Montana wolverine trapping ignores ethics and biology

Due to petitions of a number of environmental groups, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) appears likely to list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Once found across much of the West and northern-tier states from Minnesota to Maine, wolverine are now limited to a few isolated populations in the western United States. Wolverine are a wide ranging predator that are adapted to survival in cold snowy climates.

Trapping, combined with poisoning programs aimed at other predators like wolves, originally contributed to the wolverines demise across much of its former territory. However, global warming is the latest threat to its survival in the lower 48 states. Though population estimates vary, the best available “guesses” (and I say guess because no region- wide efforts to document population numbers has been completed) are that there are no more than 250-300 wolverine in the lower 48 states, with the majority of them residing in Montana.

Because of these precariously low numbers, trapping of wolverine has been banned in all states where they are found, except Montana. The Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) argue that trapping is not a major source of mortality or a threat to the species.

Furthermore, they restrict the number of wolverine that can be trapped in any one part of the state which they claim ensures that trapping will not harm the species.

In response to the USFWS determination that wolverine warrant protection under the ESA, MDFWP has announced that it will seek an exemption to trapping of wolverine in Montana once the species is listed under the ESA.

We all know that climate change is one of the factors that threaten the long-term survival of wolverine in the lower 48 states. But doing anything about climate change in the near future is not likely to change this scenario, and all models suggest wolverine habitat is shrinking, thus fewer wolverine in a population, that is already precariously low, for long-term survival.

The one thing we have immediate control over is optional forms of human caused mortality such as trapping. While the number of animals lost to trapping may seem small  (5 a year), there are biological reasons why trapping may contribute to greater losses than that number suggests. Due to the social behavior ecology of wolverine, the trapping of one individual can lead to the death of several to many more wolverine.

Furthermore, even the additional loss of one or two animals from a single mountain range may be sufficient to push that island population to extinction.  As the wolverine in mountain range after mountain range wink out, the species is pushed ever closer to extinction.

Finally, the elephant in the room that MDFWP totally ignores is the ethics of trapping in a modern age. Is it really ethical to inflict avoidable pain upon other animals? Trapping amounts to torture. Most of us would be outraged if a dog owner put their pet in a trap and left it for hours or days to suffer. Hunters are admonished to make a “clean kill” so that animals they shoot do not suffer. Why do we allow trappers to inflict pain and suffering on wolverine, wolves or other animals? For what reason, do these few trappers need to trap wolverine?  To eat?  To sell a couple of pelts for income? Are these elusive wolverine threatening trappers in anyway? Trapping amounts to the privatization of a public resource for private gain. Is this what a civilized society permits?

I am most concerned about what promoting this practice of wolverine trapping says about MDFWP priorities. It appears to be more concerned about maintaining the recreational activities of a few people at the expense of the wildlife it is entrusted by the Public Trust Doctrine to protect. It is putting the interests of hunters/trappers ahead of the interests of wildlife they are obligated to protect.

Though MDFWP claims to use the best available science in managing wildlife, it continuously ignores the latest social behavior ecology and conservation biology principles when formulating its wildlife policies with regards to predators, from wolves to wolverine.

Many of the remaining populations of wolverine in Montana are in small isolated island population groups, often as little as 10 individuals in a mountain range. Such small populations are very vulnerable to local extirpation simply to natural stochastic population events. Even the loss of one key individual may jeopardize an island population.

Wolverine bear young in the winter, it’s entirely possible to trap a female and wind up killing her and her young, 2-3 additional wolverine in one swoop because the young starve to death.

In many of these small island population centers there is likely to be only one or two breeding females. If for any other reason, there is additional mortality on any other females–killed by natural causes, being hit by a car or whatever, that population could easily dwindle to zero.

Furthermore, male wolverine by protecting their territories, keep other male wolverine out of the territory occupied by females they have mated with. Thus the presence of the dominant male indirectly protects the young wolverine he has sired that outside males tend to kill. Trapping of a male wolverine may therefore lead to the death of many additional young wolverine.

Given the very low density of wolverine in most of its remaining range, it’s entirely possible for trappers to wipe out the animals from range after range.

There is yet another example of where the MDFWP appears to ignore the latest science regarding the social behavioral ecology and principles of conservation biology.  It has to do with the concept of “effective” breeding population. The number of animals involved in breeding in a polygamous species like wolverine, is far less than the total population.  Some estimate this breeding population may be as small as 35 animals.

Only a few male wolverine are doing most of the breeding of females, and the number of females that are breeding at any one time is also a subset of the total. Therefore the loss of breeding animals and the loss of entire island populations can put the species at risk of genetic bottlenecks, if the species is not already threatened by such a small breeding population.

There is new research with many other wildlife species that have seen genetic losses; from wolves that recently recolonized Scandinavia;  to cheetahs in Africa;  to mountain lions in Florida; to wolves on Isle Royal.  All have genetic problems because of these kinds of genetic bottlenecks.

At the very least the MDFWP should acknowledge that this may already be a problem with such a very small wolverine population in Montana.  Again, there has not been a word from the “professionals” on how many wolverines live in Montana or any of the demographics about these wolverines.

When you’re dealing with an animal that is already precariously low in numbers, and due to its social behavior has limited opportunities for genetic diversity, any losses are serious. Sure there are other sources of mortality out there, but trapping mortality is preventable, most of the others are not.

Most genetic studies that I have seen regarding predators suggest that a minimum effective breeding population of 500 is needed to ensure the long term survival of the species. Obviously, we have already passed below that point with wolverine in Montana.

Whether this minimum number applies to wolverine I do not know, but I suspect the professionals at the MDFWP do not know either, and that is the problem.  How can sound decisions be made when the most basic information about the species is not available?

Finally, even the presence of trappers may harm wolverine. Research has demonstrated that snowmobile use of high country can disturb denning female wolverine and cause them to abandon their dens, sometimes leading to the loss of their young. Most trappers today use snowmobiles, so even the pursuit of wolverine may harm their survival.

The precautionary principle in conservation biology is to err on the side of the animal.

If MDFWP wants to portray themselves as “professionals” then it’s time to act like a professional organization, not just a handmaiden to hunters and trappers.  MDFWP is the regulatory agency that is supposed to regulate and manage wildlife for ALL PEOPLE and FUTURE GENERATIONS. Unfortunately they appear to be more interested in maintaining archaic traditions like trapping than promoting the long term survival of many species entrusted to their care.

There are many things that MDFWP does well, but the management of predators and endangered species is not one of them. In these instances, it appears that hunter/trapping/economic interests are put ahead of the welfare of the wildlife they have a Public Trust obligation to protect.

I hope in the future I can write a more positive note, one congratulating the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks on its willingness to challenge age old dogma.




  1. Dan Avatar


    As an occasional hunter, I agree with you about the cruelty of (most) traps. Most puzzling of all are the laws that do not allow hunting of fur-bearing animals, but only trapping! As for the Wolverine, it is an amazing animal. We should protect it.

    Thanks for the article!

  2. Mike Avatar

    MFWP needs to join modern society. As someone who “pays in” to MFWP every year, I expect them to use science and common sense in their decision-making process.

    It’s an embarrassment that they’d seek a trapping exemption for Montana. I’m sure we have that goofy senator to blame for that little kernel.

    Trapping is on the way out. What was once a necessary practice to survive harsh winters while setting this country is now barbaric and pointless. Montana can buy a lot of goodwill by recognizing this.

    1. alf Avatar

      “Trapping is on the way out. What was once a necessary practice to survive harsh winters while setting this country is now barbaric and pointless. Montana can buy a lot of goodwill by recognizing this.”

      We in Idaho, of course, in our infinite wisdom, in the general election just last November enshrined “the right to trap” in an amendment to the state’s constitution. Go figure.

      1. april lane Avatar
        april lane

        Very sad for ID

  3. ramses09 Avatar

    Mike, excellent points & I could not have said it any better. With any predator, they seem to ignore the science.
    I know more people would rather see a live wolverine than a dead one. That goes for all of the wildlife. But, the little bit of money that they get for hunting, trapping & snaring, makes those people @ MFWP crazy. I just don’t understand the whole thinking of torture & killing an animal. It seems to me that there is a connection somewhere in a behavior called
    narcissism. jmho though.

  4. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue


    Well written piece. Genetics aside, you addressed what is the most overlooked portion of predatory life cycles,their social interactions. The complexity of these social interactions, and the effect of interruption of said interactions are lost on a great number, if not most of the individuals who either make the decisions to, or actually engage in the practice of “harvesting” these animals.

    1. Louise Kane Avatar

      Immer I don’t think the issue of sociality in canids is lost, its ignored. Which is worse, more callous and inhumane.

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Since MDFWP has virtually no information about numbers, distribution and age of the state’s wolverine other than what they glean from trappers and dead wolverine that trappers must relinquish, the department’s assurances that they have a good handle on wolverine numbers in the state is more bluster than reality.

    This stands out also.

  6. Jerry Black Avatar

    Over the past few years I have spoken to several wolverine researchers (after public presentations) and it’s their unanimous opinion that trapping is the #1 cause of wolverine mortality…HOWEVER, you won’t hear them publically state that…it’s always “off the record” because they don’t want to jeopardize their funding or their ability to obtain permits to trap and study the animals.
    The agencies hold the power.

  7. rork Avatar

    Dropping the “elephant in the room” paragraph would have made the article just about the biology. I think it would have been better that way. Including it opens you up to persnickety questions, like whether it is ethical for me to go steelhead fishing on Saturday, when I have no intention of killing any (they are worth too much). I know what Cousteau would say for me as an individual (that it is wrong), but at the population level, anglers help provide stewardship through money and elbow grease. I’ll be volunteering myself identifying and counting Plecoptera, and working on a stretch where we got a dam removed that needs cover.

    I do think I might like trying to influence state policy, compared to lawyering up at the national level, and it seems like you think that has some chance. Perhaps I was just reading with my fantasy glasses on though.
    Thanks for article.

  8. Filip Panusz Avatar

    At risk of sounding redundant, here is a response I threw together recently on behalf of our organization, Footloose Montana. (Should be appearing in the press shortly.) Seems like George and I are on the same wavelength…

    A number of articles have appeared statewide in recent days announcing Montana Fish Wildlife & Park’s (FWP) decision to oppose threatened status for Montana’s wolverine. Some of these articles have argued that the threats to wolverine populations have nothing to do with trapping, implying that the trapping should therefore continue. This argument flies in the face of reason. And science.

    No one will argue that global warming and habitat fragmentation are not playing an important role in compromising wolverine population viability. Nonetheless, and regardless of the causes, FWP has a responsibility to protect our state’s precious wildlife. If there were only a dozen wolverine remaining, would FWP still propose that trapping be permitted simply because it had not caused the problem? The causes are irrelevant. The cautionary principle alone dictates that insisting upon a few recreational opportunities despite the very real risks that this species faces is an example of gross negligence and irresponsibility on the part of wildlife officials.

    It is not enough to say that taking a few individuals is unlikely to harm the population. Wildlife officials themselves have readily admitted that accurate data for wolverine numbers is hard to come by. If there is such uncertainty involved, how can anyone be sure that a quota of five will not do irrevocable harm to population viability? Can a baited trap discriminate between a pregnant and a non-pregnant female? Can it guarantee that the female it catches is not the last remaining fertile female in a local sub-population of several individuals?

    Best available science approximates that the effective population (those individuals capable of contributing reproductively to future generations) of wolverine in the entire Northern Rocky Mountains of the United States is roughly 35 individuals. Even if we ignore that some of those individuals live outside of Montana, and even if we assume there are no other non-target trapping casualties above the quota, five is already 15% of that number!

    This brash intransigence on the part of FWP points to a deeper problem. Namely, the agency is highly politicized, and its claims of scientific objectivity are often a mere façade. FWP often caters to small but powerful interest groups, such as the Montana Trappers Association, and, in doing so, are remiss in their primary duty to manage a public resource for all Montanans, including future generations. There is absolutely no justifiable reason to value a trapper’s recreational whims above science or conservation.

    In recent months Footloose Montana has participated in a lawsuit against FWP’s wolverine trapping only because FWP has repeatedly denied requests to reevaluate their priorities on this issue. We regret the necessity of such legal action, but we do hope that the pressure it has brought to bear upon both State and Federal authorities will finally result in much needed protections for the rare and remarkable wolverine.

    Filip Panusz
    Executive Director
    Footloose Montana

    1. Louise Kane Avatar

      Filip, well stated. Think about the absurd irresponsibility, of trapping wolverines (numbering in the tens) akin to killing any of the Mexican wolves (also numbering in the tens) or increasing coyote killing in red wolf country. The wolverine for recreation and the MW and RW for a cattle depredation. How stupid. These agencies are supposed to be caring for wildlife as a trust resource.

      This brash intransigence on the part of FWP points to a deeper problem. Namely, the agency is highly politicized, and its claims of scientific objectivity are often a mere façade. FWP often caters to small but powerful interest groups, such as the Montana Trappers Association, and, in doing so, are remiss in their primary duty to manage a public resource for all Montanans, including future generations. There is absolutely no justifiable reason to value a trapper’s recreational whims above science or conservation.

  9. Kathleen Avatar

    In June 2008 a good many of us from groups large and small and as individuals testified at the FWP commission meeting where quotas were tentatively set. We asked for a complete closure of wolverine trapping. (Keep in mind that FWP itself had the wolverine listed as a “species of concern” at this time.) The minutes are here

    We went back in August for the commission meeting where quotas were adopted–this is when they reduced the quota from 10 to 5 (with female sub-quotas). One FWP administrator said, quoted from the minutes, “The intent is to provide limited, but highly valued, trapping opportunities.” Those 8/5 minutes are here

    It was at this meeting that a trapper from the MT Furbearer Conservation Alliance (Kalispell) pleaded for wolverine trapping to remain open, calling the wolverine ‘the Holy Grail of trapping.’ Also at this 2008 meeting, the individual with whom I was sitting stood up and delivered the news about effective population size–at that time it was thought to be 39. This info, found in the Federal Register, is quoted here:

    “Effective population for wolverines in the Rocky Mountains averaged 39 (Schwartz 2007, entire). This effective population size is exceptionally low (Schwartz 2007, entire), and is below what is required for short-term maintenance of genetic diversity.”
    Link, FWS finding on a petition to list:
    Effective population subheading can be found at the bottom of page 12936.

    But even this didn’t sway the commission, whose decision was already made. So it’s only slightly shocking that today, 4-1/2 years later, they are thumbing their noses at ESA listing so that their staff and cronies can continue pursuing their Holy Grail.

    1. Filip Panusz Avatar

      Thank you Kathleen. I hope everyone read your post. It sheds a bright light on the entire process.

      1. Robert R Avatar
        Robert R

        Filip your not a native of Montana are you ?

        1. Nancy Avatar

          Robert R – I think there are many who’s ancestors settled in Montana but few who can actually claim to be a “native” of Montana 🙂

          1. Robert R Avatar
            Robert R

            Very few Nancy !!!

        2. Jeff N. Avatar
          Jeff N.

          Robert R.,

          If you are suggesting that Filip isnt qualified to comment on Montana wildlife issues if Filip isn’t a Montana native, I would suggest that if you aren’t Flathead or Blackfoot, or from any other Native American culture from Montana, you may want to apply your same old tired logic to yourself.

          Maybe you should go to a library and check out a book about Montana’s native cultures.

          1. Robert R Avatar
            Robert R

            Jeff this my business and I am a fourth generation Montana native and have spent far more time in the outdoors than most of you will in a life time.
            I did not suggest Filip was not qualified and it was a direct question for him not to (you).

            1. Jeff N. Avatar
              Jeff N.

              Robert R.,

              What is your business? Curious.

              1. MAD Avatar

                I get so weary of these small-minded people who get hung up on “well how long have YOU lived here??”

                I’m a transplant to MT from the evil East Coast and I don’t really give a rat’s ass if you or your family has been here 100 years or 100 minutes. If you choose to live in this state, then I respect your opinion as a resident. I live in MT, I work for the state, I own property here, enuff said. I still respect people’s opinion even if they’re not residents, but I guess that’s because I’m an eastern interloper.

                What are we children in a schoolyard fighting? “I’ve lived here longer than you, so there!!!”

              2. savebears Avatar


                If you live here, pay taxes and enjoy the bounty that Montana offers, then no problem.

                I do get tire of it as well, I don’t try to tell them what to do in the UP of Michigan, I don’t try to tell them what to do in California, I have very little knowledge of what goes on there, I just wish people would at least visit and talk to locals before they make proclamations on us.

                If your going to fight for a cause, then at least visit and talk to us, learn our belief’s before you start calling us rednecks who only want to increase the size of our body parts!

              3. Robert R Avatar
                Robert R

                I love Montana, what about you guys?

                Jeff to your ? You can keep guessing.

                Madd you may change your thoughts and opinions but most people are set in there ways and have their own values.

              4. Jeff N. Avatar
                Jeff N.

                Robert R.,

                I answered your question in detail. I’ve asked you a simple question and yet you refuse to answer. Are you ashamed of something?

              5. Mike Avatar

                ++I get so weary of these small-minded people who get hung up on “well how long have YOU lived here??”++

                It’s a common tactic and a smokescreen.

                I’ve met hunters from Montana who don’t know what a marten is, and people in downtown Chicago who do.

                Ecosystem knowledge is attained by consistent, enthusiastic interest, regardless of physical location.

            2. Jeff N. Avatar
              Jeff N.

              Robert R.,

              To clarify….today you asked me a question in another thread and I provided my answer in detail. In turn I’ve asked questions of you, and you refuse to answer.

              1. Robert R Avatar
                Robert R

                Jeff ask yourself why?

              2. Jeff N. Avatar
                Jeff N.

                Jeff N: Why does Robert R. not answer my question?

                Jeff N: Because he can’t come up with a decent answer.

                Jeff N: Thanks for the answer Jeff N.

                Jeff N: You are welcome Jeff N.

            3. Mike Avatar

              Robert –

              I just spent almost two months in a tent in Montana. Each year in my excursions, I come across Montana residents who don’t even know what a fisher is. Living in Montana has absolutely nothing to do with understanding the ecosystem.

              What does correlate with ecosystem knowledge is consistent, enthusiastic study, not relying on the Caucasian- over-50 email list with falsely attributed quotes (usually George Carlin).

              1. Robert R Avatar
                Robert R

                Mike this the only I will agree with you on is most residents don’t even know there state or the wildlife that lives there. Mike so your saying someone who reads about ecosystems knows more about them than one who is in one everyday.
                I don’t have to live in a tent because I live in the country.

              2. Harley Avatar


                I think the whole point of people who live there vs. people who do not is that decisions made by people who do not even live there affect those that do. We may say, yay, we saved such and such an eco system and go on to the next battle, but it won’t ever directly affect us. I’ve said this before, I surely would not want someone from New York deciding for me how to best live my life here in Illinois.

              3. Harley Avatar


                I just noticed the click to edit and request to delete links under my post! Awesome!! Thank you if that is due to your changing!!

    2. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      “Holy Grail of trapping”
      sounds a lot like a Louisiana state senator named Mason Spencer that shot 1 of the last ivorybilled woodpeckers in the 1930’s. He did it to prove he could…no one believed he had seen one.
      Nice to know those types are still lurking out there.

  10. Savebears Avatar

    After my experience working for the agency, I can’t honestly say it is thumbing their nose at the ESA, but the rising tide in the country, I would have to say it is thumbing their nose at the root of the Federal Government. This is not unique to Montana, many states in the last year have done the same thing on a wide variety of issues.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      So, again I’ll ask SB, where do we go from here for those of us that truely care about other species and what’s left of their habitat.

      The “game farm” mentality, that’s been so prevalent out here in the west, because of years of “management” was brought about by those that just wanted something back on the landscape to shoot at and feed on.

      1971 Game Management In Montana (F&G) copy states in the preface, these words:

      “To permit an increase of any wild bird or animal over and above the available food supply is to destroy that bird or animal just as surely as by overshooting”

      Freeman, Chief
      Game Management Division

      Nowhere in that copy, does it take into account, a futuristic look at where wildlife might be today IF Mankind had just taken a good hard look awhile back, with regard to our own species and the “over and above available food sources” 🙂

      1. Savebears Avatar


        You can keep asking and I can simply say,

        I don’t know, I don’t have the answer, I really wish I did.

      2. Elk275 Avatar

        Nancy mankind is going to kept making babies and each generation demanding a better standard of living. If it is not Americans then it will be immgrants legal or illegal. More children mean more use of resources. It is not going to stop. There are those who believe that the earth is to be used up with Christ returning at that time.

        1. Immer Treue Avatar
          Immer Treue


          Splitting no hairs with you, but the philosophy of the quote you provided.

          ” There are those who believe that the earth is to be used up with Christ returning at that time.”

          Due to the rather cynical aura that casts its spell upon me at this time, I could say many things that would offend, astound, or both.

          I will refrain from those remarks, and simply state that the above quote is just plain offensive to a discerning mind.

          1. Elk275 Avatar

            That is not my belief, that is other peoples belief. Some of those who believe that statement are currently have positions of power.

            1. Immer Treue Avatar
              Immer Treue


              I hoped in my reply to you that you would understand that I knew the quote was not your personal philosophy. My apology if you took it that way.

              I grow increasingly addled at the behavior of those hiding behind Any type of god, or religious belief as just another opportunity to “exploit” the Earth, and it’s inhabitants.

        2. Mike Avatar

          ++There are those who believe that the earth is to be used up with Christ returning at that time.++

          Yes. They are known as “crazy”.

  11. Craig Avatar

    Great article with very good points! Wish I could convaey them as well as you did!

  12. Louise Kane Avatar

    George thank you again for an extremely well written post.
    A well made and hard hitting documentary about the corruption in wildlife management and the treatment of predators nationwide is needed. Then a national strategy and campaign to relist wolves and protect predators from killing contests, trapping, snaring, hunting with dogs, baiting and electronic calls and all the other hideous torturous methods of killing them. In fisheries, cod, the once most prolific fish on earth that sustained and built entire nations has collapsed due to super efficient technology and overfishing. How will wolves, coyotes, and predators fare against snowmobiles, electronic calls, packs of dogs, baiting, traps and snares set out by the hundreds or thousands… across all of their habitat, seasons that run for months and wildlife agencies that issue thousands of licenses? It’s mind boggling to think that this is acceptable in these times, and that wildlife “managers” are complicit in terrorizing wildlife like this.

  13. MAD Avatar

    The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is advertising on their website that they have obtained an extension on their TRO for wolverine trapping.
    On January 7, 2013 – a Montana judge granted our joint motion to extend the temporary restraining order granted on November 30, which effectively ends the 2012-2013 wolverine trapping season!

  14. Jim Costello Avatar

    In recent years Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has become influenced more by political pressure and less by the biological realities. The agency needs to get back to the basics of wildlife management.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner