Lower 48’s Last Wolverine Trapping Season Heads to Court

By Beacon Staff

While wolverines’ protected status under the Endangered Species Act remains in limbo, Montana’s trapping season is quickly approaching and a coalition of conservation groups is trying to stop trappers from harvesting any wolverines in the state until the species rebounds to a stable population.

The Western Environmental Law Center out of Helena filed a lawsuit earlier this month against Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on behalf of the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, Friends of the Wild Swan, Montana Ecosystem Defense Council, Native Ecosystems Council, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the Swan View Coalition, Wild Earth Guardians, Footloose Montana and George Wuerthner.

Montana is the only state in the lower 48 that allows wolverine trapping.

The lawsuit, filed in district court in Helena, asserts that FWP is allowing the wolverine population to be damaged through trapping. The conservation groups had previously asked FWP to end trapping until the wolverine population becomes healthy enough that it would not need federal protection.

In December 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that wolverines deserved federal protection, particularly because of climate change’s detrimental effects on their cold, alpine habitat. But the agency has delayed acting on the recommendation while it develops listing proposals for other priority animals.

“Wolverines are tough animals, but they need all the help they can get right now in the face of a warming planet with shrinking and increasingly fragmented habitat,” Matthew Bishop, the attorney representing the groups, said in a statement.

“Trapping wolverine under these circumstances is making an already bleak situation worse.”

Montana’s trapping season runs Dec. 1 through Feb. 15 or until quotas for each region have been met. The overall quota is five, three of which are in Region 1. Montana’s estimated wolverine population is between 100-175, with roughly 35 of those being breeding females.

The state has the largest single concentration of wolverines in the lower 48, particularly in and around Glacier National Park.

FWP stands by the trapping season and the reasoning behind it.

“We believe that with the (trapping) season the population is sustainable – it’s conservative and it’s based on the best science we have,” FWP spokesperson Ron Aasheim told the Beacon. “That’s how we manage wildlife.”

The conservation groups contend that FWP has continued to ignore public comments that were submitted expressing concern over the damages brought by trapping.

“Montana state law requires Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to ‘assist in the maintenance or recovery’ of wolverines. We hoped to avoid litigation when we filed our petition in August,” Bishop said.

Bishop told the Beacon that an attempt would be made to stop the trapping season from starting Dec. 1 until the case is settled in court.

Bishop said the Western Environmental Law Center is also likely going to file a separate lawsuit in federal court against FWP because of lynx being incidentally killed by traps in Montana.

Four conservation organizations – WildEarth Guardians, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan and Native Ecosystems Council – served a notice of intent to sue FWP for allowing trapping in habitat for Canada lynx, a species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Nine lynx have been captured in traps in Montana since the species was listed in March 2000, and four are known to have died from trapping, according to FWP statistics.

“Montana has failed to safeguard lynx from the cruel vicissitudes of traps and snares,” Wendy Keefover, Carnivore Protection Program Director for WildEarth Guardians, said in a statement. “And that has resulted in the death and impairment of several animals, which impedes lynx recovery.”

The FWP Commission gave initial approval Oct. 11 to a new rule that would require trappers to maintain the tension on trap pens at a minimum of 8 pounds, which the commission hopes would reduce the chances of lynx, dogs and other animals from being incidentally caught. The regulation is up for a 30-day public comment.

Tom Barnes, president of the Montana Trappers Association, described the legal threats as the latest attacks on one of the oldest traditions in the state. Trapping has a long history in Montana and continues to be important to many residents, he said.

In the year for which the most recent data is available, there were 4,887 trapping licenses for various animals purchased in the state, according to FWP.

“There’s not a trapper in the field that wants to see any species go extinct or harvested to the point of extinction,” Barnes said.

Barnes said he questions the severity of trapping’s effects on both wolverine populations and lynx habitat. If the lawsuits are successful, he fears they would set a bad precedent.

“If they allow a select group of people to say we can’t have trapping anymore, what could possibly be next? Is it hunting? Is it fishing?” he said.

Whitefish resident Doug Chadwick became enamored with wolverines almost 10 years ago. The former wildlife biologist and longtime writer for National Geographic magazine volunteered to join a five-year study of wolverines in Glacier Park. Chadwick’s myth-busting research became the subject of “The Wolverine Way,” an extensive and highly praised book devoted to understanding the enigmatic animal.

“They are one of the greatest animals we have in our Flathead environment and nobody knows anything about them,” Chadwick told the Beacon recently.

“They’re such a survivor. They’re so tough. But they’re not tough enough to handle climate change and traps on top of other kinds of mortality,” he added.

Chadwick said he would like to see FWP play it safe with wolverines instead of risk losing the population similar to the 1920s when the animal nearly disappeared for good.

“I’m not anti-trapping. I just think extending the benefit of the doubt to (wolverines) should include pretty generous measures,” he said. “Why would we let them get scarcer and scarcer? This is a race back to the 19th century.”

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