Wildlife face many challenges, many of them due to the degradation, destruction, and development of their native habitats. One of the last-ditch ways to reverse the decline of native wildlife populations and combat the extinction crisis is going to court to protect those animals through the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and other bedrock environmental laws. Learn more about how wolverines, red tree voles and wolves have benefitted from the power of the law, and what this means in the fight for their protection.
A Win for Wolverines!
Wolverines received another chance to be listed under the protection of the ESA on May 31, 2022 when a federal judge invalidated a Trump administration decision denying protections to imperiled wolverines (original complaint here). This is the second time a court has rejected a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decision to deny protections for wolverines, which number only about 300 in the contiguous U.S. This update immediately reinstated wolverines as a “candidate” species proposed for listing.
The groups in this court victory, which include Oregon Wild, defeated the Service in court in 2016, forcing the agency back to the drawing board with a directive to apply the best science. Four years later, the Service returned with the same decision to deny wolverine protective status, despite no new scientific support for such a determination.
Wolverines rely on snow year-round. With their large paws, wolverines can travel easily over snow, and often rely on deep snow for hunting, denning and rearing of young. Snow is also a “freezer” that permits the wolverine to store and scavenge food. One study found 98% of all wolverine den sites in places with persistent late spring snowpack. However, due to climate change the species’ critical habitat is at risk, which the Service must consider for the future viability of wolverine populations.
A Win for Red Tree Voles!
We can also remain hopeful that imperiled red tree voles will receive the protections they desperately need to prevent extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed on May 25, 2022 to reconsider whether red tree voles on Oregon’s North Coast need protection under the ESA. The Service has until January 31, 2024, to make a decision.
In response to a 2007 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, Oregon Wild, and other conservation groups, the Service found in 2011 that the red tree vole warranted federal protection. However, the agency delayed actually providing it, arguing there was a lack of resources. The Service reaffirmed that the red tree vole warranted protection annually until abruptly reversing course in 2019 and denying protection! The threats to the tree vole — including logging, climate change-driven wildfire and small, fragmented populations — persist.
As one of very few mammals that can subsist entirely on conifer needles, tree voles rarely venture from the treetops to the ground, making them exceedingly vulnerable to logging and forest fragmentation. They depend on trees with structures like broken-tops and witch’s brooms for nesting and an interconnected tree canopy. Tree voles are typically found in old-growth forests. With the loss of ancient forests due to logging and fire, tree voles have been nearly eliminated from the North Coast of Oregon, including on the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests.
The Oregon Department of Forestry is developing a habitat conservation plan that includes the red tree vole, but it relies on scant information about where the animals still remain. This provides little assurance that the tree voles, and the large blocks of mature forest where they live, will be allowed to recover. Federal protection would greatly increase the chances of the voles’ survival.
“Clearcut logging across the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests is at an all-time high, putting the survival of the red tree vole in even greater jeopardy than when the Service deferred protections two decades ago,” said Danielle Moser with Oregon Wild. “The Service cannot delay any longer if we hope to actually recover these adorable voles.”
A Win for Wolves!
It is no secret that wolves have suffered greatly after the Service decided in 2020 to remove federal protections from gray wolves across much of the U.S.The Trump administration delisted the gray wolf after 45 years of protection under the ESA despite the strong disagreement from experts who noted that the wolf’s recovery hinged on continued protections. Although President Biden expressed personal concern for wolves, the Biden administration chose to defend the delisting decision.
To our relief, on February 10, 2022 a federal district court struck down that 2020 decision! This ruling threw out the Trump administration delisting rule and reinstated federal protections for wolves in 44 states. In Oregon, wolves west of Highway 395 are now protected.
“Last year we saw 8 wolves illegally poisoned in Oregon with the perpetrator still at large,” said Danielle Moser, Wildlife Program Coordinator at Oregon Wild. “Restored protections are integral to making up for this devastating loss not only in our state but across the West.”
Earthjustice challenged the wolf delisting in a lawsuit on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, Oregon Wild, and the Humane Society of the United States in January of 2021; that lawsuit was joined by another coalition of conservation groups and NRDC.