BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge has given U.S. wildlife officials 18 months to decide if wolverines should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, following decades of disagreement over how much risk climate change and other threats pose to the rare and elusive predators.
The order from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy comes after environmentalists challenged a 2020 decision under the Trump administration to withhold protections for the animals in the lower 48 states, where no more than 300 of the animals are thought to remain.
Environmentalists argued that wolverines face localized extinction as a result of climate change, habitat fragmentation and low genetic diversity. Climate change is expected to diminish the mountain snowpack that wolverines rely on to dig dens to birth and raise their young.
The Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to protect wolverines in 2000. The agency proposed protections in 2010 and later sought to withdraw that proposal, but was blocked by a federal judge.
The 2020 rejection of protections was based on recent research suggesting the animals' prevalence was expanding, not contracting. Officials had predicted enough snow would persist at high elevations for wolverines to den in mountain snowfields each spring despite warming temperatures.
Wolverines, also known as “mountain devils,” were wiped out across most of the U.S. by the early 1900s following unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns.