Wolverine latest wildlife endangered by climate change

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Climate change may spell disaster for wolverines, a reclusive resident of the mountains of the Northwest, but other wildlife species are a higher priority for government protection, officials said on Monday.

Wolverines resemble small bears with bushy tails and are cousins to everything from sea otters to skunks. They are known for their voracious appetites, cantankerous dispositions and preference for extreme alpine environments.

While the polar bear in 2008 was the highest profile species to receive U.S. government protection because of the warming global climate, the wolverine is also affected.

Scientists say wolverine numbers in the high country of Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming have dwindled to fewer than 300 and they are virtually gone from the rest of their historic range in the lower 48 states -- including Michigan where the University of Michigan mascot is the wolverine.

Wolverines, which eat meat and range from 17 to 40 pounds, need deep snow in seclusion to reproduce and raise their young. Mother wolverines dig elaborate snow caves for dens. A study by the University of Washington and U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station predicts that a warming West will cut suitable wolverine habitat by 23 percent in 2045 and by 63 percent in 2099.

“The threats to the wolverines are long-term due to the impacts of climate change on their denning habitat,” Steve Guertin, regional Fish and Wildlife Service director, said in a statement.

Extreme winter sports are making it even more difficult for wolverines, with snowmobilers and skiers seeking the rugged and remote terrain preferred by the people-shy animals.

But Fish and Wildlife officials say the animals must get in line behind other species deemed by the service to have a higher priority as candidates for listing.

Conservation groups praised the government’s decision to acknowledge the wolverine’s dwindling population, but this does not does not result in a plan to protect them.

“It’s a tough species to restore because we still know very little about them but it is frustrating and disappointing that we will have to wait for years until they’re actually listed,” said David Gaillard, Rocky Mountain representative with Defenders of Wildlife.

Wolverine whereabouts and numbers have been tracked only recently, with an estimated 100 in the Sawtooth Range of central Idaho and a high-density population of up to 50 animals in Glacier National Park.

Development, including cities, roads and ski resorts, has confined wolverine range to isolated islands. Scientists say that places the animals at undue risk by forcing them to wander hundreds of miles in search of mates.

Environmentalists last petitioned in 2000 to have wolverines added to the endangered species list. Eight years later, the government said protections were not warranted.

Conservation groups sued, forcing the Fish and Wildlife Service to revisit -- and now reverse -- the decision by the administration of former President George W. Bush.

Wolverines join more than 250 animal and plant species considered candidates for federal protections.

Editing by Dan Whitcomb