By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The U.S. government proposed adding wolverines, feisty but rare members of the weasel family, to the federal threatened and endangered species list on Friday because global warming is reducing the mountain snows the animals need for survival.
Fewer than 300 wolverines, solitary creatures said to resemble small bears with bushy tails, are believed to exist in the lower 48 United States, where they mostly inhabit the high country of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Washington state.
The reclusive animals, which eat everything from birds to berries, build their dens, reproduce and store food in areas with snow deeper than five feet in high-elevation environments unoccupied by humans and undisturbed by snowmobilers and skiers.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement announcing the proposal that it would accept public comment until May 6 on a plan to classify wolverines in the continental United States as threatened and allow new populations to be established in the Southern Rockies, including Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
The proposed listing as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act would generally outlaw intentional killing of the animals, whose fur is prized by trappers.
Rising temperatures and declining snowpack in the mountains are likely to reduce suitable wolverine habitat in the lower 48 states by 63 percent by the end of this century, according to predictions by government scientists.
Viable populations of wolverines once roamed expansive tracts of the northern Cascades, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada before widespread trapping and poisoning severely diminished their numbers and range.
Wolverines may cover more than a dozen miles a day across rugged terrain in search of food, believed to be the primary factor driving the animals' movements and explaining the vastness of their home ranges, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
CONSERVATIONISTS WANT STRONGER MEASURES
Conservationists, who waged legal battles for years to provide safeguards for wolverines, applauded the moves to protect wolverines but said stronger measures were needed.
They expressed concern that the Fish and Wildlife Service was putting off plans to set aside extreme alpine areas favored by wolverines as critical habitat, and complained the service won't regulate greenhouse gas emissions for animals imperiled by global warming.
"It doesn't make any sense for the Obama administration to be acknowledging wolverines are endangered by climate change and yet, at the same time, not seek to address greenhouse gases," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Federal wildlife officials said addressing global climate impacts is beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act, which was not designed to control air emissions by everything from coal-fired power plants to cars.
Wildlife officials in Montana, the only one of the lower 48 states that permits licensed harvesting of the elusive carnivore, said trapping for wolverines would remain closed for the foreseeable future.
"No matter what the ultimate decision turns out to be, Montana will make a strong case to maintain authority to manage its wildlife, including the ability to trap other species, like wolves, that may sometimes share habitat with the wolverine," Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Jeff Hagener said in a statement.
Conservation groups last year sued the state to stop the practice, and in November a judge issued an injunction on trapping of wolverines a day before the season was to open.
Wolverines, which weigh up to 40 pounds (18 kg) and measure up to 34 inches long, are known for their voracious appetites, self-sufficiency and toughness.
"It's an animal that has a look of, ‘Get out of my way, I'm coming through,'" said Brent Esmoil, acting field supervisor of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, Montana.
Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Shawn Sartorius said wolverines are almost always grouchy on the rare occasions researchers encounter them.
"I've never seen one smile," he said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, David Gregorio and Eric Walsh)