Wolverine Sightings Are Extremely Rare in the US: Here’s Why

by Lauren Boisvert
(Photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images)

The wolverine is a rare sight in the US, but why is that? Are they endangered? Just how many are there?

North American wolverines are the largest member of the weasel family, or Mustelidae, and weigh around 40 pounds fully grown. Another subspecies of wolverine also exists, called the Eurasian wolverine. It is only found in four European countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

Wolverines thrive in cold, dry climates and high elevations. In the US, that’s places like Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Up until the 1930s, trappers coveted their pelts, which left the population depleted. Now, many parts of the US have outlawed wolverine hunting. But, they can still get lured into traps for other animals.

What Threatens the Wolverine?

Humans are one of the biggest threats to wolverines, as they are predominantly solitary animals. This makes them susceptible to human intrusion, as there’s no protection of a pack to ward off predators. Wolverines travel many miles to claim their land, and inherently know when another wolverine has taken a swath of land as their own. They don’t trespass, respectful of other wolverines’ territories. The same can’t be said for human interaction; we don’t know when we’re trespassing, unless we see a wolverine, which is an incredibly rare sight.

Climate change is also greatly affecting wolverine populations; they rely on thick packs of snow in order to burrow and raise their young. With snow thinning in the mountains, places where wolverines can live are limited. But, while their population is decreasing, with about 300 left in North America, their endangered status is Least Concern. What can we do to save the wolverine?

Conservation Efforts in the US

US Fish and Wildlife suggested listing the wolverine on the endangered species list in 2013, but recanted in 2014. There, apparently, was insufficient data to conclude if human-caused climate change was responsible for depleting the snow packs wolverines used as dens. According to The Atlantic in 2016, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, as well as snowmobile associations and oil and fracking companies, backed the decision to recant.

Currently, we know Colorado is working to create a plan to reintroduce wolverines to the state. The last wolverine sighting in Colorado was in 2009, and before that in 1919, so the wolverine is incredibly rare. Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Travis Duncan spoke to the Colorado Sun about the department’s hopes for the plan.

“We will be working with a wolverine expert who is going to take on updating and providing greater detail on a wolverine restoration and management plan,” said Duncan. “The contract isn’t in place yet, but we hope to be able to say more on this soon.”

Utah Collars Its First Wolverine

Additionally, Utah recently captured, collared, and relocated their first wolverine. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources found a wolverine feasting on a dead sheep, and caught it the next day. DWR biologists examined the animal, determining it to be a male between 3 and 4 years old, and in great condition. They put a GPS collar on the wolverine, hoping to solve the mystery of why there are so few sightings. There have only been 8 sightings in Utah since 1979.

In February, Judge Dana Christensen rejected US Fish and Wildlife’s denial of protection for the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act. Judge Christensen claimed that the agency reversed its stance under “immense political pressure”; because of this, there’s hope that other animals threatened by climate change could be protected under the Endangered Species Act.