There will be no wolverine trapping season in Montana this year.
That was decided this week as Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks chose not to challenge a temporary injunction to halt the trapping season, which would have already been under way and set to end Feb. 15.
The lawsuit challenging the wolverine trapping season was brought against the state by a variety of environmental and conservation groups.
But this year’s trapping season may soon be a side issue as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is ex-pected to list wolverines as a threatened or endangered species in the lower 48 sometime later this month.
Tuesday, FWP officials said that if wolverines were listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA, the state would seek to either have their population excluded or have an exception made to continue to allow a limited trapping season.
While trapping wolverines seems to be the contentious issue here, we believe it misses the point and takes away from the real conversation we should be focused on.
Wolverines, similar to polar bears, need access to a cold and snowy habitat to survive. And the Fish and Wildlife Service says that the long-term viability of a wolverine population in the lower 48 is threat-ened, not because of trapping, but because of habitat and climate change.
If the agency winds up placing wolverines on the Endangered Species List, they will join the polar bear as the only other species protected because of long-term threats from climate change.
Wolverines are reclusive creatures, according to Bob Imnan, wolverine scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Ennis. They occupy a unique habitat and have such large territories that in all probability wolverines were never very numerous anywhere in the lower 48.
The current estimates are that 250 to 300 live in the lower 48, with about half of those living in Mon-tana. They live at elevations primarily over 7,000 feet and need places with dependable snow well into late spring.
The wolverine population in Montana was virtually erased by the 1930s by trapping and hunting, Inman said. At the time wolverines weren’t considered a fur bearer or game animal by the state.
The first wolverine research project was conducted in the 1970s and soon after the state began regu-lating harvests, and the wolverines began to slowly expand their population in the state. Now they in-habit much of their historical habitat in Montana, he said.
However, that habitat is facing a climate change conundrum. The Fish and Wildlife Service predicts that within 30 years, using moderate climate change models, about 30 percent of wolverine habitat will be gone. When they project out 70 years, 60 percent of their habitat will be lost, said Shawn Sartorius, a scientist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena.
However, today there is no indication the wolverine trapping season has had an impact on the overall wolverine population in the state, Inman said.
The state quota for wolverines is five and in the past FWP officials have taken special concern to tailor harvest and areas where trapping is allowed to protect isolated populations of wolverines, he said. The regulations spread out the wolverine harvest both by numbers and across the landscape so as to protect the health of the overall population.
Climate change and other significant threats such as habitat connectivity continue to be the pressing problems for wolverines in Montana. These are complex issues to face and impact much of the wildlife we treasure in Montana.
Continuing to focus on wolverine trapping detracts from the broader conversation wolverine conser-vation and science points us to – the impacts of climate change on wildlife in Montana and conserving important habitat. Working together toward on those efforts will prove more fruitful for all of us who value Montana’s great outdoors.