US officials: Climate change not a threat to rare wolverine

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - US wildlife officials are withdrawing proposed protection for the snow-loving wolverine after determining the rare and elusive predator is not as threatened by climate change as previously thought.
Details of the decision were obtained from The Associated Press ahead of an announcement Thursday.
A federal judge blocked an attempt four years ago to lift the protection first proposed in 2010, citing evidence from government scientists that wolverines were "on the path of climate change."
However, years of additional research suggests that the prevalence of the animals is increasing rather than contracting, according to U.S. fish and wildlife officials. And they predict that enough snow will remain at high altitudes so that wolverines can dig in mountain snowfields every spring despite the warming temperatures.
"Wolverines have returned from Canada and are populating these areas in the Lower 48 that they historically occupied," said Justin Shoemaker, biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "There will be significant areas of snow cover in the spring when they would need it and the plains they would need."
Wildlife advocates have expressed doubts about the rationale for the move, saying they are likely to challenge it in court.
"They put the wolverine on the path of extinction," said Andrea Zaccardi from the Center for Biodiversity.
Wolverines, also known as "mountain devils", were wiped out in most parts of the United States in the early 20th century following unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns. No longer viewing the relatively few wolverines in the lower 48 states as an isolated population, biologists say they are slowly fighting their way back in some areas. Instead, they are believed to be associated with a much larger population in Canada.
Wildlife officials previously estimated that 250 to 300 wolverines survive in remote areas of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington. The animals of the past few years have also been documented in California, Utah, Colorado and Oregon.
A newly published state assessment of the species status does not provide an updated population estimate.
According to a study in central Idaho, the animals need immense wild land areas to survive. The home areas for adult male wolverines are up to 1,580 square kilometers.
The forecast that they will have enough snow in warm temperatures is based on computer models developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado.
Wildlife officials had previously relied on a study that said snowpack in the U.S. Rocky Mountains would decrease by about a third by 2059 and by two thirds by the end of the century.
While the latest analysis shows that snow cover is still likely to decline, researchers took a closer look at two areas - Montana's Glacier National Park and Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park - and found that they still have enough snow for wolverines to dig and breed successfully . That should also apply to other areas of the Rocky Mountains, officials said.
"As we learned more, we became more comfortable with wolverine status," said Mark Boyce, a University of Alberta biologist who reviewed the science behind the government's findings. "It's hard to imagine that there is any serious cause for concern." . "
Young males are known to travel up to 500 kilometers to break new ground, meaning the animals can easily travel between the United States and Canada, Boyce said. Even in areas with no spring snow, he said wolverines survive by living in abandoned beaver huts and other locations.
Wildlife advocates have tried to protect wolverines since the early 1990s, but claimed that political interference in government decision-making had thwarted those efforts. Tim Preso, of environmental law firm Earthjustice, said the latest decision fits in with a pattern by the Trump administration of downplaying the threat of climate change.
Agency officials refused to interfere with their scientific deliberations.
"This was an analysis conducted by the field scientists to determine the best information available," said Jodi Bush, Montana project leader for the fish and wildlife service.
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Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

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