In a breakthrough in the effort to save one of the rarest wilderness wildlife species in the lower-48 states, a federal judge has overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s refusal to consider new legal protections for the wolverine. The decision, issued last Friday, September 29, sided with four conservation groups that challenged the Service’s rejection of a petition to list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act. The four groups are Defenders of Wildlife, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Conservation Northwest and Friends of the Clearwater.
“This court ruling gives the wolverine a fighting chance,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who represented the groups in the lawsuit. “Everything we know about the wolverine tells us that this species is under siege from trapping in Montana and habitat disruption throughout its entire range. The court’s decision means that the government can no longer ignore the threats to the wolverine.”
The decision by the U.S. District Court for Montana requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a full status review of the wolverine and issue a final determination whether the species should be listed as threatened or endangered. Listing under the Endangered Species Act would trigger new legal protections for the wolverine.
In its ruling, the court found that the service wrongly rejected scientific information regarding the wolverine that “shows a dramatic loss in range, the tangible decrease in population with the commensurate threat of genetic isolation of subpopulations, and the threat posed by human encroachment on wolverines.”
“The Fish and Wildlife Service under the Bush administration decided that it didn’t want to list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act, and has done everything it can to avoid facing the science indicating that this animal is in danger,” said Mike Senatore of Defenders of Wildlife. “Today’s decision means the wolverine and the scientific evidence will finally get a hearing.”
“This ruling is a win for the wolverine and for everybody who cares about preserving our natural heritage,” added Joseph Vaile of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. “The Endangered Species Act is the best tool we have to ensure that the wolverine does not fade into myth and legend.”
The largest terrestrial member of the weasel family, the wolverine is a bear-cub-sized forest predator that persists in small numbers in the last remaining big wilderness areas of the lower-48 states. The powerful wolverine once ranged across the northernmost states from Maine to Washington, and south into the Adirondacks of New York, the Rocky Mountains as far south as Arizona and New Mexico, and the Sierra Nevada, Cascade, and Siskiyou Mountains as far south as California.
Today the wolverine is known to exist only in the northern Cascades of Washington and the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. There, the remaining wolverines face growing threats. Despite their scarcity, wolverines continue to be lawfully trapped under Montana state law. Expanding snowmobiling and helicopter skiing are impairing wolverine denning habitat in high alpine basins. And the wolverine’s wilderness habitat continues to be chipped away by logging, mining, and associated roadbuilding.
Recognizing these threats, the groups submitted a petition to the service in July 2000 asking that the wolverine be added to the Endangered Species Act’s list of endangered and threatened species. However, in October 2003 the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the groups’ request for a full scientific review of the wolverine’s status, which is the first step in the listing process, citing a lack of conclusive data. The Montana federal court’s ruling overturns that decision.
Read the decision (PDF)