Judge Tells Wildlife Agency to Protect Wolverines From Climate Change

The courts have overruled the government’s refusal to list wolverines as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
A wolverine in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Montana. (Photo: Daniel J. Cox/Getty Images)
Apr 6, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The 16-year saga to protect wolverines under the Endangered Species Act took an important turn this week after a federal judge ruled that the rare animals are indeed at risk owing to climate change.

Conservation groups first petitioned to protect the last 300 wolverines in the contiguous United States in 2000. In 2013, a team of biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the animals be listed as a threatened species, but a year later the agency denied protections to the furry, snow-dependent “mountain devils.”

On its web page for wolverines, the agency wrote that “the Service has determined that the effects of climate change are not likely to place the wolverine in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future. As a result, the wolverine does not meet the statutory definition of either a ‘threatened species’ or an ‘endangered species.’ ”

That, however, did not tell the full story. A leaked memo uncovered by the Los Angeles Times revealed that FWS had ignored its biologists’ recommendations, bowing to pressure from Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, the three states in which most of the remaining American wolverines live.

Environmental groups sued to reverse the 2014 decision, and in a blistering ruling filed April 4 by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen, they got their response.

The judge called the decision not to protect wolverines “arbitrary and capricious” and influenced by “immense political pressure that was brought to bear on this issue, particularly by a handful of western states.” She added that none of the states provided scientific information that disputed the federal biologists’ initial findings.

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Perhaps more important, Christensen wrote that climate change most definitely threatens wolverines and their habitat. “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,” she wrote.

Christensen ordered FWS to once again consider the wolverine for Endangered Species Act protection “at the earliest possible, defensible point in time.”

Conservation groups praised the ruling.

“Our hope is that the service, specifically Director [Dan] Ashe and Regional Director [Noreen] Walsh, will acknowledge their wrongdoing and afford the wolverine necessary protections in the very short term,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The species has suffered enough politically motivated delay.”

The delay could be costly. While the species is much healthier in Canada, wolverines have nearly been wiped out in the U.S. by fur traders. Now, climate change is threatening them further.

Scientists’ understanding of climate change’s impact has improved in the years since the initial push to protect the wolverine, and effects such as record-breaking global temperatures have become routine.

“The impacts of climate change, which are already being felt in the high-elevation Rocky Mountain habitats wolverines call home, have worsened over the past 16 years and will continue to worsen if we do not address our disastrous addiction to fossil fuels,” Cotton said.

What comes next? Cotton said Christensen’s ruling resets the clock, and that FWS now has a year to issue a new file rule regarding whether or not the wolverine deserves protection, a standard time frame under the Endangered Species Act. Until then, wolverines will need to keep up their long waiting game.