US decision to protect wolverines will not include Alaska’s population

By Jasz Garrett

A wolverine trots through the snow. Wolverines rely on deep snowpacks to birth and raise their young. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

Juneau, Alaska (KINY) – The North American wolverine is set to receive threatened species protections under a Biden administration proposal released Wednesday. A decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service follows more than two decades of debate over the threats to the long-term survival of the rare species, of which only about 300 exist today in the lower 48.

The protections were rejected in 2020 under Trump, based on research advising populations were expanding, not contracting. However, federal wildlife officials changed course in a September analysis that said wolverines were “less secure than we described in our 2018 SSA.”

Officials wrote in the proposal that protections under the Endangered Species Act were needed “due primarily to the ongoing and increasing impacts of climate change and associated habitat degradation and fragmentation.”

Officials said that the growing risk to wolverines comes from changing snowfall patterns and rising sea levels.

The animals, which are the world’s largest species of terrestrial weasel, rely on deep snow to dig their dens and birth their young.

Another factor for the decision is that wolverines were wiped out by the early 1900s from unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns across most of the nation.

But in Alaska, the change will not go into effect.

Wolverines currently are widely distributed in Canada and Alaska.

Roy Churchwell, who is a Regional Management Coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the wolverines in the lower 48 are considered their own distinct population.

“Regulations for hunting and trapping of wolverines in Alaska won’t change from this, it’s solely focused on the populations in the lower 48,” he said.

There are wolverines present on Southeast Alaska’s mainland. Churchwell said they aren’t commonly found on Baranof Island, Admiralty Island, Prince of Wales Island, or Chichagof Island. But on the mainland, they are both hunted and trapped.

An Alaska Department of Fish and Game map shows the wolverine’s range in Alaska.

Hunters and trappers in Alaska harvest about 550 wolverines each year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Because wolverine reproductive potential and survivorship are low, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game knows it’s important to understand where and when animals are harvested to be sure the population is not overharvested.

Wolverines disperse depending on the availability of food and habitat resources, and animals dispersing from areas where they are not trapped replenish the population in areas where they are hunted and trapped.

Harvests are controlled by seasons and bag limits. Annual catches and the effects on the population are closely monitored by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to ensure that harvest by humans will not be a negative factor on Alaska’s wolverine populations.

Churchwell doesn’t expect to see a change in the state’s regulations unless another listing is made, which would take a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A wolverine rests in the grass. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Fish and Game)