Conservation groups sent a notice this week of their intent to sue the Trump administration for failing to protect wolverines “as required under the Endangered Species Act.”
There are fewer than 300 wolverines left in the lower 48 and the groups say the animal remains threatened by habitat loss and climate change.
The groups successfully sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 for withdrawing a proposed wolverine listing. In that case a Montana federal district judge directed the Fish and Wildlife Service to take action on requests to grant legal protection to the wolverine “at the earliest possible, defensible moment in time,” stressing that “[f]or the wolverine, that time is now.”
Despite the federal court’s ruling, the Service has not taken steps to protect the species.
In November 2019 the agency missed its own internal deadline for a wolverine listing decision, said the conservation groups in a press release.
“The wolverine is an icon of our remaining wilderness,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso, who is representing the coalition of nine groups. “We are taking action to ensure that the wolverine gets a fighting chance for survival.”
The groups’ notice letter gives the government 60 days to adopt protections for the wolverine. If the agency fails to take action, the groups will file a lawsuit.
The groups signing on to the letter are the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Clearwater, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Rocky Mountain Wild.
“Wolverines have been waiting far too long for the protection they need under the Endangered Species Act,” said Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Despite a court order to act quickly, the Trump administration continues to drag its feet. Delays are deadly when it comes to protecting wildlife. Wolverines need help right now.”
“If you’ve ever seen a wolverine in the wild, you’re one of a very lucky few,” said Brad Smith of the Idaho Conservation League. “We’re fortunate to have them in Idaho, but their numbers are critically low. Let’s not lose these iconic wild animals when we have the means to ensure they receive the protections they need to survive.”
“The Clearwater Basin is prime wolverine habitat and has a population of this rare species, yet it is threatened by global warming and the actions of the Forest Service. The newly released Nez Perce – Clearwater National Forests draft forest plan would endanger security habitat for wolverines,” said Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater.
The wolverine is a large member of the weasel family found in the Mountain West. Hunting, trapping and poisoning nearly extirpated the species from the lower 48 states in the early 1900s.
Wolverine populations currently occur within the contiguous United States in the north Cascades Range in Washington and the northern Rockies of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and a small portion of Oregon (Wallowa Range). Populations once existed in the Sierra Nevada of California and the southern Rocky Mountains in the states of Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico.
In deciding in 2014 not to list the wolverine, the USFWS said while it was clear that the climate was warming, the Service said it had determined that the effects of climate change were not likely to place the wolverine in danger of extinction then or in the foreseeable future.
As a result, the wolverine did not meet the statutory definition of either a “threatened species” or an “endangered species” and did not warrant protection under the ESA, said the agency at the time.
Service Director Dan Ashe’s decision to withdraw the listing proposal was informed by the consensus recommendation of the agency’s three regional directors for the regions encompassing the wolverine’s known range in the contiguous United States — the Mountain Prairie, Pacific Northwest and Pacific Southwest regions, said the agency.
With no more than 300 wolverines remaining in these regions, the species is at direct risk from climate change, say the conservation groups.
Wolverines depend on areas with deep snow through late spring. Pregnant females dig their dens into this snowpack to 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.
“Wolverine populations are also at risk from trapping, human disturbance, extremely low population numbers resulting in low genetic diversity, and fragmentation of their habitat. Without federal protection the dangers faced by wolverines threaten remaining populations with localized extinctions and inbreeding,” said the groups’ press release.