U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will face new lawsuit over failure to give the species endangered species status
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — In a decision that’s certain to trigger a new round of lawsuits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it won’t put wolverines on the Endangered Species List.
The decision was made by the agency’s regional directors from the areas where wolverines are native. In a release, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe contradicted all the best available science from his agency’s own biologists, claiming that there’s too much uncertainty about global warming impacts to list wolverines.
“In this case, based on all the information available, we simply do not know enough about the ecology of the wolverine and when or how it will be affected by a changing climate to conclude at this time that it is likely to be in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future,” Ashe said.
The decision is a travesty to science,” according to wildlife biologist Jeff Copeland, who has been studying the rare animals for decades. Copeland said the decision is based on politics, not science, with the federal agency bowing to pressure from states who don’t want to deal with any serious efforts to protect wolverine habitat.
Copeland said that, based on everything that known about the species’ habitat requirements, it’s pretty clear that global warming will affect the persistently deep snow areas wolverines need for denning. A panel of USFWS scientists reached the same conclusion, yet Ashe is hanging his decision-making hat on a few dissenting voices from a review panel that was split in its view on listing.
Wolverine populations currently occur within the contiguous United States in the North Cascades Range in Washington and the Northern Rockies of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and a small portion of Oregon (Wallowa Range). Populations once existed in the Sierra Nevada of California and the southern Rocky Mountains in the states of Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico.
The animals, largest in the weasel family, were nearly extirpated by poisoning during the settlement era, but have slowly been re-occupying historic habitat.
Listing wolverines as threatened or endangered wouldn’t slow the pace of global warming or the anticipated habitat loss, but it could help resource managers map out and protect the most important areas that might persist as good habitat in the coming decades.
The USFWS decision drew immediate and sharp criticism from wildlife advocacy groups. who say that the agency is once again playing politics.
“The Service made the wrong call today in denying protections for wolverines under the ESA,” said Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark. “The Service is ignoring the numerous serious threats to wolverines, including the species’ low genetic diversity and impacts such as trapping and winter recreation. These serious threats are made worse by loss of snowpack across much of the West – habitat needed for this snow-dependent species,” Rappaport Clark said.
“The wolverine is in dire need of protection under the ESA, regardless of one’s opinions about the science of climate change. The number of wolverines in the lower-48 is incredibly low with only a few dozen females able to produce offspring in any year. Are we really willing to deny any sort of federal protection for a species whose low numbers make it one of the rarest in the continental U.S.?” she concluded.
Drew Kerr, with WildEarth Guardians, said the Western Environmental Law Center is already preparing a formal notice for a lawsuit, and will file for records and documents related to the listing decision in a process that’s not likely to end well for the USFWS. Similar cases in recent years have ended up showing clearly how the agency sometimes violates federal law by basing its decisions on political input rather than the best available science.