Jan 18, 2024 - News

Where Washington wolverines roam

A wolverine, which is the largest member of the weasel family, in the snow.

Wolverines are expertly adapted for surviving in snow. The species' scientific name is Gulo gulo, which means "glutton glutton." Photo: Sylvain Cordier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Washington's wolverines were nearly rooted out in the mid-1900s due to predator control. Still, the biggest threat to the largest member of the weasel family is climate change, according to state and federal wildlife agencies.

Why it matters: Our state's Gulo gulo population is small but mighty, according to Jeff Lewis, the mesocarnivore conservation biologist for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW).

  • When people complained to Lewis about the University of Michigan Wolverines' win over the Huskies, Lewis pointed out that Michigan has never really had wolverines in the first place.
  • "We have some tremendous spots for this species and if we do a good job, we can keep them around," Lewis told Axios last week. "And they're certainly worth keeping around."

The intrigue: Wolverines are adapted to surviving the cold better than almost any other animal, Lewis said. They excel at burying and digging out carcasses from snow and ice, have enormous snowshoe-like paws and are "tough as nails."

Driving the news: After a three-decade battle that spanned five presidencies, the North American wolverine was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act late last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

State of play: Wolverines are found at high elevations in the Cascade Mountains from North Cascades National Park and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount Adams, as well as in northeastern Washington, per WDFW.

  • Because the animals are loners, live in remote areas, shy away from people and have huge territories — a home range of over 1,000 square kilometers is not unusual for a male — they are extremely hard to study, Lewis said.
  • Lewis said he doubts the population in the Cascades is as high as 30, though litters of kits were documented near Mount Rainier in 2018 and 2020 — but even if we have only 15 to 20, that would not be a "scary low" number, he said.
  • However, climate change is a substantial future threat and, according to WDFW spokesperson Chase Gunnell, the animals remain a candidate for state endangered species protections.

What they're saying: "Current and increasing impacts of climate change and associated habitat degradation and fragmentation are imperiling the North American wolverine," said Hugh Morrison, director of USFWS's Pacific Regional Office in a statement.

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