A recent federal decision refusing to protect wolverines in the western United States is a case of political considerations winning out over scientific findings by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service experts, according to a coalition of 10 conservation groups that filed suit today in U.S. district court. The groups are challenging the agency’s decision to deny wolverines protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Washington officials overruled regional Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who found that wolverines are “warranted” for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The reversal occurred because the Bush administration wanted to prevent a second listing under the act due to climate change. After months of delay, the Bush administration in May listed the polar bear as threatened, largely due to the threat posed by climate change.
Wolverines are also at direct risk from climate change because they depend on areas that maintain deep snow from February through early May. That is when the pregnant females dig their dens 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, and fragmentation of their habitat.
“The wolverine is facing serious threats to its survival in the lower 48 states, yet the Bush administration made a political decision not to protect this species,” said Tim Preso of Earthjustice, who is representing the groups. “Americans deserve better. Decisions about protection of endangered species are supposed to be based on science, not politics.”
Wolverines are rare, wide-ranging members of the weasel family that are associated with wild, remote alpine areas. Conservationists are concerned about wolverines in the lower 48 because of their low numbers, isolation from Canadian populations, and climate change. The US Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged these concerns in its recent status review, stating: “The small effective population size [ e.g., the number of breeding wolverines] in the contiguous U.S. wolverine population has led to inbreeding and consequent loss of genetic diversity… ” The review goes on to say that over time, “…the population will be at risk of extinction.”
Despite these grave biological threats, the agency decided to not protect the species, claiming: 1) they are not sufficiently “discrete” from Canadian populations, and 2) the wolverine’s current range in the lower 48 is not significant to the species as a whole. The conservation groups maintain that this is an illegal “about-face” from previous listing decisions regarding, for example, lynx, grizzly bears, and wolves.
“We have received no response to our 13-page letter addressing these concerns we sent in July,” said David Gaillard of Defenders of Wildlife. “This leaves us no choice but to file suit and try to reverse the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision before it is too late for wolverines in the West.”
“Wolverines are an icon of the West’s wild places,” said Noah Greenwald, science director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The future of the West is connected to how we take care of the wolverine and its habitat.”
Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Friends of the Clearwater, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Wyoming Outdoor Council.
Read the complaint (PDF)