Federal judge chides U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for bowing to political pressure on wolverine listing

‘For the wolverine, that time is now …’

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Can wolverines in North America survive the global warming era? Photo courtesy National Park Service.
wolverine habitat map
Potential wolverine habitat in the western U.S.

*More Summit Voice wolverine stories:

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Wildlife: Feds punt on wolverine protection

Biodiversity: Draft wolverine plan gets mixed reviews

Colorado: Wolverine recovery plan on hold for now

By Bob Berwyn

Acknowledging the immense political pressures at play in making endangered species findings, a federal judge ruled this week that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unlawfully ignored the best available science when it decided not put wolverines on the Endangered Species List.

“The listing decision in this case involves climate science, and climate science evokes strong reactions,” Federal District Court Judge Dana L. Christensen, ordering the federal agency to reconsider its wolverine decision.

Judge Christensen took a deep dive into both conservation and climate science in the ruling, calling out USFWS Regional Director Noreen Walsh for using an “unpublished, unreviewed, personal opinion … to back fill her foregone conclusion to withdraw the Proposed Rule … This strikes the Court as the essence of arbitrary and capricious decision making,” Christensen wrote.

Wolverines are rare, wide-ranging members of the weasel family that exist in high-altitude mountain ranges. They are found primarily in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and north-central Washington. Individuals have been recently photographed in Utah, Colorado and California but these are not part of breeding populations.

Conservation groups battling on behalf of the wolverine said the ruling is a clear sign that the USFWS needs to stop playing politics with endangered species.

“Today’s win is a victory not just for wolverine but for all species whose fate relies on the scientific integrity of the Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “We call on the agency to stop playing politics and start living up to its mandate to protect our country’s most imperiled species.”

Wolverines depend on cold, snowy climates for their survival, including deep spring snow cover needed for denning. The best available science shows that global warming is likely to eliminate nearly two-thirds of the snowy habitat needed by wolverines in the contiguous U.S. within 75 years. This means significantly less habitat for wolverines. Best estimates suggest there are about 250 to 300 of the animals remaining in the lower 48 states.

 

The USFWS ackknowledge the climate change threat to the species when it originally proposed to list wolverines as threatened or endangered in 2013. But after feeling the pressure from western states opposed to a listing, the agency reversed course, spurring the lawsuit that ended with Christensen’s April 4 order.

The ruling requires the agency to make a new final listing determination for wolverines. The ruling also restores the Service’s proposed rule to list wolverine and the wolverine’s status as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act.

Judge Christensen’s order also appeared to reflect a certain amount of frustration with the USFWS’s habitual foot-dragging:

“No greater level of certainty is needed to see the writing on the wall for this snow-dependent species standing squarely in the path of global climate change. It has taken us twenty years to get to this point. It is the undersigned’s view that if there is one thing required of the Service under the ESA, it is to take action at the earliest possible, defensible point in time to protect against the loss of biodiversity within our reach as a nation. For the wolverine, that time is now.”

The full court order:

 

 

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