by John S. Adams, Tribune Capital Bureau
HELENA — In 2007, a wolverine fitted with a GPS tracking device summited Glacier National Park’s highest peak, Mount Cleveland, in the middle of winter. Known as “M3” to researchers, the wolverine climbed the last 4,900 feet to Mount Cleveland’s 10,466-foot summit in 90 minutes, according to wolverine researcher Douglas Chadwick’s 2010 book “The Wolverine Way.”
Now eight conservation and sportsmen’s groups are calling on the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to end recreational trapping until research shows wolverine populations are — like M3 — climbing.
The groups argue that wolverine numbers are currently below the number needed for genetic viability and “nowhere near high enough to provide recreational trapping opportunities” in the state.
Friends of the Wild Swan, Montana Ecosystem Defense Council, Helena Hunters and Anglers, Native Ecosystems Council, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the Swan View Coalition, Wild Earth Guardians and Footloose Montana sent a petition to FWP this week calling for the agency to halt wolverine trapping in the state until populations of the elusive alpine carnivore stabilize.
The largest member of the weasel family, wolverines resemble small bears that are specially adapted to high-elevation mountain living. Wolverines have large clawed feet ideally suited for digging and climbing and walking on snow and ice, and their thick coats enables them to withstand extremely cold temperatures. They also have an extremely high metabolism that allows them to constantly stay on the move.
Wolverines are currently a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, and Montana is the only state in the contiguous United States to allow wolverine trapping for fur. Up to five wolverines, or three females, can be trapped and killed in Montana each season.
The petitioners are asking FWP to close the wolverine trapping season now, before the 2012 trapping season begins Dec. 1, and to not reopen it until wolverine populations have recovered enough to no longer need Endangered Species Act protection.
“This is the right thing to do — morally, scientifically, socially and ecologically — for the future of the wolverine and the future of trapping in Montana,” said Gary Ingman, a board member of the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association. “The biological models show that the current population levels simply are not self-sustaining.”
FWP director Joe Maurier said his office received the petition Wednesday, but staff had not had a chance to review it yet.
“The staff will review this stuff first, and since it was sent to the FWP Commission too, I’m assuming they’ll look at it and then look to staff for some comment on what’s been presented,” Maurier said.
Officials for the Montana Trapping Association and the National Trapping Association did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment on the petition.
The groups calling for a halt to wolverine trapping said it is a major source of wolverine mortality in the state and has had significant negative effects on the species’ ability to recover in small, isolated mountain ranges.
“We’re lucky to see wolverine on rare occasions here in the Swan Range of northwest Montana, where they were first studied back in the 1970s,” said Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition. “Trapping must stop if these rare and wonderful animals are to return from the brink of extinction.”
According to the Western Environmental Law Center, the law firm representing the petitioners, Montana state law requires FWP to manage wolverine in a manner that “assists in the maintenance or recovery” of the species.
According to recent studies, the wolverine population in the state is between 100 and 175 individual animals. The number of animals capable of producing offspring is much smaller, perhaps as few as 30 animals, according to the petition.
In one recent study, of the 14 wolverines tracked in the Pioneer Mountains during a three-year period, six were killed in traps, including four adult males and two pregnant females. As a result of trapping, the wolverine population in the Pioneers was reduced by an estimated 50 percent, the petition states.
Helena ecologist George Wuerthner, the only individual to sign onto the petition, said wolverine populations are under increasing stress from loss of habitat because of climate change. Wolverines require persistent spring snowpack for dens and to rear their young. As climate change reduces the amount of high-elevation snowpack that lasts into the late summer, wolverines are relegated to smaller and smaller island ecosystems, Wuerthner said.
“Even a loss of a few individuals, particularly females, can lead to a significant downward trend. We can be quietly wiping out wolverine from one mountain range to the next,” Wuerthner said. “If there is a breeding population in some mountain range that is killed, that could mean the end of that population.”
Matthew Bishop, a Helena attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center, said by authorizing trapping under the current circumstances, FWP is “making a bad situation worse.”
“Wolverine are the polar bear of the lower 48 states and need all the help they can get right now in the face of a warming planet, shrinking habitat and increased isolation,” Bishop said. “Montana shouldn’t be kicking them when they’re down.”