Montana wildlife officials have given up on a wolverine trapping season this winter, but want the state excluded from future federal protections for the elusive predators so trapping can be revived.
Federal officials are poised to announce by next Friday whether wolverines should get Endangered Species Act protections across the western U.S.
That's what government scientists have recommended for years due to habitat threats posed by climate change.
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said Tuesday the animal's population is healthy enough in the state that no additional protections are needed. And even if protections are proposed, Aasheim says Montana will seek authority to continue trapping, on the grounds that the issue is separate from the future perils wolverines face.
"Our position is that we have as healthy a population of wolverines as we've had. We've had a conservative (trapping) season and we're keeping an eye on them," Aasheim said.
Wolverines are fierce but rarely seen members of the weasel family that live in snowy, high-elevation areas — habitat that government scientists say will shrink in coming decades due to climate change.
In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the species' long-term survival was threatened by those changes, but declined to offer protections due to competing priorities.
An estimated 250 to 300 wolverines live in the Lower 48. Most are in Montana and Idaho but some have ranged into Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming and Colorado. There are larger populations in Alaska, where trapping is permitted, and as many as 20,000 wolverines in Canada.
Montana District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock temporarily blocked trapping in the state in November after conservationists sued to halt the practice.
A hearing in the case scheduled for Thursday was cancelled this week at the request of the state and the plaintiffs. Because it was already well into the trapping season, with just a few weeks to go, "it was pretty much a lost season," Aasheim said of the state's decision not to pursue the hearing.
But the state still plans to fight the case in coming months to restore its status as the only one of the Lower 48 states that allows trapping.
Meanwhile, under a court-approved agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the federal government is compelled to remove the animal from its current bureaucratic limbo this year. That means either proposing protections or justifying a reversal of the government's own science.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has said a decision will be made by next Friday. Agency spokeswoman Marla Trollan said final details still are being worked out.
It's possible the federal government will turn down the species for federal protections. Conservation groups said Tuesday that's not likely.
If protections are proposed, the government would take public comment and consider any new science offered before making a final decision in coming months, federal officials said.
Trapping normally would be precluded by federal protections. Yet there are mechanisms under federal law that could allow the practice to continue in some circumstances, even if wolverines were listed as a threatened or endangered species.
Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity said that's been done in the past, for example to allow recreational fishers to catch and release some types of trout. Still, Greenwald questioned whether a bid by Montana to apply those rules to wolverines could pass legal muster.
"There's a difference there: The fish you catch it and release it and it swims off. There's not a way to catch and release a wolverine," he said.
It was uncertain if Montana's trapping aspirations will be addressed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in next week's decision or dealt with at a later date, Trollan said.