BILLINGS, Mont. — The fierce but elusive wolverine got a last-minute reprieve Friday from a trapping season due to start this weekend in Montana, after a state judge issued a restraining order sought by conservationists who say climate change threatens the predators’ long-term survival.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock said the potential for trapping to damage the species’ population outweighed the loss of any recreational harvest opportunities.
Montana is the only state in the Lower 48 that allows wolverine trapping. Up to five can be harvested each season — a level state officials and trappers had argued was sustainable and did not threaten the overall population.
Conservation and sporting groups sued in October to force Montana wildlife officials to halt the practice. That came after an earlier petition to ban trapping was denied by the state.
Trapping opponents cited a 2010 finding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that said climate change may threaten the predators’ long-term survival.
Wolverines are tough enough to fight off a grizzly bear when cornered. But they generally stick to high elevations with deep snow, and the government projected their habitat will shrink dramatically in coming decades.
An estimated 250 to 300 wolverines live in the Lower 48. Most are in Montana and Idaho but some have ranged into Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming and Colorado. There are larger populations in Alaska, where trapping also is permitted, and as many as 20,000 wolverines in Canada.
Given that Montana’s trapping season was due to open Saturday morning, a plaintiff in the lawsuit said Sherlock’s ruling came “in the nick of time.”
“We think there are enough other threats that wolverines are facing, with climate change and habitat loss, that trapping is not another one that needs to be piled on top of them,” said Arlene Montgomery with Friends of the Wild Swan, a Montana-based conservation group that is among the plaintiffs in the case.
In his Friday ruling, Sherlock said he would re-evaluate the restraining order against Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks following a Jan 10 hearing in Helena.
The state’s trapping season was scheduled to run through Feb. 15.
Paul Fielder with the Montana Trappers Association said Sherlock had overstepped his bounds by weighing in against the state’s professional wildlife managers who set the trapping season. He added that Sherlock’s characterization of trapping as a recreational pursuit was inaccurate.
“If somebody can trap a wolverine and sell a wolverine pelt for $500, and they can make a house payment with that money or pay groceries with that money, that comes down to subsistence,” Fielder said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists said in 2010 that wolverines were warranted for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency said warmer temperatures at high elevations could reduce the animals’ habitat and increase their isolation from one another, but declined to provide new protections due to competing priorities.
A spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said there still could be time to hold a trapping season this winter depending on the outcome of the January hearing.
Spokesman Tom Palmer said Montana is considered one of the species’ strongholds, and state’s trapping quota is justified.
“We believe that it’s a sustainable, conservative number and we’ll get our chance to argue those points in January,” Palmer said.