HELENA — Eight conservation and sportsmen groups are petitioning Montana to ban the trapping of wolverines, citing a government finding that climate change may threaten the survival of the fierce, bear-like creatures.
Montana wildlife regulators today unanimously approved the upcoming trapping season anyway, saying the climate change models span decades and the trapping quota of five wolverines for the 2012 season is not likely to hurt the overall population.
“There’s not an immediate threat,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife chief Ken McDonald said. “We don’t see any kind of significant red flags to have us change our existing season.”
Agency attorneys are still analyzing state law to determine how they’ll respond to the petition.
Montana is the only state in the contiguous U.S. that allows the trapping of wolverines, the largest member of the weasel family. Wolverines keep to high elevations with deep snow and can fight off a grizzly bear when cornered.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 250 to 300 wolverines in the Lower 48, with most in Montana and Idaho, but a few animals with ranges that include Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming and Colorado. There are larger populations in Alaska, where trapping also is permitted, and as many as 20,000 wolverines in Canada.
The Fish and Wildlife Service added wolverines to the candidates of species that warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2010 after concluding climate change in the coming decades will reduce the animals’ habitat and increase their isolation from each other.
The warming trend is expected to reduce the snowpack that the wolverines depend on for habitat and denning. Their habitat in the contiguous U.S. is expected to decrease by 23 percent by 2045 and 63 percent by 2099, according to the government agency.
The Fish and Wildlife Service concluded the effects of climate warming are serious, “but so far have not resulted in any detectable population effects to the species.”
But that threat, coupled with the wolverine already having one of the lowest successful reproductive rates among mammals, is reason enough to end all trapping of the animal in Montana, according to the 52-page petition filed Wednesday.
The petition was submitted by 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 one individual, George Wuerthner.
The attorney representing those groups, Matthew Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center in Helena, said the petition asks Montana to end trapping until the species is no longer protected or a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Bishop called wolverines the “polar bear of the Lower 48” in need of all the help they can get. Instead, Montana is “kicking them when they’re down,” Bishop said.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks attorneys are considering their next steps regarding the petition. Montana statutes require an agency to take action within 60 days on a petition proposing a rule change, but FWP attorney Becky Jakes Dockter said the agency is discussing whether seasonal rules involving hunting and trapping are exempt from that requirement.
Montana allows five total wolverines, or three females, to be trapped each year. That quota was lowered in 2008 from 10 animals.
FWP Commissioner Dan Vermillion said in Thursday’s meeting the petitioners are misguided and that trappers reported killing only two wolverines in 2011.
“I would respectfully request they focus their energies elsewhere,” Vermillion said. “The harvest of two wolverines is sustainable.”
Bishop said the petitioners believe even a quota of five wolverines can do irreparable harm.
“Five is not sustainable because we can’t afford to lose even one,” he said. “The small population is going to continue to get smaller.”
State wildlife officials also said they were concerned that if they temporarily closed the trapping season, it may be difficult to reopen it, even if the population rebounds.
“If we do that with an animal like the wolverine, we’d have to go all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States to reopen that trapping season,” FWP commissioner Ron Moody said.