By Victoria Cavaliere

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Wildlife conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for denying federal protection for rare wolverines in the mountains of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the groups' attorney said Tuesday.

The eight conservation organizations sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court in Montana on Monday seeking to reverse an August decision not to apply Endangered Species Act safeguards for the reclusive but feisty member of the weasel family.

"The wolverine is a wildlife icon, and it's already in trouble," said Adrienne Maxwell, an attorney for Earthjustice, which brought the suit on behalf of conservation groups that contend the animal is imperiled because of climate change and trapping. "Without protection, it will only get worse."

The animal, which resembles a small bear with a bushy tail, once ranged across the northernmost tier of the United States from New York to as far south as Arizona. Only about 300 remain in the Lower 48 states, mostly in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. A handful are found in the Cascade Mountains in Washington and a single region in eastern Oregon.

"Today, the wolverine has been eliminated from all but a fragment of this historic range by the destruction of its wilderness habitat and trapping," the lawsuit said.

A federal designation as an endangered species would provide funding to study and protect existing habitats, and would impose restrictions on trapping, snowmobiling and other winter recreation in areas inhabited by the solitary creatures, which are prized for their fur.

The lawsuit says the Fish and Wildlife Service did not rely on the best available scientific data about climate change when the group decided in August to scrap a plan to list the animal as endangered.

Federal wildlife managers initially said global warming was reducing mountain snows the animals use to dig dens and store food, but later said there was "insufficient evidence" climate change would harm the animals.

The decision to forego an endangered status for wolverines was welcomed in states such as Montana, which is considering reinstating a limited trapping season that was suspended in 2012 after a lawsuit by conservationists.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now has 60 days to respond before the litigation moves forward. The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

 

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andre Grenon)