Science trumps politics for wolverines

A court ruling may force wolverines onto the endangered species list, and open the door for other animals threatened by climate change.

 

In late winter, when the high mountains of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are buried in snow, female wolverines in hidden dens give birth to one or two pure white kits. Scientists suspect the snow helps insulate the kits and protect them from predators like wolves, which might explain why mama wolverines often choose north-facing slopes where snowpack lasts longer. Later, when the kits are weaned, the lingering snow serves as a refrigerator: wolverines sometimes cache meat in snowbanks so they don’t have to stray far from the safety of their dens to hunt or scavenge.  

Though wolverines’ dependence on snow isn’t fully understood, researchers in 2010 concluded that the animals only reproduce where there’s deep, long-lasting snow. The following year, scientists found that habitat with that kind of snow cover is expected to shrink by 31 percent in the next three decades. So in 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed adding the 300 or so wolverines in the Northern Rockies to the endangered species list. They would’ve been the first species in the Lower 48 declared legally endangered because of climate change. 

But then regional director Noreen Walsh abruptly changed course. Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe backed up her decision not to list wolverines, citing too many uncertainties in the scientific literature. So some 20 environmental groups, including the Western Environmental Law Center, sued. 

Now, a federal court has ruled in their favor. On April 4, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen declared that Fish and Wildlife’s refusal to list wolverines as threatened or endangered was “arbitrary and capricious,” and is forcing the agency to reassess. That means that the elusive, ferocious Gulo gulo is once again poised to become the first animal in the contiguous states to receive federal protections because of climate change. 

Wolverines are again poised to become the first species in the Lower 48 added to the Endangered Species List because of threats from climate change.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The decision is significant, says Western Environmental Law Center staff attorney Matthew Bishop, because it suggests that climate change’s impact doesn’t have to be cut-and-dry to prompt protection. When polar bears became the first species thrust onto the endangered species list because of a warming planet in 2008, there was an obvious smoking gun — bears drowning and dying from starvation because thin sea ice limited their ability to hunt seals.

Wolverine researchers may never be able to produce that kind of clear evidence — the animals are notoriously reclusive and hard to study, and the effects of diminished snowpack will probably be less dramatic. Plus, since scientists don’t agree on exactly why wolverines require snow for reproduction, predicting the precise impact of its loss is difficult. But Christensen says this doesn’t matter. “If ever there was a species for which conservation depends on foregoing absolute certainty, it is the wolverine,” he wrote in his 85-page order. 

The decision could open the door to listing for other animals that are predicted to be impacted by climate change but aren’t yet experiencing its effects. Pikas, for instance. Corals. Bishop thinks there are hundreds of candidates. As for wolverines, he believes the decision will lead to a threatened listing, though the timeframe is still unclear. (Threatened species aren't yet endangered but are likely to become so. They still receive protections under the Endangered Species Act.) 

But given that the Endangered Species Act can’t limit global greenhouse gas emissions, how can it protect the wolverine from climate change? 

One solution could be to reintroduce the animal to places where it’s been extirpated, like the Sierra Nevada or Colorado Rockies. Parts of those high-altitude mountain ranges are expected to be spared the worst effects of a warming planet, so restoring wolverine populations there could help the species as a whole survive. Such reintroductions were part of Fish and Wildlife’s 2013 proposal, and could well be part of a future recovery plan. Other solutions include limiting trapping, snowmobiling and other winter recreation in denning habitat. 

But Wyoming, Montana and Idaho oppose listing the wolverine for precisely those reasons. Like many Western states, they see an ESA listing — even for an animal that lives mostly above 8,000 feet — as detrimental to economic development

Yet by law, endangered species decisions are supposed to be about science, not politics or economics. Christensen suspects politics prompted Noreen Walsh’s perplexing 180-degree reversal. “Why did the Service make the decision [to not list the wolverine]?” he asked. “Based on the record, the Court suspects that a possible answer to this question can be found in the immense political pressure that was brought to bear on this issue, particularly by a handful of Western states.”

Bishop has been working in endangered species law for 17 years, and agrees that political influence has increasingly overshadowed science of late. Other animals, like Sonoran desert tortoises have been denied protection despite scientific evidence suggesting it’s warranted. Bishop can only guess politics are at play — which is why he thinks Christensen’s decision was a win for not just wolverines, but for other species living on the brink, too.  

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job purpose The Executive Director is a proven leader with demonstrated and sustained experience managing people, budgets, fundraising, and contract compliance who guides a well-established...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a Communications Associate to support the advancement of GYC's mission by working closely with the Communications Coordinator and program staff...
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...