Claiming that politics trumped science in a federal decision that refused to protect wolverines under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) earlier this year, 10 conservation groups filed suit Sept. 30 in Missoula’s U.S. District Court to ensure the iconic and reclusive weasel’s survival.
The groups argue that documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act bolster their case, showing that Washington, D.C., officials overruled U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologists who determined that wolverines are worthy of protection under the 1973 law. An ESA listing would inconvenience Bush administration officials hoping to prevent additional climate change-based species protection, conservationists say, and the ruling rejects the agency’s own science to conform to policy goals.
“Wolverines are at direct risk due to climate change,” says David Gaillard, a Bozeman-based representative for Defenders of Wildlife, a co-plaintiff in the 32-page suit. Since female wolverines den solely in locations that are snowy in May, he believes wolverines face an increasingly uncertain future as temperatures rise and snow melts.
USFWS officials won’t comment on pending litigation, but state two reasons for denying protection: American wolverines are not “geographically discrete” from their northern brethren, and that too few wolverines live in America to be considered critical to the continent’s entire population.
“[T]he contiguous United States population of the wolverine does not significantly contribute to the Canadian and Alaskan wolverine populations’ ability to maintain their genetic diversity and viability,” claimed the agency in March.
But the plaintiffs note that the agency itself made a point of the population size issue with its March decision in saying, “The small effective population size…has led to inbreeding and consequent loss of genetic diversity.”
The groups already provided their concerns to the USFWS in July, but heard nothing in response, says Galliard.
“This leaves us no choice,” he says, “but to file suit to try to reverse the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision before it is to late for wolverines in the West.”