The woes of the wandering wolverine

Lo and behold, a lone wolverine has been spotted in California's Sierra Nevada for the first time in decades. It's not unusual for a wolverine to be alone -- they're solitary beasts by nature -- but the increasingly rare species was driven out of California years ago by human activities.

While this discovery is unlikely to have any impact on current petitions to list the wolverine as an endangered species, it could eventually be used to influence any decisions on establishing critical habitat -- if, of course, the species actually does receive protected status. (Wolverines love to travel -- as much as hundreds of miles at a time -- so they need a lot of protected habitat to keep themselves happy.)

With an estimated 1,000 wolverines left in the United States, protected status couldn't come at a more critical time. A 2006 study published in the journal Conservation Genetics suggests that the wolverine gene pool in the U.S. is too small to prevent genetic drift, and requires both conservation management and migration from Canadian populations to survive. According to the study's authors, "at least 400 breeding pairs or 1–2 effective migrants per generation would be needed to ensure genetic viability in the long-term for each of the populations in the United States."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is apparently scheduled to decide next week if it will begin walking the long and winding road toward classifying the wolverine as an endangered species. This the second time this decade that FWS will rule on the wolverine; in 2003, it declared that an earlier petition was "insufficient to determine wolverine distribution, habitat requirements, and whether there are threats to the continued existence of the wolverine."

Let's hope that 2008 brings better news for the wolverine.