Two local conservation groups recently took their first serious step in protecting a small and isolated wolverine population in a portion of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
Friends of the Bitterroot and Wildlands CPR reached a legal settlement with the U.S. Forest Service Dec. 23 to end snowmobile trail grooming in the West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area (WSA). The area—home to an estimated 12 wolverines—has grown in popularity among snowmobile enthusiasts, with the number of groomed trails more than doubling to nearly 95 miles in the last decade.
"This is kind of an isolated population of wolverines," says John Grove, a Friends of the Bitterroot board member. "And they could face possible extirpation from snowmobile use in the real high areas where they den."
The settlement was something conservationists "rather expected," Grove says. But both groups hesitate to call it a full-on victory. While an end to grooming will likely reduce traffic in the WSA, snowmobiles can still access the area, and the settlement lets the Forest Service off the hook for a valuable site-focused study on the impacts of snowmobile noise emissions on local wildlife.
"There's still snowmobiling, there's still grooming outside the WSA, and we'd love to be able to find out exactly what the impacts are to wolverine and mountain goat and winter elk habitat," says Adam Rissien, off-road vehicle coordinator for Wildlands CPR.
Rissien says the groups originally filed the suit in May hoping to pressure the Forest Service into answering the open question of how grooming has impacted wolverines to date. Some data on environmental impacts exists from studies done in the Bitterroot National Forest, but nothing specific regarding the West Pioneer Mountains, 130,000 acres of which would be reopened to grooming under Sen. Jon Tester's proposed Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.
"We know wolverines are impacted by human disturbance to the extent that it affects populations," Rissien says. "We need more study. That's what we're asking for."
For now, Rissien says Wildlands CPR will shoulder the burden of determining the status quo for wolverines in the West Pioneers.