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Wolverines to be protected by Endangered Species Act in Wyoming, lower 48

The federal decision marks the end of a decades-long conservation push and recognizes threats to the elusive carnivore.

A camera trap remotely captured this image of a wolverine in the Bonneville Pass area of the Absaroka Range in 2015. (Meghan Riley)

At the start of the new year, the North American wolverine will be protected as a threatened species under federal law, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday.

The federal agency will publish a notice of the final rule in the Federal Register today stating that the Endangered Species Act will protect the elusive high-mountain carnivore. Wolverines will become a threatened species, meaning it will be illegal to import, export, take (which means kill) or transport them.

The agency also will publish an “interim rule” that absolves responsibility for unintended wolverine deaths due to lawful trapping of other species, forest management and research. The public can comment on that provision for the next 60 days.

Why it matters

Although wolverine populations are difficult to assess, researchers believe they are few and far between and that their habitat is being fragmented, disrupted and altered by human activities and climate change. Without federal laws protecting the ferocious mustelid — a member of the weasel, otter and badger family that weighs between about 15 to 40 pounds — scientists believe it could go extinct across part of its range.

Wolverines are found in Wyoming and other parts of the northern Rockies, the Cascades and in Canada and Alaska. The threatened status will cover the contiguous U.S. in the hopes it will ensure long-term survival of the species. Fish and Wildlife personnel earlier this month anticipated the listing and said Wednesday that critical habitat for the species has yet to be defined.


Efforts to protect the wolverine under the ESA have been ongoing for years and were recently boosted by an updated biological study based on the best available science. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the protection was needed after a judge told the agency that it should reassess earlier declarations that special laws were not necessary.

Fish and Wildlife proposed protecting the species in 2013. But in 2020, under the Trump administration, it changed course and said protection was not warranted. That led to lawsuits and a judge’s order to reconsider ESA protections.

Who said what

The federal agency is not worried that trappers in Wyoming will kill wolverines, stating that trapping is prohibited in much of the species’ range including Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Many traps used in wolverine habitat are designed for smaller marten, the agency said, citing Wyoming Game and Fish literature. Larger traps are also unlikely to affect wolverines because they are on private land, partially submerged or have devices to limit unintended killings.

This map shows wolverine core habitat in brown, wolverine sightings between 2017 and 2023 in blue and those between 2009 and 2016 in red. (USFWS)

Wyoming classified wolverines as protected animals under its own game laws.

“We will continue to monitor populations and document observations as we have done in the past,” Doug Brimeyer, deputy chief of Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife division, wrote in an email. “The main change will be more coordination with the Service as we look at the next rangewide survey in two years.”

Conservationists began lobbying for protection in 1994 and pointed to six rounds of litigation before the federal decision.“Like so many other species, wolverines waited far too long for federal protections,” Andrea Zaccardi, the carnivore conservation legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement, “but I’m overjoyed that they’re finally on the path to recovery.” Timothy Preso, an Earthjustice attorney who represented conservation groups, said the decision “gives the wolverine a fighting chance at survival.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.