Oct. 14–A coalition of environmental groups followed through on a pledge to challenge the federal government’s decision to reverse course on its proposal to list wolverines as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Eight groups joined forces Monday and filed a lawsuit against Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for abandoning proposed protections for the snow-loving member of the weasel family with a fierce reputation.
In the complaint filed in U.S. District Court at Missoula, Mont., the groups claim the agency disregarded the recommendations of its own scientist. Computer models done by the agency indicate wolverines will lose 63 percent of the late-season snowfields they use for denning and raising kits to global warming by 2085. Instead of finding the species at risk for becoming endangered, the agency speculated wolverines might be able to adapt to the loss of high mountain snow.
“The wolverine is a famously tough creature that doesn’t back down from anything, but even the wolverine can’t overcome a changing climate by itself,” said Adrienne Maxwell, an attorney from the environmental firm Earthjustice that is representing the groups. “To survive, the wolverine needs the protections that only the Endangered Species Act can provide.”
The agency stated in a 2013 draft rule that climate change and accelerated seasonal melting of mountain snow posed a threat to wolverines. Then in August, the agency abruptly changed course and said it is unclear if disappearing snowfields in the rugged mountain peaks of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and Washington would harm the species. It speculated that wolverines might be able to adapt to the change.
“(The Fish and Wildlife Service) failed to accept the best available science showing wolverines depend on deep spring snow, and the best available climate modeling showing that areas with deep spring snow are likely to shrink dramatically as the climate warms,” the groups said in the 40-page complaint.
The lawsuit was filed by 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.
There are estimated to be about 300 wolverines in the northern tier of the Western United States outside of Alaska. The reclusive animals weigh 20 to 40 pounds and are 3 to 4 feet long. Between February and May, females den and raise kits in the snowfields that cling to mountain peaks. Scientists have documented those sites are disappearing as the climate warms and spring snow melt accelerates. The groups say that will dramatically reduce habitat for the animals and make it more difficult for them to move between isolated populations.
“Wolverines in the Clearwater region are particularly vulnerable because the elevations here are less than those elsewhere in the Northern Rockies,” said Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater.
Conservation groups have been fighting for wolverine protections for nearly 15 years. In 2000, they petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider using the Endangered Species Act to protect wolverines. Since then, they have filed and won multiple lawsuits aimed at forcing the agency to act on the petition.
In 2009, the agency and groups reached a settlement that compelled the agency to make a decision on listing. A year later, the agency said protections were warranted but delayed action until it faced another lawsuit. Last year the agency published a draft rule naming climate change as a threat to the species. Then, when it looked as though wolverines would be listed, the agency withdrew the rule. At the time, Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe told the Associated Press the effects of climate change on wolverine habitat remain uncertain. The groups allege state wildlife officials in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming persuaded the agency to change course.
“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.”
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