BILLINGS, Mont. -- The tenacious wolverine, a snow-loving carnivore sometimes called the "mountain devil," could join the list of species threatened by climate change -- a dubious distinction putting it in the ranks of the polar bear and other animals the government says will lose crucial habitat as temperatures rise.
Federal wildlife officials proposed Endangered Species Act protections Friday for the wolverine in the Lower 48 states. That's a step twice denied under the Bush administration, then delayed in 2010 when the Obama administration said other imperiled species had priority.
It likely means an end to trapping the animals for their fur outside Alaska.
But federal officials said they won't use the animal as an impetus to regulate greenhouse gases blamed in climate change. And other human activities -- from snowmobiling and ski resorts to timber harvest -- would not be curtailed, because they do not appear to be significant threats to wolverines, officials said.
There are an estimated 250 to 300 wolverines in the contiguous U.S., clustered in small, isolated groups primarily in the Northern Rockies of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. Larger populations persist in Alaska and Canada.
Maxing out at 40 pounds and tough enough to stand up to grizzly bears, the animals will be no match for anticipated declines in the deep mountain snows female wolverines need to establish dens and raise their young, scientists said.
In some areas, such as central Idaho, suitable habitat could disappear entirely, officials said.
Yet because those losses could take decades to unfold, federal wildlife officials said, there's still time to bolster the population, including by reintroducing them to the high mountains of Colorado.
Wildlife advocates, who sued to force the government to act on the issue, said the animal's plight should be used by the Obama administration to leverage tighter restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.
As with the polar bear, the government is sidestepping that thorny proposition with the wolverine, and said in Friday's proposal that listing the animal as threatened "will not regulate greenhouse gas emissions."