The Fish and Wildlife Service is disputing a federal judge’s assertion that political pressure played a role in the agency’s decision to not list the American wolverine under the Endangered Species Act.
FWS released a statement yesterday evening, one day after the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ordered the agency to reconsider whether to list the wolverine as a threatened species. FWS had proposed that listing in 2013, only to reverse itself and earn the outrage of conservationists.
Judge Dana Christensen ruled Monday that the reversal violated ESA, writing in his order that the agency unlawfully acted when it dismissed studies showing the threat climate change posed to wolverines. The wolverine’s sensitivity to climate change "cannot really be questioned," Christensen wrote.
But he also indicated that the likely explanation for the decision was "immense political pressure" from Western states (Greenwire, April 5).
An FWS spokesman said the agency is "very disappointed" with the ruling.
"The decision made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to not list the wolverine was neither a denial that climate change is occurring nor a concession to political pressure to not list the species," the agency said in the statement. "Rather, this decision, recommended by three regional directors, all career Service employees, with the concurrence of the Director, was based on a thorough review of the scientific information available."
At the heart of FWS’s internal debate over the listing was the reliability of two studies that used climate models to predict reductions in the wolverine’s mountainous, snowy habitat.
Region 6 Director Noreen Walsh made the official recommendation to withdraw the proposed listing, issuing a memo citing uncertainties "about the degree to which we can reliably predict impacts to wolverine populations from climate change." But two other regional directors also expressed reservations: Region 8 Director Ren Lohoefener and acting Region 1 Director Richard Hannan.
All three regions include states where the wolverine has been seen. The bear-like, elusive animal raises its young in deep snow and now numbers about 300 in the United States.
Walsh’s office covers the Mountain-Prairie Region, encompassing Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Lohoefener heads the Pacific Southwest Region, covering California, Nevada, and the Klamath Basin of California and Oregon. And Region 1 — which now has a permanent director — covers Washington, Oregon and Idaho, as well as Hawaii and other Pacific islands.
In a memo, Lohoefener cited uncertain precipitation-based climate models and concluded that the wolverine was not in danger of extinction in the next 50 years, according to Christensen’s order.
"The situation [the Service] face[s] with the wolverine — whether a species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future because of climate change effects — will become a common source of petitioned actions and threaten the Service’s resources to address priority issues," Lohoefener wrote.
When FWS announced in 2014 that it would not list the wolverine, Director Dan Ashe told reporters that the regional directors had come to a different conclusion from field biologists, despite looking at the same data. That disagreement, he said at the time, is part of the deliberative process — and the decision showed that FWS "simply won’t jump to rash conclusions" when it hears climate change (E&ENews PM, Aug. 12, 2014).
Similarly, FWS’s statement yesterday emphasized that the decision was not a comment on climate change but instead was one on whether scientific information shows that climate change could lead the wolverine to extinction.
A thorough review "led us to conclude that while climate change is occurring, it was not causing the wolverine to be threatened or endangered now nor in the foreseeable future," the agency said. "In the end, while it is clear the wolverines need deep snow to den and raise their offspring, the climate science does not clearly indicate that wolverine denning sites will be a limiting factor for this species in the foreseeable future."