WildEarth Guardians, and a coalition of wildlife advocates, filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s decision to deny protections for imperiled wolverines under the Endangered Species Act. This is the second time that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has prioritized politics over science for wolverines, which number only an estimated 300 in the contiguous United States.
The groups in the lawsuit defeated the Service in court in 2016, after the Service abruptly withdrew its proposed rule to list the wolverine population in the lower 48 states as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The court ordered the agency back to the drawing board with a directive to apply the best science in evaluating the protection needed for the wolverine. Four years later, the Service returned with the same decision to deny wolverine protective status, despite no new scientific support for such a determination.
The recent complaint aims to ensure the Service utilizes the best available science when making listing decisions, and to provide wolverines the protective status they desperately need and deserve.
“In the face of a clear biodiversity crisis and mass extinction event, imperiled species need swift and coordinated federal government protection now more than ever,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, in a statement. “Wolverines, like so many other persecuted carnivores, remain imperiled according to clear scientific evidence. Relying upon piecemeal management by state wildlife agencies for wolverine survival, because of political pressure, is insufficient for recovery and contrary to both science and the law.”
In April 2016, a federal judge sided with conservation groups, agreeing that the Service’s August 2014 decision to not list wolverines as threatened was “arbitrary and capricious” and contrary to scientific literature. In a scathing opinion, the court clearly stated that “no greater level of certainty is needed to see the writing on the wall for this species standing squarely in the path of global climate change. It has taken us twenty years to get to this point. It is the court’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.”
“This is yet another chapter in this administration’s war on science,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, and legal counsel for the coalition. “Public records reveal that the Service decided not to protect wolverines from day one, and then worked backwards to figure out how to make the decision stick. It’s really unfortunate.”
Before its decisions to deny wolverines endangered species protections, the Service identified climate change, in conjunction with small population size, as the primary threat to the species’ existence in the contiguous United States.
The wolverine relies on snow year-round. With its large paws, it can travel easily over snow. Snow also works as a “freezer” that permits the wolverine to store and scavenge food. One study found that 98% of all wolverine dens are in places with persistent snowpack.
Published, peer-reviewed research, Society for Conservation Biology, shows that the majority of experts who reviewed the decision, and the Service’s own biologists all verified this finding.
“This is something we were really hoping to avoid after the court’s 2016 decision,” said Bishop. “I was cautiously optimistic that the Service would get it right this time and we would be focusing our time and energy on developing a conservation strategy, recovery plan, critical habitat, and possibly reintroduction efforts for wolverines. Instead, we’re back in court challenging an agency that continues to put politics over science.”
The coalition filing the lawsuit includes: WildEarth Guardians, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Wild Swan, Swan View Coalition, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, George Wuerthner, Footloose Montana, Native Ecosystems Council, Wildlands Network, Helena Hunters and Anglers Association. The coalition is represented by the Western Environmental Law Center.