warrants protection on the endangered species list, the U.S. Wildlife Service said Monday.
However, the service said it is "precluded" from actually listing the animal because of more pressing wildlife issues in the United States.
The announcement was met with measured celebration from conservation groups that sued FWS to re-examine the wolverine's status last year after the agency had previously found it did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. A Montana state biologist was more wary of a move to list the species.
In its finding, the FWS cited global warming as the major threat to the wolverines. Specifically, wolverines need deep snow to reproduce. Female wolverines dig elaborate dens in the snow to protect their offspring from predators and the elements, according to the wildlife service. Current data trends suggest the wolverines' cold and snowy habitat could be reduced 63 percent by 2099.
Around Bozeman, wolverines have been seen in the Bridger Mountains to the north and the Gallatin and Madison mountains to the south, according to data from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. FWP data shows the highest density of wolverines in the area has been observed in the Bridgers and Gallatins.
However, the animal is famously reclusive and difficult to study. Scientists believe fewer than 300 wolverines live in the contiguous 48 states.
In 2008, the FWS ruled the wolverine did not warrant protection, stating the population in the United States was not distinct from the more robust population in Canada. That prompted a lawsuit.
"We're quite relieved that a correction was made so that the Fish and Wildlife Service does find the wolverine to warrant protection," said David Gaillard, a Rocky Mountain region representative for the Defenders of Wildlife in Bozeman. "We're happy we corrected that. We're disappointed that it's not yet listed. We feel time is running out."
But FWS officials say the effects of climate change on the wolverine "are not imminent."
"As a result, the agency's limited resources must be devoted to work on listing determinations for species at greater risk of extinction," the service said in a news release.
Montana allows five wolverines to be trapped every year and has the most extensive data set on the animals of any state, said Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Kurt Alt.
He said wolverines by their nature disperse widely, but genetic studies have shown that wolverines from the Central Idaho, Greater Yellowstone and northwest Montana ecosystems interact and said the population is sustainable at current levels.
He said listing the species could frustrate efforts to relocate wolverines to states where they have been exterminated.
"I don't know what (listing) buys but shifting authority," he said.
Daniel Person can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2665. The Associated Press contributed to this report.