Last Friday, the federal government proposed to protect wolverines as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Wolverines are the biggest member of the weasel, mink, marten and otter family, but they don’t act like good family members—they are loners who cover huge ranges usually high in mountain ranges above tree line up in the rock, ice and snow.
No one knows how many wolverines still exist in the 48 contiguous states but their number is estimated to be less than 300, most living high in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho and the North Cascades of Washington. A few individual wolverines are scattered through California, Oregon and Colorado.
Wolverines were decimated by trapping and poisoning, and driven to local extinctions by the 1930’s. They are slow to reproduce and tend to avoid developed areas, preferring instead the isolation of shrinking back country areas. As of now, the state of Montana still allows trappers to take them, but the proposed threatened-species listing would end that practice.
Wolverines are persistent, relentless animals known to walk up virtually vertical ice cliffs to get where they’re going. Maybe their persistence inspired Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso who heard stories about them from field researchers working out of Bozeman, Montana.
Earthjustice Managing Attorney Tim Preso.
Preso, who manages the Northern Rockies Earthjustice office in Bozeman, has worked for more than a decade to win Endangered Species Act protections for wolverines, starting with a petition sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000. When the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to act, Preso successfully went to federal court to force the agency to respond.
In 2003 the Fish and Wildlife Service, then under the Bush administration (no friend to the ESA), said there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant protecting wolverines so Preso took the agency to court. A federal judge ruled Tim was right and that the Fish and Wildlife Service ignored “substantial scientific information” demonstrating threats to wolverines. That ruling sent the Fish and Wildlife Service back to the drawing board to reconsider protecting wolverines.
The agency returned in 2008, with George Bush still in the White House, and repeated its view that wolverines didn’t warrant ESA protections. Preso returned to court and forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its finding once more. In 2010, with Barack Obama in the White House, the Service finally admitted that wolverines actually did warrant federal protection, but said further action was delayed because of other priorities.
By this time, other conservation groups jumped in, worried about the backlog of other species that, like the wolverine, were slipping towards extinction while the Fish and Wildlife Service dallied. This led to an agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect a list of species, including the wolverine.
Who knows how many wolverines were lost in the 12 years that have passed since Tim Preso began his work to win them protections. How many more might there be now? How much healthier might their population be now? We’ll never know but we do know that one Earthjustice attorney’s persistence eventually paid off after 12 years of hard work.