Climate Models Suggest Tough Future for Wolverines

 

By Kylee Perez, 2-17-11

Wolverines are notoriously difficult to find in the wild. As climate change begins to threaten their dens in the United States, researchers say the animals could become even more rare.

New studies from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the U.S. Forest service suggest that climate change will begin to affect the snowpack that wolverines depend on to make their dens in the mountains of Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming .

Synte Peacock, a geophysical scientist at NCAR in Boulder, Colorado, focused on wolverines for her study because of a strong correlation between available snowpack and the animals’ ability to successfully produce offspring.

“[The snow] protects the kits from predators and it acts as insulation against the cold,” Peacock said. “They’re 100 grams and pure white so they need a thick insulator.”

Peacock used three different emissions scenarios—low, medium and high emission models —to determine when the snowpack would disappear in wolverine habitats in the lower 48 states. In the high-emission scenario—in which humans made no efforts to curtail greenhouse gasses—the wolverine’s habitat would begin losing snowpack by 2050 and disappear by 2100.

Because the effects of climate change are not immediate, the wolverine is not protected under the Endangered Species Act. But it remains on the list of candidates.

Other studies by the U.S. Forest Service suggest that an increasingly fragmented habitat due to climate change may pose a more immediate threat to reproduction than overall loss of snowpack.

The wolverine’s habitat is naturally fragmented, said Jeff Copeland, wildlife biologist and co-founding director of the Wolverine Foundation, a nonprofit based in Bozeman, Montana. Decreased snowpack can further fragment the habitat, making it difficult for animals to find other animals to mate with. This could be a major problem in a species that lives in low population densities—only 250-300 live in the lower 48 states—in a very hostile habitat.

“The issue becomes more that these populations will become farther apart and won’t be able to as effectively mate,” Copeland said.

“Overall you’re going to be losing snowpack over the next century,” said Kevin McKelvey, a research ecologist at the US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colorado. “It will define the areas of contiguous snowpack to smaller and smaller areas. It’s still out there…but what you see is all the little peripheral areas that don’t have a lot so snowpack go away.”

Responding to the effects of climate change is an ongoing process, according to McKelvey. New technologies will allow models to become more refined and the International Panel on Climate Change will continue to refine its emissions scenarios, which is why it is important to have multiple takes on the issue to see where they agree.

“Standing where we are right now this is what we think is going to happen, five years from now we might think something different,” said McKelvey. “We give the forest managers the best data we have now.”

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Originally posted at NewWest.net
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