Climate outlook grim for wolverines in lower 48

Climate outlook grim for wolverines in lower 48
This undated photo shows a wolverine in Glacier National Park, Mont., taken by biologist Jeff Copeland. (AP Photo/Glalcier National Park, Jeff Copeland, via The Missoulian)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — New computer modeling reinforces that climate change could spell trouble for another high-elevation species, the wolverine.

A warmer climate could reduce the winter and spring mountain snowfall that helps protect wolverine young, Synte Peacock, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., said Tuesday.

Snow insulates wolverine dens and shields wolverine kits from predators. In some mountainous areas of the West, average spring snow depth could decline by as much as fourfold by the end of this century.

Some places could become wetter, so the problem wouldn't necessarily be less precipitation.

"The main shift is from a lot of snowfall to temperatures causing that snow to fall as rain," said Peacock, an oceanographer who published her findings last month in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Summertime high temperatures could meanwhile rise above what the animals can tolerate, she said.

Her paper examined three scenarios based on worldwide efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions. Only the scenario that required significant work to curb carbon dioxide emissions didn't result in significantly less snowfall.

Wolverines are the largest member of the weasel family. They resemble small bears with bushy tails and are famously ferocious predators, known to take on sick caribou and other species several times their size.

Scientists also have warned in recent years that climate change could harm the lynx, an elusive cat, and pika, a high country rodent.

Climate change was a significant concern when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in December that wolverines in the West deserve federal protection that for now will go to other species facing more urgent threats.

The NCAR study appears to be good science that reinforces the finding, said Shawn Sartorius, the Fish and Wildlife lead biologist for wolverines.

The computer modeling isn't detailed enough to allow conclusions about what will happen to wolverine habitat in specific mountain ranges, he said.

"It's premature to conclude when wolverine habitat might be gone, or how much it would be reduced, from a paper like this," Sartorius said. "But the impacts are real."

Canada is home to perhaps 15,000-20,000 wolverines but no more than a few hundred exist in the lower 48 states, where predator control in the last century all but wiped them out. Most wolverines in the lower 48 states are in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and the northern Cascades in Washington state.

Lone, wandering wolverines have been documented in recent years in Colorado and California's Sierra Nevada. Recently Colorado has been taking another look at reintroducing wolverine populations.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife is aware of the NCAR research and climate change predictions, said agency spokesman Randy Hampton.

He pointed out that Colorado has more high country than other Western states and more potential wolverine habitat.

"Even in the face of climate change, as other states see significant impacts, we believe we'll still have habitat available," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.