Donate Sign up for e-network
CENTER for BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY Because life is good

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Missoulian, July 17, 2011
Find out more from the Center for Biological Diversity:
Landmark Species Agreement

Wolverine, other animals jump to top of endangered review list with agreement
By Rob Cheney

In part because they're so good at evading biologists, Montana's elusive wolverines nearly escaped a bureaucratic roundup - and a chance at earning federal Endangered Species Act protection.

Now they're at the top of the "to-do" list.

Last December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled the wolverine was "warranted but precluded" from threatened or endangered status, in part because so little is known about the carnivore.

Then in May, a legal agreement to speed up Endangered Species Act reviews revived the chances of federal protection for 251 species. But the wolverine decision missed the inclusion deadline by a month.

A revised plan released last week put the wolverine back on the list - at the top, in fact, along with Montana's arctic grayling and sage grouse. And that should produce an administrative decision whether the rare carnivore, fish and bird deserve federal protection or can be left alone.

But it may not provide the research needed to say what kind of protection is warranted.

"That's often the case with rare and endangered species, and the (endangered species) act was specifically designed to handle this kind of problem," said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that worked out the legal settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We can't wait for perfect information to protect rare species. It would be too late."

In the wolverine's case, the biggest threat is climate change. The females give birth to their kits in late winter, in dens dug in snowdrifts 15 or 20 feet deep. A recent paper published by the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station found those kinds of snow zones will shrink 35 percent to 40 percent by 2045, and by more than two-thirds by the end of the 21st century.

But it's not simple to connect the dots between wolverine den design and disappearing snowpacks. Jeff Copeland is a retired U.S. Forest Service biologist who's spent much of his career studying wolverines. He's now monitoring a new project in McCall, Idaho, that looks at wolverine den behavior around winter skiers and snowmobilers.

"Before the 1980s, there were no snow machines that could go into those areas," Copeland said. "Now with backcountry skiing and heli-skiing gaining in popularity, lots of people are playing in wolverine habitat during the winter. We know wolverine females are sensitive to disturbance in late February and May. So there's a common-sense belief there may be adverse impacts there, but we can't say that for sure."

That's because researchers have only been able to find and study 15 wolverine dens in the entire Lower 48 United States, and eight of those were in Glacier National Park. So no one can say if a wolverine mother needs a half-mile of buffer around a den area or five miles.

"Even if they dump another $10 million into the McCall study, it will still take five or 10 years to get information that can be generalized across wolverine populations," Copeland said. "But it's the process that's most important, not the end result. As long as the process is under way, the wolverine is at the forefront of our attention."


The process goes like this.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the situations of animals proposed for threatened or endangered species protection. Sometimes it concludes the animal, say the bald eagle, warrants protection. It then draws up rules shielding the animal from hunting or trapping, designates critical habitat where people must be careful not to do things that threaten the animal, and partners with state and private agencies to find ways of boosting the animal's survival.

Sometimes, it decides a critter doesn't deserve that attention. In June, the agency ruled that the fisher, a weasel family cousin of the wolverine, "is not in danger of extinction or likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future."

And sometimes, FWS finds a species like the wolverine is "warranted but precluded" from protection.

"For years we've had more species we've found warranted - in need of listing and a proposed rule - than we've had funding to undertake in those rule-makings," said Shawn Sartorius at the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Helena. "We've had a prioritization system, where we took the species most in need, list those first, and others go on a candidate list."

Critics of the process called that "the waiting room" of the Endangered Species Act and argued, in court, that it doomed hundreds of animals to extinction by bureaucratic inertia. Last May, WildEarth Guardians reached a settlement with FWS to kick-start reviews of 251 of those warranted-but-precluded candidate animals. In return, the environmental group promised to back off its court challenges.

The list included all the creatures on the candidate list through November 2010. The wolverine got its warranted-but-precluded designation in December.

Then the Center for Biological Diversity objected, saying the list wasn't big enough. The government reached a new settlement, adding the wolverine, Pacific walrus and some other species to the list.

"It's a major slug of work for the Montana field office, and several other offices around the country," Sartorius said. "It's not clear now how the staffing is going to work out - if we're going to staff up or not. But we're comfortable we can accomplish the task before us with the information out there for all those species."

The wolverine analysis must be finished by 2013, followed by the grayling in 2014 and the sage grouse in 2015.


Meanwhile, fieldwork continues to struggle for funds needed to produce the answers that inform that rulemaking. Copeland said the McCall study would need to be replicated three or four times in other areas to produce solid conclusions about wolverine behavior around skiers and snowmobiles.

"We're still lacking information in trying to understand how climate change may impact wolverines," Copeland said. "Look at the polar bear. We understand climate change is adversely impacting them, and we can measure the impact.

"With the wolverine, if the models are correct, we know it will lose 60 to 70 percent of its habitat by the end of the century. But we haven't been able to measure an impact - to say what that will mean. If we could say populations are declining or stagnant, the wolverine would be listed now."

And there are other roadblocks. In Congress, the House Appropriations Interior, Environment and Related Agencies subcommittee has proposed a moratorium on any new species listing or critical habitat designation. And an ESA listing could create as many critics as friends for the critter.

For example, Copeland said Colorado state wildlife officials are considering transplanting wolverines into some of their snowy Rocky Mountain high country.

"With a listing decision, they may look at it sideways," Copeland said. "They'd ask: Do we really want to bring a listed species into the state?"

But greater exposure also tends to mean greater support for endangered species. Defenders of Wildlife endangered species Bozeman representative David Gaillard argued getting wolverines out of the waiting room was more than an administrative shuffle.

"We're still a long way with the lynx and wolverine than we are with the more charismatic species like wolves and grizzly bears, or even hunted big game like elk and deer that get a lot more resources," Gaillard said. "The wolverine was at risk of neglect. Managers didn't pay it a whole lot of attention until Jeff's work identified its winter denning areas. Without the listing, they might just wink out before we know it."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

The original article appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton