Judge Prods Wildlife Service on Protection for Wolverines
HELENA, Mont. — Because it depends on heavy spring snowpack to excavate dens and safely raise its young near the top of mountain peaks high in the northern Rockies, the wolverine is on the front lines of battles over the effects of climate change.
There is less snow in the Rockies these days, and researchers forecast that in the coming decades, the wolverines in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming may disappear with the snowpack. Only about 300 of the animals are in the lower 48 states. In 2014, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service refused to list the animal for endangered species protection, calling the science inconclusive.
The debate over protection for the reclusive animal, the largest in the weasel family, has been going on for about 20 years, and it was revived this week by a federal court ruling here in Montana.
Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen of United States District Court for Montana on Monday rebuked the agency in a lengthy court decision, citing the “immense political pressure that was brought to bear” by Western states on the question of whether to list the wolverine, rather than relying on sound science. The states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, along with the petroleum industry and other groups, have opposed granting the wolverine the designation of a threatened species.
Judge Christensen ordered the agency to go back and reconsider its reasoning under the Endangered Species Act. (During the trial, the judge noted that he had seen the elusive animal three times.)
“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,” Judge Christensen wrote. “It’s the undersigned’s view that if there is one thing required of the service under the E.S.A. 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 decision not to list, the judge wrote, “was arbitrary and capricious.”
But Dan Ashe, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, adamantly denied that the decision was based on anything but science. “I cannot disagree more strongly,” he said. The judge “made a sweeping statement about political interference for which there is not a shred of evidence.”
The wolverine is a cryptic, reclusive animal, he said, and definitive science is lacking. In February 2013, the agency proposed listing the wolverine as a threatened species, a lesser designation than endangered.
But Mr. Ashe, in describing the service’s decision in 2014 against protections for the wolverine, said: “We were presented with inconclusive scientific information and decided against the listing. The wolverine is not at risk of extinction, which is different than saying the wolverine is not going to be affected by a changing climate.”
Still, scientific experts and environmental groups who filed the lawsuit said they were dismayed that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision appeared to be political and welcomed the judge’s decision.
“It’s not just a win for the species, but a win for science,” said Matthew Bishop, a lawyer for the Western Environmental Law Center here, which challenged the decision on behalf of 22 groups. “Five papers said there’s a significant connection between wolverines and climate change and not a single one suggested there isn’t. They chose to disregard the science.”
There is a disagreement about the impact of climate change on wolverines, but “instead of having a debate, the tactic they chose was to discredit the science and the scientists personally,” said Jeff Copeland, a former wolverine biologist for the Forest Service and one of the researchers on key papers about the relationship between wolverines and deep snow. He now does research for the Wolverine Foundation.
Existing research on the animal is clear, he said. “Wolverines don’t reproduce in the absence of snow,” he said. “Climate change is going to have a real impact on wolverines.”
Wolverines raise their young in dens they dig deep in the snow in an ecological niche between rock and ice and the tree line, tunneling and living down there with their cubs until about the second week of May. While much is unknown, experts say that as the snow season grows shorter, the wolverine may no longer be able to den and reproduction will most likely decline.
The genetic variability in so small a population is also a concern. Other threats include trapping. As a scavenger, the wolverines often gets caught in traps set for other animals, and Montana would like to allow trappers to take the animal.
Wolverines are also sensitive to intrusions in the high country by recreationists, especially with snowmobiles. Some snowmobile groups have opposed protections out of concerns that they will block access to the backcountry.
Mr. Copeland said that he was working on a wolverine project in the Teton Mountains of Wyoming, where recreational use is heavy, and a team had only been able to trap one male, even though there were as many as eight or 10 animals there not long ago.
The wolverine, sometimes referred to as the mountain devil, is a one-of-a-kind creature, earning respect and admiration from those who study it. Males weigh less than 40 pounds, but are extremely fierce, often fight well above their weight, and have been known to kill an adult bull moose.
“They have an insatiable need to keep moving,” Mr. Copeland said, and they wander wide in their search for food across the rocks and snow of the mountains, sometimes traveling as much as 25 miles in a day.
“The wolverine is a tremendous character,” wrote the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton in the 1920s, “a personality of unmeasured force, courage and achievement.”