Matthew Bishop, Western Environmental Law Center, (406) 324-8011
Fish and Wildlife Service Plays Politics With Wolverine Survival
Conservation Groups Decry Withdrawal of Proposed Endangered Species Act Listing
MISSOULA, MONT. — Bowing to political pressure, today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) formally withdrew its proposal to list wolverines under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), despite the species’ small population and serious threats to its continued existence. Only 250 to 300 wolverines call the contiguous U.S. home, living in small populations scattered across the West. Scientists unanimously acknowledge the greatest threat to the species’ survival in the U.S. is habitat loss resulting from climate change.
Following the Service’s announcement, a coalition of conservation groups will take steps to initiate a federal lawsuit challenging the wolverine listing decision. The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) will send the government a formal notice of their intent to sue and public records request on behalf of the coalition.
“The Service is improperly prioritizing political appeasement over science in the wolverine Endangered Species Act listing decision,” said Drew Kerr, carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “The Endangered Species Act requires listing decisions be made on the basis of best available science alone.”
After reviewing wolverine population data, the Service’s scientists and an independent panel unanimously identified climate change impacts on the species’ habitat as the primary threat to its continued existence. To den and rear their young, wolverines rely on deep, high-elevation snow pack long into the spring and summer. Scientists largely agree climate change will increasingly affect snowfall patterns throughout wolverine range over the next 75 years, reducing available habitat by up to 63 percent.
Service Director Dan Ashe’s decision to withdraw the proposed listing not only goes against the recommendations of his own agency’s scientists, but also the law, Supreme Court precedent, and Obama administration Executive Order 13563. The ESA mandates species listing decisions be based solely on the best available science. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that in making listing decisions, species should be afforded the benefit of the doubt.
After rampant politicization of the ESA listing process under the George W. Bush administration, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum and Executive Order directing administrative agencies to reprioritize science-based decision-making. The withdrawal of the proposed wolverine listing flouts these edicts by prioritizing natural resource extraction and industry profits over the wellbeing of a rare native carnivore.
“This is another example of the Service and Director Ashe caving to political pressure from the special interests preventing sound wildlife management in the western states,” said Western Environmental Law Center’s Rocky Mountain office director Matthew Bishop. “It is obviously time for the Service to employ the precautionary principle and protect a clearly imperiled species before it’s doomed to extinction.”
In February 2013, the Service acknowledged climate change is “threatening the species with extinction.” According to scientists, snowpack in wolverine habitat will decrease; the only uncertainty is precisely how much snow will disappear and exactly where snowfall will decline most. In July, a leaked memo from Service Region Six Director Noreen Walsh to biologists in the agency’s Montana field office relied on that sole area of uncertainty to call for the proposed listing’s withdrawal.
“The Service knows the house is on fire, but is deciding to wait until it is absolutely certain which room will burn first before doing anything to put out the blaze,” said Nick Cady, legal director for Cascadia Wildlands. “The degree of certainty the administrators want before protecting wolverines is ridiculous and illegal.”
Wolverines, hardy and solitary members of the weasel family, traverse huge, high-elevation territories. Tenacious hunters capable of taking much larger prey than their medium stature would suggest, wolverines also scavenge carrion as they cover vast distances through boreal forest and over snowcapped mountain ranges. American wolverines reside mostly in the Northern Rockies and Cascades, where small populations rely on individual dispersers to maintain healthy genetic diversity. Adolescent males disperse farthest, with breeding females holding smaller territories closer to their birthplaces. In recent years, a single male settled in Colorado, and confirmed sightings place wolverines in Oregon, northeast Utah, and southwest Wyoming. It remains unclear whether these intrepid wolverines are establishing new territories and breeding populations, or simply passing through.
Matthew Bishop and John Mellgren of the Western Environmental Law Center, and Sarah McMillan of WildEarth Guardians will represent Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Cascadia Wildlands, the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, Footloose Montana, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Wild Swan, George Wuerthner, Kootenai Environmental Alliance, Native Ecosystem Council, Oregon Wild, the Swan View Coalition, and WildEarth Guardians.
WildEarth Guardians is a nonprofit conservation organization working to protect and restore the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and health of the American West.
The Western Environmental Law Center is a nonprofit, public-interest environmental law firm that uses the power of the law to defend and protect the American West’s treasured landscapes, iconic wildlife, and rural communities.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ non-profit mission is to secure the ecological integrity of the Wild Rockies bioregion through citizen empowerment, and the application of conservation biology, sustainable economic models and environmental law.
Cascadia Wildlands educates, agitates, and inspires a movement to protect and restore Cascadia's wild ecosystems.
Cottonwood Environmental Law Center is a non-profit law firm and conservation organization dedicated to protecting the people, forests, water and wildlife in the West.
Footloose Montana's mission is to promote trap-free public lands for people, pets and wildlife.
Friends of the Bitterroot is a non-profit environmental organization founded in 1988 and dedicated to environmental protection of the northern Rockies based on ecological principles, environmental law, and citizen activism.
Friends of the Wild Swan is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to preserving and, where necessary, restoring the water quality, fisheries, scenic values, wildlife and wildlands in the Swan Valley and northwest Montana.
Kootenai Environmental Alliance is the oldest non-profit conservation organization in Idaho, and works to conserve, protect and restore the environment, with a particular emphasis on the Idaho Panhandle and the Coeur d’Alene basin.
Native Ecosystem Council is a conservation group based in Montana.
Oregon Wild works to protect and restore Oregon’s wildlands, wildlife and waters as an enduring legacy for all Oregonians.
Swan View Coalition’s work and play are dedicated to conserving community and quiet habitat for fish, wildlife and people.