The Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act when it declined to protect the American wolverine and dismissed the threat of climate change amid political pressure, a federal court ruled yesterday.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ordered FWS to reconsider whether to list the wolverine as a threatened species. The agency withdrew a proposed rule to list the species in 2014, going against the advice of its own biologists and sparking outrage among environmental groups.
The species — which numbers about 300 in the United States — reproduces only in the deep snow, which climate models show will sharply decline over the next century. In his 85-page order, Judge Dana Christensen wrote that the wolverine’s sensitivity to climate change "cannot really be questioned."
"It is the undersigned’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," Christensen wrote. "For the wolverine, that time is now."
Barring an appeal, the order means FWS must restore its proposal rule and make a new final listing decision for wolverines.
FWS spokesman Gavin Shire said the agency is "looking at the judge’s decision and determining how best to proceed."
More than 20 conservation and wildlife groups had filed three lawsuits against FWS’s withdrawal — and yesterday, many of them released ecstatic press releases on the court’s findings.
"Today’s win is a victory not just for wolverine but for all species whose fate relies on the scientific integrity of the Fish and Wildlife Service," Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, said in a statement. "We call on the agency to stop playing politics and start living up to its mandate to protect our country’s most imperiled species."
Michael Senatore, vice president of conservation law for Defenders of Wildlife, said the court’s decision "reaffirms that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ignored the best available science by denying them federal protections in 2014."
"We urge the Service to heed today’s ruling and move forward with a rule to list the species under the Endangered Species Act now," he said.
Christensen’s order details the internal turmoil at FWS in the months before the agency withdrew the proposal.
The service recommended listing the wolverine in 2013, releasing a proposed rule that pointed to climate models showing drastic reductions in the species’ mountainous, snowy habitat.
Such models, the agency said, was the best available science because of the difficulty of studying the elusive animal in the wild. Resembling small bears, wolverines are reclusive, comprising small subpopulations.
To bolster the proposal, FWS reached out to seven peer reviewers. Five supported the agency’s rationale, and two questioned the reliance on climate models. So the agency convened a nine-person independent panel, which recommended the species be listed because of the long-term habitat loss from climate change.
But FWS Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh ultimately overruled the recommendation of the panel and field biologists, issuing a memo citing uncertainties "about the degree to which we can reliably predict impacts to wolverine populations from climate change."
FWS staff struggled with the reversal, according to Christensen’s memo. One of the agency’s biologists, who was directly involved with the listing effort, joked that "[t]he fact that essentially all wolverine scientists agree that snow is essential, but posit different mechanisms for the relationship, casts doubt on the snow relationship."
Christensen, while calling Walsh "sincere," nevertheless attributed the agency’s reversal to "immense political pressure." Western states were generally opposed to listing the wolverine and questioned the use of climate models to do so.
"The Service’s decision on the wolverine has profound consequences, and the reality is that, in some instances, species conservation is a political issue as much as it is a scientific one," he wrote.
Walsh relied on what Christensen called the "personal opinion" of Stephen Torbit, the assistant regional director under her in Region 6. Torbit relied on a precipitation study from Colorado to discredit the two studies that used climate models to predict that climate change would impact the wolverine.
The agency’s reliance on Torbit’s last-minute memo was "arbitrary and capricious," according to the court.
"The Court views Torbit’s comments as nothing more than an unpublished, unreviewed, personal opinion, elicited by Walsh in the eleventh hour to back fill her foregone conclusion to withdraw the Proposed Rule," Christensen wrote, later adding that Torbit "relied on tangential science to discredit specific science."