Updated: Jan 21, 2021
As one of the rarest mammals in the U.S., the legal status of wolverines has long been contested by the government and environmentalists
Just outside of Yosemite National Park on a crisp February morning in 1922, prospector Albert Gardisky was checking his traps outside of his home in Mono County. Gardisky had been all over the West Coast before settling down in Mono County next to a lake that would later bear his name. On this particular cold winter day, Gardisky would discover a wolverine in one of his traps a few miles away. What might have seemed like an ordinary day to him was history—this was the last recorded wolverine in California for nearly a hundred years.
As solitary creatures, wolverine populations are notoriously difficult to estimate, but it’s widely accepted that they were historically found across the Sierra Nevadas and some of the northern parts of California. Today, there is likely only one wolverine in the entire state of California. His name is Buddy, he’s from Idaho and he is adorable. Buddy will likely live his whole life in solitude, as female wolverines tend to travel shorter distances than males, so it’s unlikely that he will find a mate. Adding insult to injury, wolverines are not protected under any federal laws, despite having only an estimated 300 individuals in the U.S. today.
After nearly a three-decade-long battle, the federal government has reaffirmed its intention to not grant wolverines protection under the Endangered Species Act. When protection was first proposed in the nineties, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) claimed that there was not enough data on human impact on the species. This policy was repeatedly contested by conservation groups until 2013 when the service finally proposed listing the species due to the possible threat of climate change. A year later, this proposal was withdrawn resulting in a lawsuit from several environmental organizations which led to court mandated re-evaluation of the proposal by the USFWS, only to be withdrawn again last month.
“It’s a continued pattern of wanting to stick their heads in the sand about climate change and not do anything about the impacts that greenhouse gas emissions will have on species,” said Brad Smith, of the Idaho Conservation League, to The Guardian last month. “With the current administration, there’s been a rollback of many protections for the environment and for listed or proposed species.”
The USFWS have even admitted that recent studies have shown that snow cover, which wolverines rely on for dens for their young, will be substantially impacted by climate change. Despite this, they maintain that this will have little impact on the survival of the species in the contiguous United States, citing a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and University of Colorado. The study found that the upper elevations which wolverines den in will maintain their springtime snowpack while the lower will experience significant snow loss over the next 50 years. I don’t know about you, but my definition of population stability is not possibly losing 50% of viable snowpack.
This is just one of many studies. Previous studies have painted even bleaker outcomes. For instance, a 2011 study identified increasingly hot August days as a major threat to wolverine survival, while another study found that wolverine populations will become genetically isolated and decrease in size as snowpack disappears. Now, I’m not saying that the study the USFWS is basing their decision on isn’t good science. I am saying that using exclusively that study, and ignoring all other facts that do not fit their narrative is the definition of confirmation bias.
It is incredibly easy to ignore relatively antisocial species, even the iconic wolverine, with the kind of “out of sight out of mind” mindset that has already perpetrated the extinction of hundreds of species in my lifetime. In the Montana District Court’s 2016 ruling, Judge Christensen concluded, “If there is one thing required of the Service under the ESA, it is to take action at the earliest possible, defensible point in time to protect against the loss of biodiversity within our reach as a nation. For the wolverine, that time is now.”
To support Wolverine Reintroduction efforts in California, you can donate to the Institute for Wildlife Studies’ ongoing proposal to reestablish wolverines in the Sierra Nevada Range. Many other species have been successfully reintroduced across the U.S., from lynx in Colorado to wolves in Yellowstone, and you could be part of making history. The symbol of California, the California grizzly bear, was driven to extinction by greed and development. Don’t let wolverines just be a comic book character––you could be their hero.
Written by — Joe Sweeney
This article originally appeared in The Aggie Newspaper.