Conservation of the wolverine (Gulo gulo) at the southern extent of its North American range requires reliable understandings of past and present distribution patterns and broad-scale habitat relations. We compiled 820 verifiable and documented records of wolverine occurrence (specimens, DNA detections, photos, and accounts of wolverines being killed or captured) in the contiguous United States from museums, the literature, and institutional archives. We spatially referenced 729 records with areal precision ≤1 township (93.2 km2) and temporal precision ≤10 years. Historical records (1827–1960) were located primarily in the western mountains and Great Lakes region. However, our data suggest that the historical distribution of wolverines in the Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada was disjunct, contradicting previous interpretations. Our results indicate that wolverine range in the contiguous United States had contracted substantially by the mid-1900s. Current records (1995–2005) are limited to north-central Washington, northern and central Idaho, western Montana, and northwestern Wyoming. We investigated potential relations between wolverines and alpine vegetation, cold temperatures, and spring snow cover by comparing the distribution of historical wolverine records with Kuchler's potential natural vegetation types, Holdridge's climatic life zones, and EASE snow-cover maps during the latter portion of the wolverine denning period (15 Apr–14 May). In the western mountains, historical wolverine records generally occurred in or near alpine vegetation and climatic conditions, especially at the limits of their distribution in the Cascade Range, Sierra Nevada, and southern Rocky Mountains. However, the only habitat layer that fully accounted for historical distribution patterns was spring snow cover. Causal factors for the extirpation of wolverines from the southern portions of their range in the contiguous United States are unknown, but are likely related to high levels of human-caused mortality and low to nonexistent immigration rates.
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