Let’s talk about scarcity. Picture a town of 500 people. We’ve all passed through one. The feeling may be down-home quaintness, but by population size, it is tiny, inconsequential as numbers go. Barely a whir.
Blink and it is gone.
The number gets lost in diffuseness. Scatter them across a much larger area still, say over the northern Rockies AND westward toward the northern Sierra-Nevada and Cascade ranges.
Were an assessment made now about population size, most would describe the landscape as vacant, devoid of suitable numbers. Not enough. You could even conclude that it would be difficult for humans to bump into each other very often.
This is exactly the narrative for wolverines.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2010 released a biological assessment. The service found that wolverines warrant being added to the federal threatened species list, but other animals merit greater priority. So action has to wait.
Here’s a fact, the service’s widely-quoted estimate that it has used over the last decade for wolverines across all of the Lower 48—500—was actually dialed dramatically downward in the latest report.
The new guesstimate is that there are only between 250 and 300 wolverines across all of the geography mentioned above, which includes a crazy quilt pattern of national parks that serve as protected islands of habitat.
And over that vast area, the Fish and Wildlife Service admits, there are a scant number of adults reproducing.
Biologists don’t actually know how many wolverines persist because these elusive members of the weasel family—regarded as the “holy grail” critter among trappers in Montana, the last state in the West to have a wolverine trapping season—are difficult to count.
Wolverines exist in such fragmented, low densities that if one or two are killed by trappers, poachers, cyanide-laced coyote baits still being deployed, or accidentally struck crossing a road, the species could be extirpated from entire mountain ranges.
And it’s questionable, in many areas, if other wolverines could ever get there to recolonize.
Studies show that these charismatic, solitude-craving animals are ultra-sensitive to habitat intrusion. In Canada, industrial-strength heli-skiing has caused wolverine to flee their high-altitude haunts. Snowmobile 'high markers' also have impacts, reaching places where machines couldn’t go only a few years’ past.
All of this corroborates what scientist William Newmark concluded back in the 1980s: that despite public perceptions, animals were still winking out in large landscapes, even presumed protected areas such as national parks, that were inadequate by themselves to safeguard wide-ranging species.
There is another threat bearing down: climate change. If computer models play out, notes ecologist David Gaillard with Defenders of Wildlife, one-third of the habitat wolverines need—deep snowfields in high-elevation terrain—could disappear in the next 30 to 40 years.
Stories abound in the historical record of how excited settlers were to have the opportunity to shoot the last buffalo, wolves, grizzlies, and prairie elk. That’s hardly something worth bragging about—snuffing out the last of its kind.
It won’t be long before Montana finally yields and ends its senseless wolverine trapping season that still allows animals to be harvested for pelts that deliver only a few hundred dollars apiece.
The question is: Then what? Every year, the Fish and Wildlife Service is required by law to do a status review of animals on the warranted but precluded list. Another 12 months doesn’t need to pass before the service acknowledges the wolverine is in serious trouble.
Truth is, the service admitted as much in December but claims there isn’t enough resources available to try and reverse the wolverine’s decline, this as the species in our backyard slips away.
One service official said there might be as few as 212 wolverines left in the continental US; 212, only a relative handful of which are giving birth to young, spread across perhaps 100,000 square miles of current range.
In hindsight, society expresses bewilderment at how our ancestors allowed the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet and other species to vanish. No one can claim the wolverine will be lost due to ignorance or because the animal posed any safety risk to humans, livestock, or pets. They don't.
Although it was the G.W. Bush Administration that sat on its hands during the wolverine spiral of the last decade, conservationists say it’s the Obama Administration now that shoulders responsibility for flaunting the lame excuse that intervention is necessary but action is incapacitated by a shortage of “resources.”
The U.S. is spending about $1 million annually per soldier in Afghanistan. Think of it. If just a couple of those troops were sent home to be with their families and brought out of harm’s way, we could make a valiant attempt to save the wolverine with that relative pittance not spent on the war.
Todd Wilkinson has been a journalist for almost 25 years. He started as a violent crime reporter with the legendary City News Bureau of Chicago. During college, he spent two summers working in Yellowstone National Park. For the past two decades, he has been an environmental journalist based in Bozeman, Montana.