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American wolverine

Missoulian, September 30, 2008

Like polar bear, wolverine is threatened by global warming, Montana lawsuit claims
By Michael Jameson, Missoulian

Charging that politics have trumped science, conservationists are challenging the federal government’s refusal to provide wolverines with Endangered Species Act protections.

“The wolverine is facing serious threats to its survival in the Lower 48 states, yet the Bush administration made a political decision not to protect this species,” said Tim Preso.

Decisions regarding sensitive species, he said, “are supposed to be based on science, not politics.”

Preso serves as counsel at Earthjustice, and is representing a coalition of 10 environmental groups in a lawsuit on behalf of the wolverine. On Tuesday, he filed the action in Missoula’s U.S. District Court.

According to Preso, plaintiffs have unearthed documents showing that federal officials overruled biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including scientists who had concluded wolverines are “warranted” for protections.

The Bush administration, plaintiffs charge, meddled with the science in order to avoid a second Endangered Species Act listing related to climate change. (In May, the polar bear was listed as threatened, largely due to habitat loss resulting from a warming planet.)

Wolverines, the groups allege, are likewise at risk from climate change because the animals depend on areas that remain snowbound well into spring, when females dig snow dens to give birth.

But spring snowpack, scientists say, is in decline, a trend that is predicted to worsen.

Wolverine populations also are threatened by trapping and human encroachment into mountain habitat, plaintiffs charge.

The secretive and wide-ranging members of the weasel family resemble small bears, and are most often associated with remote alpine country that remains snow-covered much of the year.

“Recent scientific studies,” the suit alleges, “document that areas of wolverine habitat have already lost up to 30 percent of their historic spring snowpack, and reductions could increase to 60 percent of historic levels by 2090.”

Largely isolated from Canadian populations by human development, the animals are thought to be declining in the Lower 48.

In their review, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists acknowledged those concerns, stating that “the small effective population size [e.g., the number of breeding pairs] in the contiguous U.S. wolverine population has led to inbreeding and consequent loss of genetic diversity.”

Over time, the review concludes, local populations could be at risk of extinction.

In denying protections, however, Fish and Wildlife Service brass said ample wolverines persist in Canada, and the U.S. population is not significant to survival of the overall species.

“I can’t comment on the lawsuit,” said agency spokesperson Diane Katzenberger, “but I would say that the Fish and Wildlife Service stands by its finding.”

The problem with a listing, she said, is that the U.S. population is not distinct from Canadian wolverines, nor is the U.S. population critical to the overall North American population.

But conservationists contend that reasoning represents an “about-face” from other listing decisions, including lynx, grizzly bears and wolves, all of which enjoy strong populations in Canada’s wilds.

The groups n which include Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Friends of the Clearwater, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Wyoming Outdoor Council n expressed their concerns in a July letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service, but have not yet received a response.

“This leaves us no choice but to file suit and try to reverse the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision before it is too late for wolverines in the West,” said David Gaillard, of Defenders of Wildlife.

The 32-page action filed Tuesday asks the court to void Fish and Wildlife’s March 11 denial, and require the agency to reconsider.

Katzenberger said the Fish and Wildlife Service has no intention of abandoning its earlier decision, but did say “if new information becomes available, we certainly would look at that.”

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton