Wolverines in a Warming World

Snow-loving creatures lose chance at protection over climate change ‘ambiguity’

By Tristan Scott

U.S. wildlife officials have scuttled a proposal that would have afforded protections to wolverines under the Endangered Species Act, reversing course on an issue that scientists and conservationists believe is critical if the snow-seeking species is to persist in the face of global climate change.

Wolverines, the rarefied member of the weasel family that rely on deep, late-season snowpack to den and reproduce, were considered strong candidates for protection until U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe recently announced that predictions about climate change’s localized impacts remain “ambiguous.”

Rejecting the conclusions of the agency’s own scientists and leading experts, Ashe said data is too inexact to determine whether less snow cover would put wolverines in danger of extinction in coming decades.

Government scientists have recommended ESA listing for years due to habitat threats posed by climate change, but the federal government last week turned down the species for protections, even as broad consensus indicates climate change will pose a deleterious effect on the animal’s propensity to reproduce.

Ashe said predictions about climate change’s localized effects are uncertain, and computer models used to portend future temperatures and precipitation are less accurate the further out in time the projections aim to foretell.

Wildlife advocates, meanwhile, blamed the reversal on political pressure from state wildlife agencies, and attorneys representing 13 conservation groups filed a 60-day notice to sue in an effort to force the FWS to adopt protections.

Wildlife officials from western states including Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho have long opposed federal protections, saying the animal’s population has increased in some areas in recent decades and that they were equipped to manage the species without federal intervention.

There are an estimated 250 to 300 wolverines in the contiguous U.S., clustered in small, isolated groups primarily in the Northern Rockies of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. Larger populations persist in Alaska and Canada.

One leading wolverine researcher whose work has been cited extensively by the Fish and Wildlife Service – and which has focused on wolverine populations inside Glacier National Park – said the notion that wolverines can adapt to a dearth of snow is ridiculous.

Former U.S. Forest Service biologist Jeff Copeland has studied the animal for decades, including an extensive research project inside Glacier Park. Blaming the decision on political pressure, Copeland said while there is room for debate within the parameters of wolverine research and the impacts of climate change, state agencies have not relied on science or new information to inform their position.

“They work very hard to discredit the science that was used to produce the original decision based on extensive research, and they inject lots of opinion and speculation, but they don’t add any additional data to inform the decision,” Copeland said.

“I’m not opposed to listing and I’m not an advocate of listing,” he continued. “I’m an advocate of using the best science possible to inform a decision. They relied on a well-informed six-year process and they came to the conclusion that listing was warranted. Now they looked at it again and say new information suggests it’s not warranted. And that’s just not true. There is no new information. Not an ounce of new information was injected into the process. They just chose to take opinions from people who oppose listing and accept them.”

John Mellgren of the Western Environmental Law Center, one of the environmental groups suing the federal agency, says in the notice to file suit that despite the uncertainties, the best available science shows a warming climate likely will be detrimental to the wolverine.

Tony Clevenger, a scientist who for years has been trying to bring the plight of the rare wolverine to greater attention, conducted a study in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks in British Columbia, Canada. Wolverine populations in protected areas are relatively healthy, while unprotected corridors, which are disrupted by forest cutting, energy development and highway construction, are a “gray zone” with fewer wolverines, he said.

The decision not to afford the species federal protections due to the dearth of scientific data on the effects of climate change makes one thing clear, Clevenger said – researchers must continue to study the animal in order to shed light on its behavior.

“Right now the problem is we don’t know anything about the population in this gray zone between Waterton-Glacier and Banff, Yoho and Kootenay. The protected areas seem to be doing fine. But once you get out of those areas, we come up with very few wolverines,” he said. “It is still preliminary, but it looks like they are having a very hard time in this area.”

Clevenger said basing the argument for federal protections solely on climate models, rather than stressors imposed by the growing wildlife-human interface, may have hamstrung the process to protect the species due to the controversial nature of global warming.

Still, he expects that wolverines will be granted protections in the future as more is learned about the mysterious animal.

“I was surprised that it didn’t get listed, but I know that western politics is a strong hammer,” he said. “There is a lot of political pressure not to list, but I think for all practical purposes it should be listed. We certainly hope that the states would begin learning more about wolverines in these areas, identifying critical habitats and dispersal corridors and collecting the necessary information to inform management.”

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