Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife and Parks maintains wolverine trapping.

At their August 2, 2012 Commission meeting, the Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) commissioners voted to continue trapping wolverine, despite a petition from eight environmental groups and one individual George Wuerthner (me) to halt trapping. The groups– which included Friends of the Wild Swan, Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, Montana Ecosystem Defense, Native Ecosystems Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Swan View Coalition, Wild Earth Guardians, and Footloose Montana—argued that wolverine trapping could pose a threat to the long term survival of wolverine in the lower 48 states.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that there are no more than 250-300 in the lower 48 states. In 2010, the wolverine was listed as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Sadly the MDFWP once again demonstrates a willingness to ignore the social ecology of carnivores which makes them more vulnerable to threats than other species.
BASIC ECOLOGY AND GEOGRAPHY OF WOLVERINE
Wolverine are both predators and scavengers. They will eat anything they can, and have the jaws to prove it. One study used bear traps to capture wolverine alive for radio collaring. These traps are large barrels with cyclone fencing as the sliding trap doors. The researchers learned the hard way that they had to check traps frequently. One wolverine managed to chew his way out of the cyclone fencing!
At one time wolverine were far more common, and ranged from Maine across the northern states and from Montana to New Mexico in the Rockies and from Washington to California’s Sierra Nevada.
Today in the Rockies only Montana, Wyoming and Idaho still have breeding populations. A few wolverine may still inhabit California. Wolverine have recently been documented in eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. Washington’s North Cascades are also home to the animals.  Of all the remaining states with wolverine, only Montana still allows trapping.
Wolverine in the lower 48 states tend to be found at or near timberline—or where there is perpetual snow—especially late in the spring. Females rely on food caches that are hidden under snow to feed their young during the breeding season when they are largely restricted to the den attending to their young. As high elevation snowfields shrink as a result of global warming the wolverine’s habitat will shrink.
Wolverine are long distance travelers. I remember an anecdote that Maurice Hornocker gave in a talk he presented in Missoula in the early 1980s on his wolverine research in the Northern Continental Divide. One of the points that Hornocker made was that wolverine can cover a lot of territory. He told of one radio tracked individual who was trapped by Glacier, and a week later was found in Lincoln—about a hundred miles as a crow flies, and much further by the route the animal traveled. A week later, this wolverine was back near Glacier. We now know that such travels are not unusual for wolverine. Hornocker hammered home that seeing tracks in a lot of places doesn’t necessarily mean there are a lot of wolverine.
TRAPPING IGNORES SOCIAL ECOLOGY OF WOLVERINE
One of the problems of low wolverine numbers is that it’s easy to wipe out the species from a mountain range and it may be a long time before that range is recolonized. It’s the perfect island geography effect. Populations are lost gradually mountain range by mountain range until at some point they cannot recover. Many of our western wolverine populations are “island populations”. And since even the loss of one or two breeding animals could cause an island population to spiral down to zero, it’s easy to see how wolverine in various places can wink out. We may be at that point now.
While the best estimate of the wolverine’s population by the Fish and Wildlife Service for Montana is 150-175 animals, the “effective” breeding population of wolverine may not number more than 30-50 individuals. That is because females usually take a year off between breeding and typically one male breeds several females. Thus the genetic diversity of wolverine in such a population is exceedingly small.
Even the loss of a few breeding females can be problematic. It’s quite possible that Montana’s wolverine population is already too small to remain genetically viable over the long haul. Montana allows five total wolverines, or three females, to be trapped each year. This does not include animals that may be maimed but escape the traps, only to die later.
The loss of 2-3 animals a year to trapping may seem inconsequential—unfortunately that is the argument that MDFWP makes in defense of its continuation of wolverine trapping. Depending on which animals are caught, It can be detrimental the long term survival of Montana’s wolverine population. If, for instance, 3 breeding females were taken, you are not only taking those three animals, but very likely the kits they have produced as well, since they are likely to die of starvation once the mother is killed. Alternatively if a breeding male is trapped, any new male who sets up a territory often attempts to kill any young so as to induce females to breed sooner. Thus the loss of just a few females and/or the loss of breeding male may result in the loss of 10%–15% or more of the effective breeding population. Throw in other sources of mortality–which exist all the time–and it not too extreme to argue that trapping could be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

FISH AND GAME AGENCIES FAILURE TO MANAGE CARNIVORES
The fact that the MDFWP ignores this social ecology of wolverine is not surprising. Fish and Game Departments seem incapable of thinking beyond populations. They ignore the social ecology of all predators in their management decisions.
One of the principles of good science is the precautionary principle. In the absence of any good counter information, one should err on the side of caution. Trapping wolverine is not operating on the side of caution. There is no evidence that trapping of small wolverine populations is sustainable, and some science that suggests it may harm the species. Therefore, one should, in my view, err on the side of the wolverine, not the trappers.
The unwillingness to ban trapping in spite of the low population and numerous threats to the long term health of wolverine populations demonstrates, in my view, why Fish and Game agencies, cannot be trusted to manage wildlife in the best interest of the public, and of course, wildlife.
When push comes to shove, and if there is any doubt about whether human activities harm a species, particularly human hunting, trapping and fishing, these agencies always side with trappers, hunters and anglers, not the wildlife. Their default mode is keep killing the wildlife until it can be demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that human exploitation is harmful—rather than exercising reasonable caution.
Significantly at least one hunting organization, the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association also signed the petition. The Helena organization deserves a pat on the back for having the moral courage to challenge the trapping community.
MDFWP says it’s OK to trap an animal that is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Does that sound reasonable? Even if trapping really didn’t pose a threat to the animal, allowing trapping of these animals suggests to many people that wolverine populations are doing fine. That is not a message that MDFWP should be putting out given what we know about the threats to the long term viability of wolverine in Montana.
All state wildlife agencies express anger and outrage whenever species are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act arguing that they are fully capable of managing wildlife. Yet time and time again they prove otherwise. If state agencies were doing the job they are empowered and trusted to do, we would have a lot fewer endangered species. But these state agencies lack the moral courage and political fortitude to oppose industries, as well as other constituency such hunting, fishing, and trapping groups that they see as their prime supporters.
Once again Fish and Game departments have demonstrated in my mind, that they are incapable of managing carnivore species. It’s not that they lack the scientific knowledge—there are many fine biologists working for these agencies. Rather it is an unwillingness of their directors, commissions, and others to stand up for wildlife in the face of political pressure from hunters, trappers and anglers. As a consequence, these agencies are shirking their moral duty and legal public trust obligations to manage wildlife for all the public and for the long term health of the species under their care.

– – –

George Wuerthner is an ecologist, and a former Montana hunting guide.

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George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

26 Responses to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks maintains wolverine trapping

  1. avatar louise kane says:

    George Wuerthner, thank you for another excellent essay.
    The last two paragraphs sum it up so succinctly,

    “All state wildlife agencies express anger and outrage whenever species are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act arguing that they are fully capable of managing wildlife. Yet time and time again they prove otherwise. If state agencies were doing the job they are empowered and trusted to do, we would have a lot fewer endangered species. But these state agencies lack the moral courage and political fortitude to oppose industries, as well as other constituency such hunting, fishing, and trapping groups that they see as their prime supporters.
    Once again Fish and Game departments have demonstrated in my mind, that they are incapable of managing carnivore species. It’s not that they lack the scientific knowledge—there are many fine biologists working for these agencies. Rather it is an unwillingness of their directors, commissions, and others to stand up for wildlife in the face of political pressure from hunters, trappers and anglers. As a consequence, these agencies are shirking their moral duty and legal public trust obligations to manage wildlife for all the public and for the long term health of the species under their care.”

    Thank you again!

    • avatar Jon Way says:

      Agreed. The last paragraph is especially poignant…Well done George.

    • avatar Jackie Davis says:

      George, I think that you have summed it up very well, indeed. I see that there are people in this thread that are defending “people” and saying that they can “manage” the wolverine population. This is like asking a thief to protect a bank vault. It is so asinine to think that hunters and trappers are going to report an accurate number that are killed. It is the same with the wolf. They are hell bent on destroying them as well.
      Jackie

  2. avatar Seth Pogue says:

    I’m with you 100%. Here’s the letter I sent the commissioners:

    Bob, Dan, Ron, A.T., Shane;

    Regarding your Aug 2 decision to continue trapping of Wolverine:
    How can you possibly in good conscience trap an animal whose population is less than 300 in the entire lower 48? The commissioners who decided this are obviously mouth-breathing cretins who need to be removed entirely from any sort of wildlife decision-making process.

    YOU WILL NOT ALLOW TRAPPING OF WOLVERINES. This is NOT your prerogative.

    Seth Pogue, M.A. Biology

  3. avatar Tim says:

    Wouldn’t most populations of wolverines be island populations since they utilize high elevation areas for there habitat. Not to much snow down low in the valleys to cache their food. So it only makes sense that they would spend the majority of their time in alpine areas. The only reason they have to move is lack of food or to much competition for habitat. There is just no reason for them to come down to lower elevations which would leave only island populations scattered through the many mountain ranges of the western states and Canada.

  4. avatar Mike says:

    Once again the states fail to recognize science in their decision-making.

    Embarrassing.

  5. avatar JB says:

    The history of federal policy regarding the status of the wolverine is absolutely shameful–and shows the lengths FWS will now go to avoid listing at all costs:

    1995 – Denied listing based upon a failure of the petitioner to provide adequate information.
    2000 – FWS received a new petition to list, and proceeded to sit on their hands for 3 years.
    2003 – FWS published another 90-day (90-day!!) that petitioners had again failed to present information indicating listing was warranted.
    2006 – US District ruled that 90-day petition originally filed in 2000 and denied in 2003 was in error; FWS ordered to make a new 12-month finding.
    2007 – FWS misses (again) deadline for 12-month finding, gets it extended for another year.
    2008 – FWS published a “not warranted” finding for wolves; they argued that wolves did not constitute a DPS and the contiguous US was not a significant portion of the wolverine’s range.
    2008 – FWS was again sued (this time by Earthjustice).
    2009 – FWS settled with Earthjustice by voluntarily remanding the 12-month decision and began the process yet again.
    2010 (April) – FWS published a notice of initiation of a new 12-month finding.
    2010 (December) FWS published a new finding; this time they found that wolverine’s occurring in the US were a DPS, and that listing was warranted, but precluded by higher priority actions. The wolverine was added to the list of candidate species.

    So after 15 years of stalling, two law suits, and countless man-hours, wolverines have absolutely zero federal protections. Shameful.

  6. avatar Robert R says:

    Tim has it right, the wolverine will not inhabit lower elivatios therefore the ,majority of people will never see one let alone see a track if they even know what kind of track there looking at.
    Most of the wolverines that I know of are inaccessible and snowmobiles are banned from the area and even cross country skiers don’t make it there.
    There are only three regions in the state of Montana that allows the wolverine to be trapped with a total quota of five and only two were trapped in 2011. Also the units usually close before the quota is reached.
    I don’t think the wolverine population is what it could be but the population is also region specific and the climate change is going make or break the wolverine.

  7. avatar George Wuethner says:

    Tim does not have it completely right. Wolverine, can and do, occupy lower elevations at when moving between ranges–though it appears to be infrequent.

    However,one wolverine traveled all the way to Colorado, and obviously had to travel quite a ways at lower elevation.

    A wolverine that has been documented in California’s Sierra Nevada has been shown to have come from the Rockies. Again suggesting some low elevation travel.

    Another wolverine that I am aware of was killed east of Buffalo, Wyoming after invading a chicken coop out on the plains.

    The connection to subalpine and snowfields is very strong, and particularly for females with young. Year round 95% of the locations for wolverine is the areas where persistent snow cover is common.

    However, it would incorrect to assume they never leave such haunts. But it does suggest that once you knock a wolverine population out of a mountain range, it may be a very long time before that mountain range is recolonized if ever.

    • avatar JB says:

      “In North America, wolverines occur within a wide variety of habitats, primarily boreal forests, tundra, and western mountains throughout Alaska and Canada; however, the southern portion of the range extends into the contiguous United States.” (From FWS)

      Recall that wolverine used to exist in the Great Lakes as well; thus, it is untrue that they are entirely dependent upon high altitude habitats.

    • avatar Salle says:

      George,

      Good points. And thank you for writing this piece, your words have power in many places.

      I have actually seen a wolverine in a prairie-like terrain between New Meadows and McCall, Idaho not quite ten years ago. And I think there was one rousted off of Horse Butte, home of the famous bison hazing operations, during a bison hazing operation earlier this year. The top of Horse Butte is somewhere around 7700ft. in elevation. So they are not exclusively confined to sonw-covered reaches.

      I do agree that there are too few to be found anywhere and that once a population is disrupted, it’s hard for them to recover if they actually do… like any other sensitive species.

      Allowing them to be trapped is blatantly unrealistic no matter how you perceive this with regard to conservation. Of course, if your intent is to eliminate them, well then…

  8. avatar Salle says:

    I think you all have made valid arguments against this unbelievably ignorant decision. Ignorant in that they ignore the obvious, ignore the will of the majority of the citizen they are supposed to serve (public service is not meant to act in the service of the special interest but the majority of the citizens in their jurisdictional area).

    Can it be more obvious as to what their agenda truly is here? This is a primary example of the reasons why I am not only ashamed of my country, state and region but embarrassed as hell too. Oh, and disgusted.

  9. avatar Della Munnich says:

    Though I don’t always comment on your articles, I do appreciate them, and thank you for your knowledge and information. Always I send them on to try to educate many…. A slow process! We are running out of time!
    Thank you George wuerthner.

  10. avatar Jeff says:

    Just to be provocative…maybe trapping a few if OK, Montana clearly has a stable population, they never killed off all their grizzlies, wolves came back on their own. Wolverines don’t exist in Montana due to anyting the Federal government did or didn’t do. I’m not a trapper, but it doesn’t seem to be detrimental to their long term survial at this point.

    • avatar Salle says:

      Jeff,

      Just curious, what do you base your hypothesis on?

      • avatar Jeff says:

        The wolverine has persisted in MT with state management.

        • avatar Nancy says:

          An interesting read:

          http://www.elklakeresortmontana.com/wolverines.htm

          “While some are now promoting the wolverine as a landscape indicator species, studies show we do not know enough about them to make well-educated judgments as to their needs or their sensitivity. Yet, there are those who would have us believe healthy wolverine populations are a reliable gauge of overall ecosystem health. And, they may be right. But, how can the wolverine be used as an accurate indicator of ecosystem health when we don’t know enough to determine the health of their species?”

        • avatar Mike says:

          So has an abundance of morons.

  11. avatar alf says:

    I almost hate to say it, but Montana is getting to be just about as regressive as Idaho

  12. avatar Dan Mottern says:

    The wolverine is a boreal species that is allowed to slip into the contiguous U.S. on the Rocky Mtn arm. They are not even close to being ideally suited for the contiguous U.S. If I were the USFWS I wouldn’t want to spend my resources and assets on a fringe species either.

  13. avatar Richie G says:

    I could not get the larger map ,do they go through Utah, and plains or mountains ?

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