Wolverines must be reconsidered for protection under the Endangered Species Act, after a federal judge in Montana invalidated a Trump administration decision to deny protections.
In a decision issued last week, a U.S. District Court judge agreed with conservation groups that wolverines need additional protections while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reconsiders a 2020 decision not to protect the species as threatened or endangered.
“Wolverines are subject to considerable threats from a warming climate, shrinking snowpack, and increasingly fragmented habitat,” said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest. “Endangered Special Act protections help focus resources and actions to ensure wolverines have a future in the west’s wild landscapes.”
Among those wild landscapes are the North Cascades mountains around the Methow Valley, where researchers have documented wolverines living at high elevations. Only about 300 wolverines are estimated to exist today in the lower 48 states.
“The wolverine deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act, and this is a step toward ensuring the species does not suffer additional harm before that happens,” said Amanda Galvan, associate attorney with Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office.
“FWS previously ignored key studies that illustrate the threats the wolverine continues to face due to global warming. By reviewing a more complete picture of the species’ circumstances, we are hopeful that the agency will identify the need for increased protections,” Galvan said.
In last week’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy gave FWS 18 months to determine whether wolverines deserve to listed as threatened or endangered. As a candidate species, the wolverine will be afforded temporary protections under the Endangered Species Act while the agency considers its status.
Federal agencies must confer with the Service on any action they take that might harm wolverines. The health and safety of wolverines and their habitat must also be considered in planning decisions that could destroy or degrade their critical habitat.
FWS has been considering protections for wolverines for more than two decades, sometimes recommending protections and sometimes deciding they are not necessary. Conservation groups filed suit in December 2020 challenging the wildlife agency’s decision in October 2020 to withhold Endangered Species Act protections from wolverines in the lower 48 states. In response to the lawsuit, the Service agreed to reexamine its 2020 decision but did not commit to setting it aside.
“I hope the Biden administration will now quit defending the Trump administration decision that wolverines do not deserve to be protected from extinction now that a federal court has ruled that it was illegal,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
“The wolverine is a test case. How do we protect snow-dependent species in the era of climate change?” said Joseph Vaile from the conservation group KS Wild in southern Oregon. “One thing is certain. Without federal protections, this majestic species will be another climate change casualty.”
Wolverines, the largest land-dwelling members of the weasel family, once roamed across the northern tier of the United States and as far south as New Mexico in the Rockies and Southern California in the Sierra Nevada range. Females dig dens in mountain snowpack to give birth and raise their young. Snowpack is already in decline in the Western mountains, a trend that is predicted to worsen with a warming climate.
After more than a century of trapping and habitat loss, wolverines in the lower 48 today exist only as small, fragmented populations in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and northeast Oregon.
The conservation organizations that brought the lawsuit include WildEarth Guardians, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Wild Swan, Swan View Coalition, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, George Wuerthner, Footloose Montana, Native Ecosystems Council, Wildlands Network, Helena Hunters and Anglers Association. They were represented by attorneys with the Western Environmental Law Center.