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 years of dispute 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. Warming temperatures are 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 and first proposed protections in 2010. It later sought to withdraw that proposal, but was blocked by a federal judge who said the snow-dependent animals were "squarely in the path of climate change."
The 2020 rejection of protections under former President Donald Trump was based on research suggesting the animals' prevalence was expanding, not contracting. Officials at the time predicted enough snow would persist at high elevations for wolverines to den in mountain snowfields each spring despite warming temperatures.
Government attorneys in February told Molloy that wildlife officials wanted to re-evaluate the 2020 decision and asked that it stay in effect while that review was completed. But the judge rejected that request and struck down the decision.
That means a 2013 determination from officials that made wolverines eligible for potential protections is back in effect.
“We are hoping this time is the charm and the Fish and Wildlife Service will follow the courts’ directives to rely on the best available climate science to make the right call to protect wolverines in the lower 48 states,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center.
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.
Wildlife officials have previously estimated that 250 to 300 wolverines survive in remote areas of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington state. The animals in recent years also have been documented in California, Utah, Colorado and Oregon.
The animals need immense expanses of wildland to survive, with home ranges for adult male wolverines covering as much as 610 square miles (1,580 square kilometers), according to a study in central Idaho.
Fish and Wildlife officials did not immediately respond to Molloy's order.