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Groups Sue Feds Over Failure to Protect Wolverines

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Wolverine | Photo: Josh More/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Eight conservation groups today filed suit in Federal court to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its recent decision not to list the American wolverine as a Threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The wolverine (Gulo gulo), a rare and fierce predator in the weasel family faces an uncertain future as a warming planet reduces the deep mountain snowpacks the animal requires to dig its breeding dens. USFWS scientists studying the wolverine's prospects for survival unanimously agreed the carnivore merited protection as a Threatened species. The agency itself proposed listing the wolverine in February 2013.

But in May of this year, USFWS Regional Director Noreen Walsh quietly ordered her staff to drop work on listing the wolverine, citing "uncertainty" in climate change modeling. USFWS Director Dan Ashe made that order official in August with a formal withdrawal of the listing proposal. This week's lawsuit seeks to rescind that order and restart the listing process.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Montana, charges that USFWS violated the Endangered Species Act by disregarding the best available science on the wolverine, and asks the court to set aside the decision to drop the listing process.

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If the wolverine is listed, protection would apply to the population in the lower 48 states, including a small confirmed population in California's Sierra Nevada.

"The wolverine is a famously tough creature that doesn't back down from anything, but even the wolverine can't overcome a changing climate by itself," said Earthjustice attorney Adrienne Maxwell. "To survive, the wolverine needs the protections that only the Endangered Species Act can provide."

Earthjustice is representing eight conservation groups bringing the lawsuit against USFWS and the Department of the Interior. The plaintiffs are the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Friends of the Clearwater, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and Rocky Mountain Wild.

The fewer than 300 wolverines remaining in the lower 48 states rely on deep, persistent snowpack lasting until at least May for the females to hollow out dens. Though Walsh's May memo correctly pointed out that current climate models don't allow precise predictions of future snowpack at individual denning locations, scientists are unanimous in agreeing that a warming climate means fewer areas of persistent snow overall.

That not only limits breeding habitat available to wolverines, but it raises the risk of fragmentation of the wolverine gene pool as populations that were once connected by swaths of suitable winter breeding habitat find themselves isolated.

"The best available science shows climate change will significantly reduce available wolverine habitat over the next century, and imperil the species," said Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance's Siva Sundaresan. "As an agency responsible for protecting our wildlife, FWS should not ignore science and should make their decisions based on facts and data."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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