By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Conservationists on Thursday asked a state judge to end trapping of wolverines in Montana at a time when fewer than 300 of the elusive animals roam the Northern Rockies and Northern Cascades.
Montana is the only one of the lower 48 U.S. states that permits the harvesting of wolverines, carnivores that resemble small bears with bushy tails. They are sought for their fur.
Allowing licensed sportsmen to kill woverines is a direct violation of Montana's state policy of maintaining or restoring populations of rare animals, the conservationists argued in a lawsuit filed on Thursday in state court in Montana.
Federal biologists estimate that between 250 and 300 wolverines remain in the high country of Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming.
The civil court fight comes two years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved to protect wolverines because warming climates threaten the mountain snows they use for dens and food storage. A final decision on whether wolverines are granted threatened or endangered status was expected by 2014.
In Montana, trappers each year are allowed to catch five wolverines - reduced from 10 in 2008.
The lawsuit was filed on Thursday by Alliance for the Wild Rockies and seven other conservation groups is an effort to stop trapping altogether in Montana.
Ron Aasheim, spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said state wildlife managers believe the trapping each year of five wolverines is sustainable. He said the state halved the trapping quota in recognition that "we needed to do some things to ensure long-term viability."
Michael Garrity, head of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said scaling back the harvest was not sufficient.
"The state doesn't want to admit wolverines are almost extinct," he said.
Wolverines are known for their voracious appetites and cantankerous dispositions. Their solitary nature and their preference for extreme alpine environments have made it difficult for scientists to estimate population numbers.
Climate change was predicted to reduce suitable wolverine habitat in the lower 48 states by 23 percent as of 2045 and by 63 percent as of 2099, according to the University of Washington and the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Eric Walsh)