The federal Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Friday to give Endangered Species Act protections to the wolverine, one of the largest and hardiest members of the weasel family, largely because climate change is whittling away its wintry habitat in the northern Rockies.
The action was prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Arizona, and Defenders of Wildlife, whose efforts to get federal protections for the species were rebuffed during the administration of President George W. Bush.
About 300 of the elusive animals live and forage in the high mountains of the Northwest.
If made final, the proposal to list the animal as threatened would put wolverines, like polar bears, elkhorn coral and staghorn coral, into a small but growing group of species whose survival is threatened by global warming, rather than traditional threats like predators or logging.
"Extensive climate modeling indicates that the wolverine's snowpack habitat will be greatly reduced and fragmented in the coming years due to climate warming, thereby threatening the species with extinction," the proposed rule said.
The fierce predators, whose wide feet and sharp claws keep them agile during mountain winters, weigh 25 to 45 pounds when fully grown but will fight a bear that strays into their territory. They raise newborn kits in burrows deep beneath snows that do not melt until mid-May.
After being trapped to near-extinction as part of the 19th-century fur trade, wolverines were so rare that they fell out of the public consciousness or were confused with wolves, an entirely different species. Even the actor Hugh Jackman, who plays the Marvel Comics character Wolverine in the "X-Men" movies, recently said he had prepared for the role by studying wolves.
But for scientists and naturalists who monitor the species, wolverines are a source of fascination with intricate biological mechanisms, including a thyroid that supercharges their metabolism and an extra coat for insulation. Their jaws are strong enough to crack the frozen bones of their prey. The new proposal, as written, would not restrict logging or winter recreation -- like snowmobiling -- in the wolverine's habitat, but it would end the intentional trapping of the animals.
Timothy Preso, a lawyer handling the lawsuit, praised the proposal, saying it offered "a welcome promise of new efforts to protect the mountains where wolverines are found and the intervening lands they'll need."science
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.