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Conservation groups to sue Fish and Wildlife Service over wolverine non-listing

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to withdraw the wolverine from consideration for endangered species protection has prompted another lawsuit against the agency.

On Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it has once again withdrawn its proposal to list the wolverine after its most recent review showed that conditions aren’t as dire as was believed in 2013 when the agency first proposed listing the species.

“In the time since our original proposal, the science on wolverine has been greatly advanced thanks to the work of state wildlife agencies and researchers in the U.S. and around the world,” said Noreen Walsh, USFWS Regional Director in a press release.

Wolverine dwell in the higher elevation forests of the northwestern U.S. and the agency says more than 90% of the suitable habitat is on federally owned public lands and wilderness areas, so it doesn’t face threats like property development.

Genetic and observational studies show that wolverines in the lower 48 are connected to populations in Canada and Alaska, and the USFWS says migration and breeding is possible between the groups. So the agency considers wolverines in the lower 48 states to be an extension of the populations farther north so they don’t qualify as a distinct population segment.

The agency adds that Canada doesn’t manage its wolverines any differently, so there’s no concern about losing the Canadian population.

That explanation doesn’t wash for some conservation groups that have pushed the USFWS for a wolverine listing since 2000.

Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso said the rational the USFWS gave Thursday for not listing the wolverine is flawed, because the law doesn’t allow the USFWS to blow off populations in the lower 48 just because there are other populations in Canada and Alaska. Many species span the Canadian-U.S. border, including bald eagles, peregrine falcon, grizzly bears and wolves.

“If we go down that road, we’re basically consigning a lot of wildlife in the lower 48 to oblivion and turning Alaska into some sort of museum for U.S. wildlife and I don’t think that’s what the American people want,” Preso said. “That’s why the Act has a ‘distinct population segment’-listing listing tool – to make sure we don’t impoverish the lower 48 just because we still have members of the species in Canada and Alaska.”

Jonathan Proctor, Defenders of Wildlife Rockies and Plains program director, said the USFWS had used the distinct population segment justification in court before and failed.

“It’s difficult to imagine this decision was the result of scientific data, because nothing has changed. The threat of climate change and habitat fragmentation has not magically disappeared,” Proctor said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has abandoned its moral and legal obligation to protect these animals. But we’re not going to abandon our effort to see them protected.”

Biologists estimate only about 300 wolverines roam the lower 48. The groups say that more than a century of trapping and habitat loss has pushed the animals into small, fragmented populations in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and northeast Oregon, where snowpack is on the decline.

In addition, those isolated populations are at increasing risk from human disturbance, habitat fragmentation and low population numbers that lead to low genetic diversity. Without new conservation efforts, the populations could become inbred or wink out all together, leaving the Canadian populations that much more impoverished.

Most recently, the Center for Biological Diversity and eight other organizations sued the USFWS after it withdrew the listing in 2014. The states of Montana and Wyoming, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Montana Petroleum Association and several snowmobile clubs opposed the listing.

But in 2016, Missoula federal court judge Dana Christensen ordered the USFWS to reevaluate the wolverine’s status, especially in light of climate change effects that modify or reduce mountain snowpack that can affect wolverine denning.

“No greater level of certainty is needed to see the writing on the wall for this snow-dependent species standing squarely in the path of global climate change,” Christensen wrote in 2016.

But then, nothing happened.

After four years with no word from the agency, the conservation organizations sued again in March 2020 to get the USFWS to follow the judge’s order. The USFWS settled the case in July, and Christensen gave the agency two months to take action. Today’s decision to not list the wolverine is that action.

So, the conservation organizations announced on Thursday that they would take the agency to court once again. Once the USFWS publishes its decision in the Federal Register, they’ll file their 60-day intent to sue.

“For 20 years, (the USFWS) used every strategy in their playbook to avoid listing the wolverine,” Preso said. “They have been taken to court every time, and they’ve either lost or been unwilling to defend their decision and settled. And now here we go again.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com