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Wolverines go to court; Environmental groups suing to get animal on ESA list

Several environmental groups are challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to place wolverines on the Endangered Species list, but the federal agency and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department believe the biggest land-dwelling weasel does not need federal protections. Several environmental groups are challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to place wolverines on the Endangered Species list, but the federal agency and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department believe the biggest land-dwelling weasel does not need federal protections. Photo courtesy Nigel Hoult

Environmental groups are challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to not place wolverines on the Endangered Species List.

Represented by Earthjustice, they are suing to overturn the decision and have filed three lawsuits in federal district court in an effort to overturn it. They claim the federal government used “contorted” data to make its decision.

The 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 Rocky Mountain Wild filed one of the lawsuits on Oct. 13 in Missoula, Mont.

Wolverines remaining in the lower 48 are at direct risk from climate change because the animals depend on areas that maintain deep snow through late spring, when pregnant females dig their dens into the snowpack to birth and raise their young, said Stephen Koenigsberg of Public Relations Counsel & Campaigns, a spokesman for the environmental groups.

“To survive, the wolverine needs the protections that only the Endangered Species Act can provide,” said Earthjustice attorney Adrienne Maxwell.

The USFWS stated on Feb. 4, 2013, that wolverines were nearly exterminated from the contiguous United States in the early 20th century due to broad-scale predator trapping and poisoning. Since then wolverines have made a remarkable recovery, according to the service, but there still is a risk.

“Unfortunately, climate warming over the next century is likely to significantly reduce wolverine habitat, to the point where persistence of wolverines in the contiguous United States, without intervention, is in doubt,” it stated.

Eighteen months later, the agency changed its mind. On Aug. 13, USFWS withdrew a proposal to list the wolverine in the contiguous U.S.

It is clear the climate is changing based on scientific data, but the impacts of climate change to wolverines is uncertain, said John N. Bryan, deputy/congressional liaison for Fish and Wildlife External Affairs in the Mountain-Prairie Region, Lakewood, Colo.

Nor is it clear climate change is impacting denning sites, Bryan said.

The wildlife advocates disagree.

Snowpack is already declining in the Western mountains and is predicted to worsen, Koenigsberg said.

“Wolverine populations also are threatened by trapping, human disturbance, extremely low population numbers resulting in low genetic diversity and fragmentation of habitat,” he said.
The service estimated there are 250 to 300 wolverines in the lower 48 states. Some wolverine populations are expanding, Bryan said.

For example, wolverine sightings outside formerly known habitat occurred in 2008 in the Sierra Nevada range in California, in 2012 in Colorado, and, in 2014, a wolverine was seen in the Uinta Range of Utah — the first confirmed sighting in that state in 30 years, said the release. Individual wolverines have moved into those locations, but have not established breeding populations in these areas, Fish and Wildlife said.

After state wildlife managers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming objected, arguing that computer models about climate change impact are too uncertain to justify the proposed listing, the service’s regional director, Noreen Walsh, ordered the agency to withdraw the listing, ignoring the recommendations of her own scientists, Koenigsberg said.

“The reversal came despite confirmation by a panel of outside experts that deep snow is crucial to the ability of wolverines to reproduce successfully,” she said.

He is not aware of Western states pressuring Fish and Wildlife to not list the animal, Bryan said. Fish and Wildlife did not reverse its original proposal due solely to state input.

Accusations of politics

“The denial of protection for the wolverine is yet another unfortunate example of politics entering into what should be a purely scientific decision,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “All of the science and the agency’s own scientists say the wolverine is severely endangered by loss of spring snowpack caused by climate change, yet the agency denied protection anyway.”

Three regional directors — the Mountain Prairie, Pacific Northwest and Pacific Southwest — agreed there is not enough evidence that climate change will impact wolverines and that’s what they told Director Dan Ashe, Bryan said.

“The Service chose instead to convene an independent panel of climate and wildlife scientists to review and discuss the science underlying the original listing proposal,” said the directors.
In Washington, Oregon, Colorado and California, wolverines are listed under state endangered species acts, making it illegal to kill or otherwise harm wolverines. They are also protected from hunting in Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada, and there is no open harvest season in Utah. “Montana is currently the only state in which wolverine harvest is legal,” said the release.

“The best available science shows climate change will significantly reduce available wolverine habitat over the next century, and imperil the species,” said Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s Siva Sundaresan. “As an agency responsible for protecting our wildlife, FWS should not ignore science and should make their decisions based on facts and data.”

The state of Wyoming is keeping an eye on wolverines.

One Wyoming Game and Fish Department official said he favors Wyoming administering to wolverines.

“I would prefer to see the state management of all the species we can,” said Zack Walker, Game and Fish non-game supervisor in Lander. “In law it (the wolverine) is considered a protected animal.”

Wolverines rank No. II in species of concern.

“Any native species IV and below is considered a species of greatest conservation need,” Walker said.

Examples are black-footed ferret, ranked I, Canada lynx, also ranked I, and the bobolink is ranked II, according to the Game and Fish.

Ashe’s decision to withdraw the proposed listing was based on a unanimous recommendation by the agency’s three regional directors for the regions encompassing the wolverine’s known range in the contiguous U.S.

“The three directors made the recommendation based on a synthesis of the entire body of scientific evidence,” said the Aug. 12 news release.

“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. “If new information emerges that suggests we should take another look at listing, we will not hesitate to do that.”

Fish and Wildlife would not discuss the suit. Rather it is relying on an Aug. 12 news release to explain its decision.

“We don’t comment on pending legislation,” Bryan said.

“Three Western state agencies do not believe wolverines need listing. For the record, our states opposed the Service’s original recommendation to list wolverines based on our concerns about listing a species that is at its highest population level in the past 80-100 years — and still increasing,” stated a Sept. 5 letter sent to regional newspapers from Virgil Moore, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, M. Jeff Hagener, director of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Scott Talbott, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Based on the statutory definition of threatened or endangered and based on science, the wolverine didn’t warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act at this time, Bryan said.

The environmental groups claim climate change is putting the alpine animal at risk, while Fish and Wildlife claims there is not enough data to verify climate change posing a risk to the animal.

The wolverine is the largest member of the weasel family, with adult males weighing 26 to 40 pounds and adult females weighing 17 to 26 pounds, according to Fish and Wildlife. It resembles a small bear with a broad rounded head and bushy tail.

Wolverines are found in Alaska and Canada and contiguous U.S. of the North Cascades in Washington and the Northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Montana, Oregon (Wallowa Range) and Wyoming.

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