Feds ignore science, backpedal on wolverine protection
As conservation groups prepare new lawsuit, activists say pressure from states played a role in the decision
ONE of the rarest animals in the West won’t get any special protection for now. Federal officials ignored the best available science from their own researchers and withdrew a 2010 proposal to put wolverines, threatened by global warming, on the endangered species list.
Just last April, nine members of a science panel convened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that all existing scientific evidence supported the proposed listing, based on climate-change threats. But this week, the head of the agency threw out those findings with no apparent science to back up the decision.
Tuesday’s wolverine announcement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service drew immediate criticism. Along with the usual clatter from wildlife conservation groups, scientists who have studied the species for decades also expressed outrage. They claim the decision was motivated by politics, specifically by pressure from Montana, Utah and Idaho, where hostility to the federal government is part of the culture. Lawmakers in those states fear new restrictions on logging, snowmobiling and development, even though wolverines tend to stay in the most remote and rugged parts of the mountains.
During the listing process, formal comments from those states posted on the web made it clear that they were adamantly opposed to the listing, based on unscientific claims that wolverine populations are expanding and that global warming won’t melt all the snow in the northern Rockies.
Wildlife advocacy groups Wednesday morning notified the government that they will file a new lawsuit challenging the decision. That will delay a long-shelved Colorado plan to reintroduce wolverines in the state. Colorado wildlife officials are keen to bring back wolverines after successfully establishing a wild lynx population, but a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife said the state won’t move forward until the species’ federal status is resolved.
Colorado didn’t oppose the listing like neighboring states to the north, but worked with the federal agency to potentially carve out a flexible management status for any reintroduced wolverines in the state.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in its announcement that it relied on input from three regional agency directors to make the decision and emphasized what its director, Dan Ashe, described as uncertainty about the science. But nearly all the biologists who worked on the listing proposal supported the science, with the exception of two dissenting review-panel members brought in at the very end of the process.
There are only about 300 of the omnivorous scavengers living in scattered pockets of the northern Rockies, as well as in the farthest northern reaches of Eurasia. Wolverines are the largest land-dwelling members of the weasel family and are completely dependent on deep spring snows for denning and breeding. Globally, all wolverine dens known to scientists are located in areas where deep snow cover lasts into May and June.
During the past few years, a lone wolverine outfitted with a radio collar wandered from Wyoming to Colorado, roaming through Rocky Mountain National Park, south across I-70 to the Mt. Evans area and even into Summit County. That animal’s wanderings in Colorado helped fuel public interest in a reintroduction program, which would involve capturing wolverines in areas where they are more common and releasing them in the wilds of the Colorado high country.
A final environmental report prepared as part of the listing process spelled out the issues clearly, showing how few wolverines remain, how seldom they reproduce and how much they need deep snow to survive as a species. But during the final stages of review, political-level officials in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service overruled their own biologists, claiming that climate models aren’t precise enough to predict impacts to wolverine habitat.
“It’s a travesty of science,” said researcher Jeff Copeland, who has studied the unusual critters for decades. Copeland’s detailed wolverines studies provided much of the basis for the listing proposal.
“Wolverines need snow. There’s no other metric that’s easier to measure in climate science than loss of snow cover,” Copeland said, and he’s not just a lone voice crying in the wilderness. In a July 31 letter, 56 members of the Society for Conservation Biology — not exactly a hotbed of radicalism — expressed similar concerns about the federal agency’s decision.
In their letter (posted at the end of this story) the scientists said the decision to withdraw the wolverine listing proposal shows flaws in the agency’s process and “continues a troubling pattern of disregard for best available science that has characterized other recent FWS listing and delisting determinations.”
Detailed annual measurements of spring snow cover extent by the Rutgers University Global Snow Lab support his position. No matter how much snow falls each winter, warming temperatures have been melting the snow much earlier each year. Data show that the North American snow cover extent has been far below average for more than 10 years in a row, and there’s nothing to suggest that will change anytime soon.
Despite all that, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Ashe said Tuesday that wolverines are not in danger of extinction.
“While impacts to many species are clear and measurable, for others the consequences of a warming planet are less certain,” Ashe said in a prepared statement.The rugged topography of the Mountain West makes it especially hard to pinpoint global warming impacts to individual species, he explained.
“In this case, Ashe said, “based on all the information available, we simply do not know enough about the ecology of the wolverine and when or how it will be affected by a changing climate to conclude at this time that it is likely to be in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future.”
But those statements fly in the face of all the scientific evidence gathered during the past few years, according to wolverine researcher Copeland, whose research is based on many years observing the animals in the wild.
Copeland said it’s clear that snow-covered habitat will decline widely in coming decades, and that wolverines will be hard-pressed to find suitable sites for dens and breeding.
“If that habitat is going away, there’s cause for concern,” he said. That’s because “when we look at the distribution of wolverine reproduction, 100 percent is in deep persistent snow,” he said.
He acknowledged that small pockets of habitat may remain, but limiting the far-ranging mammals to small geographic islands makes them susceptible to inbreeding and localized extinction.
Copeland also said he understands the argument that information on snow cover isn’t as detailed as it could be. But he emphasized that the Endangered Species Act requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to base its decisions on the best available science, not politics. And that science says that wolverines will lose ground as the planet warms. There is no credible evidence to the contrary. If there had been, it would have been spelled out and included in the listing deliberations.
He also feels personally attacked, charging that state wildlife officials, mainly in Montana where he has done much of his wolverine research, set out to denigrate his peer-reviewed studies by falsely accusing him of ignoring data that didn’t meet his preconceptions, Copeland said.
Montana wildlife officials did not return calls asking for comment Tuesday afternoon, but this story will be updated with their response.
The big picture
“You can take bits and pieces of this and make a convincing argument either way,” said conservation advocate Kylie Paul, with Defenders of Wildlife, referring to some of the legitimate questions about the details of melting snowpacks around the West.
But in the big picture, it seems pretty clear that wolverines are in trouble, she said, highlighting their incredibly low population density, their very slow reproductive rate and the inescapable fact that global warming will melt much of the snow they need to survive.
And as much as environmental activists would like to slow global warming by halting all greenhouse gas emissions immediately, they know that simply listing wolverines isn’t going to make that happen. The hope is that a listing would loosen up more funding for research and monitoring to get a better understanding of wolverine population dynamics.
It’s certainly possible, at some point down the road, that scientists could learn that enough habitat will remain to ensure at least a stable population. Until then, it would be important to identify those areas where wolverines can survive and try to preserve them as viable habitat, Paul said.
Colorado could be important because climate projections show that the state’s high elevation snowpack will persist longer than in the lower elevations of the northern Rockies. That means there could be good habitat for wolverines (and other snow-loving species) when it has vanished in other parts of the West, making Colorado a climate-change ark of sorts for endangered plants and animals.
[A lone wolverine originally from Wyoming wandered into Colorado a few years ago and was spotted in 2012 near Mt. Bierstadt, showing how far the omnivorous mammals will travel to find good habitat. Photo by Cameron Miller.]
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