Today, a federal judge invalidated a Trump administration decision denying protections to imperiled wolverines under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (original complaint here). This is the second time a court has rejected a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to deny protections for wolverines, which number only about 300 in the contiguous U.S. Today’s court order immediately reinstates wolverines’ “candidate” status as a species proposed for listing.
“We are hoping this time is the charm and the Fish and Wildlife Service will follow the courts’ directives to rely on the best available climate science to make the right call to protect wolverines in the lower 48 states,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “With climate change quickly shrinking the snowy habitat wolverines rely on to survive, there is no time for politics and further delays.”
The groups in today’s court victory 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.
“The science and the law could not be more clear: Wolverine are deserving of the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” said Bethany Cotton, conservation director with Cascadia Wildlands. “It’s long past time for the Fish and Wildlife Service to do its job and afford this iconic climate-impacted species with the best safeguards available.”
Wolverine rely on snow year-round. With their large paws, wolverine can travel easily over snow, and often rely on deep snow for hunting and for 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.
“I hope the Biden administration will now quit defending the Trump administration decision that wolverines do not deserve to be protected from extinction now that a federal district court has now ruled that it was illegal,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “We need to work toward keeping wolverines from going extinct instead of continuing to drive them to extinction.”
“Wolverines are trapped on the merry-go-round of extinction and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to put them on the path toward recovery by protecting them under the Endangered Species Act.” said Sarah McMillan, WildEarth Guardians’ senior advisor based in Missoula, Montana. “It’s profoundly disappointing that as the extinction crisis escalates, the Biden administration has chosen to defend the Trump administration, rather than this climate-imperiled species.”
“The wolverine is dependent on snow for its survival is the canary in the coal mine with regards to climate change,” said ecologist George Wuerthner. “If the wolverine can no longer survive in the lower 48 states, it indicates that we are not doing enough to halt and reverse global warming.”
The victorious organizations include WildEarth Guardians, Friends Of The Bitterroot, Friends Of The Wild Swan, Swan View Coalition, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Alliance For The Wild Rockies, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, George Wuerthner, Footloose Montana, Native Ecosystems Council, Wildlands Network, Helena Hunters and Anglers Association. They were represented by attorneys with the Western Environmental Law Center.
Wolverines number just 250-300 individuals in the contiguous U.S. and are dependent on high elevation habitat with deep winter snows. Imperiled by climate change, habitat loss, small population size and trapping, wolverines were first petitioned for Endangered Species Act protections in 2000. The Service found the petition did not contain adequate information to justify a listing. A federal court overturned that decision in 2006. The Service then issued a negative 12-month finding in 2008, which was challenged in court resulting in a settlement that led to a new finding that wolverines should be protected under the ESA, but that other priorities precluded the listing at that time. A landmark settlement, which resolved the backlog of imperiled species awaiting protections, then guaranteed a new finding for wolverines. In February 2013, the Service proposed listing the wolverine as “threatened” under the ESA. In August 2014, however, the Service reversed course and issued a decision not to list the species, contradicting its own expert scientists’ recommendations. In April, 2016 the court overturned the Service’s decision not to list, reinstating wolverines’ status as a candidate species and requiring a new final rule. In October 2020, the Service again decided not to list. The groups in today’s victory filed their challenge in December 2020.