Surely the last thing a visitor to Long Beach Peninsula expects to encounter on the shoreline is one of North America’s most elusive carnivores — an animal built more for the cold heights of the North Cascades than the sandy beaches of south Pacific County.
But the image of a wolverine feasting on a beach carcass went around the world in news feeds last month, a testament to our fascination with one of the most mysterious predators in the country.
It should also be a moment to pause and remember that these fierce creatures have nearly vanished from the United States and need substantial protection if they are to remain in the wild — and not so wild — corners of the nation.
Mysterious and solitary, wolverines are among the least-studied carnivores in North America. That’s partly because of the steep rate of decline these animals have suffered in the last century. Wolverines have disappeared from many of the places they once occurred following historic trapping and now habitat loss to activities like snowmobiles and development.
There are now fewer than 300 wolverines left in the U.S., and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that only 20 live in Washington. State biologists tracked a population of 13 wolverines in the North Cascades from 2005 to 2013, and individuals have been detected near Mount Adams and in the Goat Rocks Wilderness in the South Cascades.
Climate change is a critical factor impacting the lives of wolverines. Rising global temperatures threaten the deep snow they rely on to build dens for their young. This may help explain why the female wolverine seen at Long Beach was scavenging so far from its typical habitat.
Despite the wolverines’ scarcity, the federal government has refused again and again to protect them. Unfortunately, their fate is ensnared in the fundamental denial by both the Obama and Trump administrations to acknowledge global warming’s devastating impact on the environment.
Originally, federal authorities simply rejected proof of their imperiled status within the U.S. In 2008, the Center for Biological Diversity and allies sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for refusing to protect wolverines under the Endangered Species Act. Five years later, agency biologists concluded that global warming was reducing the snowpack females need for denning, and the Service proposed listing the species as “threatened” for the first time.
But in 2014, according to a leaked memo (tinyurl.com/Wolverine-Memo), the Service’s scientists were ordered to reverse their own conclusions that global warming would wipe out 63% of the wolverines’ snowpack habitat and was “threatening the species with extinction.” The proposed listing was pulled.
In response, the Center and allies successfully sued the Service in 2016. A Montana federal district judge directed the Service to take swift action on requests to grant them legal protection.
Again, the feds dragged their feet. In November 2019, the Service missed its own internal deadline for deciding whether wolverines should be protected. This prompted a new lawsuit by conservation groups in March — the latest step in the 20-year legal battle to protect the species.
While bureaucrats dither, global temperatures continue to rise and the outlook for wolverines worsens. At the start of the year, Washington’s snowpack measured 48% of normal.
It’s hard to determine why this shy female wolverine wandered so far from the mountains. But it’s safe to say she — and the rest of her species — are on a difficult journey. If we fail to protect what remains of these wonderful animals in the U.S., we risk adding the wolverine to the list of species lost within our borders — a ghost relegated to history books and distant memory.