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Federal Agency Ignores Best Available Science In Decision Not To List Wolverine

Conservationists promise legal action to protect rare species
A wolverine.

The species is at direct risk from climate change because wolverines depend on areas that maintain deep snow through late spring.

Visceral Image / iStockphoto
August 12, 2014
Bozeman, MT —

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision today to abandon proposed protections for the wolverine ignores the best available science, including advice from the Service’s own wildlife experts, conservation groups stated. In response to the decision, a coalition of 9 groups will file notice of intention to sue the Service for refusal to protect the species under the Endangered Species Act.

The Service’s decision comes after Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Noreen Walsh’s determination on May 30, 2014 to overrule the agency’s own wildlife biologists and recommend reversing course on listing the wolverine as a threatened species in the lower-48 states. The Service in February 2013 proposed to list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act, but state wildlife officials in the Northern Rockies region opposed the proposed listing. No more than 300 wolverines remain in the contiguous United States, according to the Service.

The groups challenging the Service’s determination pointed out that the agency disregarded well-established scientific evidence, including the recommendations of FWS’s own scientists, in speculating that the wolverine might be capable of withstanding the projected loss of 63 percent of its snowy habitat in the lower-48 by the year 2085.

“It is a shame that the Fish and Wildlife Service has turned a blind eye to the plight of a wilderness icon such as the wolverine, but we will not stand by while the Service ignores the best available science,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso. “We intend to make sure that the wolverine gets a fighting chance at survival.”

After reviewing the Service’s negative listing determination, Earthjustice will submit to the Service a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue to challenge the Service’s decision unless the Service takes action to protect the wolverine as the Endangered Species Act requires. The groups signing on to the letter are the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Clearwater, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and Rocky Mountain Wild.

“The Service’s decision not to list wolverines failed to address all of the multiple threats to this highly imperiled species,” said Kylie Paul, Rockies and Plains Representative with Defenders of Wildlife. “With a population of only 250–300 in the lower-48, low genetic diversity, one of the lowest successful reproductive rates known for mammals and a gauntlet of threats to their habitat, protections are vital. Wolverines warrant federal protections under the Endangered Species Act now, regardless of the Service’s opinions of climate change impacts.”

"The Obama administration's short-sighted decision to reject the conclusions of their own scientists and withdraw endangered species protections for these iconic animals is part of a disturbing anti-conservation trend," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Blatantly ignoring extensive science showing wolverines are in real trouble in order to bow to political pressure from states is precisely the kind of recipe for extinction that prompted passage of the Endangered Species Act in the first place."

“The best available science shows climate change will significantly reduce available wolverine habitat over the next century, and imperil the species,” said Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s Siva Sundaresan. “As an agency responsible for protecting our wildlife, FWS should not ignore science and should make their decisions based on facts and data.”

“Places like the Clearwater Basin in Idaho are particularly important for wolverines as they use the area as both a residence and migration route,” said Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater. “The Clearwater Basin is also threatened due to the lower elevations of the mountains in this part of the Rockies.”

“One of the most important things that we can do to get wolverines on the road to recovery in the face of a warming climate is to get them back on the ground in mountain ranges where they once lived,” said Megan Mueller, senior biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild, a Colorado-based conservation organization. “We are disappointed by the Service’s decision not to list wolverines under the Endangered Species Act as protections would have helped to facilitate such efforts in Colorado and beyond.”

 

BACKGROUND

The wolverine, the largest land-dwelling member of the weasel family, once roamed across the northern tier of the U.S. and as far south as New Mexico in the Rockies and southern California in the Sierra Nevada range. After more than a century of trapping and habitat loss, wolverines in the lower-48 have been reduced to small, fragmented populations in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and northeast Oregon.

With no more than 300 wolverines remaining in these regions, the species is at direct risk from climate change because wolverines depend on areas that maintain deep snow through late spring. That is when pregnant females dig their dens into the snowpack to birth and raise their young. Snowpack is already in decline in the western mountains, a trend that is predicted to worsen. Wolverine populations also are threatened by trapping, human disturbance, extremely low population numbers resulting in low genetic diversity, and fragmentation of their habitat.

The groups challenging the Service’s determination pointed out that the agency disregarded well-established scientific evidence, including the recommendations of FWS’s own scientists, in speculating that the wolverine might be capable of withstanding the projected loss of 63 percent of its snowy habitat in the lower-48 by the year 2085. Contrary to the Service’s speculation, every one of the 562 verified wolverine den sites in North America and Scandinavia occurred in snow and 95 percent of worldwide summer wolverine observations and 89 percent of year-round wolverine observations fell within areas characterized by persistent spring snowpack. Elimination of this snowy habitat due to warming temperatures presents a direct threat to the wolverine’s survival—a danger compounded by the increasing isolation and fragmentation of wolverine habitats that threatens remaining populations with localized extinctions and inbreeding.

Contacts

Timothy Preso, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699

Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495

Dave Werntz, Conservation Northwest, (360) 319-9949

Kylie Paul, Defenders of Wildlife (406) 370-6979

Gary Macfarlane, Friends of the Clearwater, (208) 882-9755

Chris Colligan, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, (307) 734-0633

John Robison, Idaho Conservation League, (208) 345-6933

Siva Sundaresan, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, (307) 733-9417

Joseph Vaile, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, (541) 488-5789

Megan Mueller, Rocky Mountain Wild, (303) 704-9760

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.