Thirteen environmental groups informed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week that, in light of its recent refusal to extend Endangered Species Act protections to wolverines, they intend to file suit against the agency. The Western Environmental Law Center, which is spearheading the effort, accused FWS of ignoring the recommendations of its own scientists in withdrawing a listing proposal for the species.
"The Service knows the house is on fire, but is deciding to wait until it is absolutely certain which room will burn first before doing anything to put out the blaze," Nick Cady, legal director for Eugene, Ore.-based Cascadia Wildlands, said in a statement.
The concern is no less in western Montana. Among the plaintiffs pursuing legal action is Hamilton-based Friends of the Bitterroot. The group has been fighting for the protection of wildlife—particularly threatened and endangered species—for almost 26 years, and president Jim Miller believes FWS's unwillingness to acknowledge the potential impacts to wolverines from climate change is a violation of the agency's primary mission.
"The biologists in their own agency recognized the current threat to wolverine and they're ignoring that science," Miller says. "The Fish and Wildlife Service is entrusted by the American people to ensure the survival of wildlife in our country, and they're failing to do that."
Miller says the Friends of the Bitterroot fight is personal. Montana serves as the home range for many of the 250-300 wolverines in the lower 48 states, and the species is a known presence on the Bitterroot National Forest. Montana was also one of only two states that allowed limited wolverine harvest through trapping; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has kept that season closed since a state district court judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking wolverine trapping in 2012.
In justifying the withdrawal of its listing proposal, FWS cited not only increased sightings of wolverines outside formerly known habitat since 2008, but also the unreliability of climate-change-model forecasts. The groups prepping to sue, however, argue that FWS is now ignoring prior findings of scientists. Ultimately, Miller feels the issue boils down to a moral question.
"There are difficult times ahead," he says. "As a species, can't we do more to protect the plants and animals that we share this planet with?"