BY MARCY STAMPER
A proposal to list the wolverine as endangered could be a roundabout way of enacting laws to lessen climate change, according to the Okanogan County commissioners. The concern about the potential for costly impacts to the local economy is a key point in their comments to the federal wildlife agency considering the listing.
“We are convinced the true objective of the proposed listing is not to protect or restore wolverine populations, but rather to empower federal agencies to implement climate change regulation without Congressional oversight and with the full force of the Endangered Species Act,” the commissioners state in their input to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), dated April 15.
The commissioners note that the wolverine population is increasing and contend that wildlife biologists have jumped to conclusions about the potential for a decline in the spring snowpack and about wolverines’ ability to adapt to changing conditions. “We see no conclusive evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe that wolverines can only reproduce in areas of persistent spring snowpack,” they say in their comments.
The Fish & Wildlife Service invited comments on a proposed endangered listing for wolverines in February. Agency scientists note that the wolverine is rebounding from near extinction 100 years ago, with the current population of wolverines in the lower 48 states estimated at 250 to 300.
A USFWS fact sheet on the proposal notes, “In the past 50 years, the wolverine has made a remarkable recovery, with little human assistance. However, climate modeling indicates that wolverines in the lower 48 States are threatened with extinction in the future due to the loss of snowpack in the wolverine’s snowy, high-elevation habitat.”
Wolverines depend on a deep spring snowpack to protect their young from the elements and from predators, said John Rohrer, district wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service and field coordinator for the North Cascades Wolverine Project. If the climate continues to change, areas suitable for wolverines will shrink or become fragmented, he said.
Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), all listings are based on future threats to a species and not on its present numbers, according to Shawn Sartorius, a fish and wildlife biologist with USFWS and the lead on wolverines.
An endangered listing is not discretionary and scientists are required to pursue a listing when the available scientific information shows it is necessary, said Sartorius. Moreover, the law does not permit the agency to base a listing on whether there is a way to reduce the threat (for example, to avert global warming), he said.
Because most species on the endangered list have been threatened for some time, people have grown accustomed to a low population count at the time of a listing, but population size is not the main factor, said Sartorius.
LOCAL POPULATION GROWING
This is the eighth winter that the Wolverine Project has been tracking and live-trapping wolverines. In that time, researchers have caught 13 individuals, including three new ones this year, said Rohrer. Rohrer is encouraged by finding new individuals and some of the original animals each year.
“I’m not sure if it’s just that more people are looking or that wolverines are expanding their range,” said Rohrer, who said the elusive mammals have been found as far south as Stevens Pass. USFWS says researchers cannot presently determine the critical habitat for the wolverine and are also soliciting input about whether a specific habitat designation should be part of any listing.
Scientists have concluded that most activities occurring within the wolverine’s high-elevation habitat – including snowmobiling, backcountry skiing, and timber harvest – do not constitute threats to the animal, so these activities would be permitted even under an endangered listing, said Sartorius. Hunting and trapping of wolverines would be prohibited.
The commissioners are troubled by the implications of the agency’s models. “The proposal relies on a model that predicts the reduction of areas of persistent spring snowpack due to climate change. The model assumes that mankind is the only cause of climate change…. The model therefore leads to the conclusion that the only way to preserve wolverine habitat, hence wolverine numbers, is to end global warming,” they write.
USFWS has cited climate change as a threat to an animal’s survival before. A decrease in habitat because of melting sea ice was key in the 2008 listing of the polar bear, said Sartorius.
Fish & Wildlife has said that it will not regulate greenhouse-gas emissions through the Endangered Species Act, because the agency views climate change as an international issue, said Sartorius. “We have taken ourselves – for a very good reason – out of the climate-change equation,” he said.
EFFECTS ON LOCAL ECONOMY
At the crux of the commissioners’ analysis is the specter of onerous regulations on county government. “[T]here is no corner of the nation or any activity free from a takings claim if they fail to adopt regulation deemed sufficient to protect the critical habitat or engage in any activity deemed to contribute to global warming,” they say in their comments.
“With small communities already struggling to deliver vital services, it is unconscionable to saddle them with an ESA listing based on a very speculative assumption without a critical and comprehensive effort to assess the potential costs.” During a discussion about the proposal earlier this month, the commissioners suggested that an endangered listing based on declining snowpack could subject county departments such as Public Works to regulations on truck emissions. “This is another ploy to break us at the local level,” said commissioner Jim DeTro.
President Obama recently directed that any future designations of critical habitat must take into account local economic impact and regulatory burdens, according to the Wildlife Service’s notice about the wolverine proposal.
Biologists have prepared a draft recovery outline for the wolverine to accompany their proposal. The primary measures would be to help wolverines access more of their historic range through natural expansion and reintroduction, said Sartorius. Wolverines appear to be recolonizing areas they inhabited 100 years ago, before mass poisoning nearly wiped them out, said Rohrer.
“Because we are unable to address the primary threat of climate change directly, wolverine recovery will be a matter of ensuring that the DPS [distinct population segment] is resilient to the changes that we expect to occur,” USFWS says in the draft recovery outline.
The public may submit comments on listing the wolverine until May 6. USFWS will make a decision about endangered status within a year.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service: Xena, a female wolverine