The Obama administration brushed over the threat that climate change poses to the snow-loving wolverine when it denied protections for the elusive predator also known as the “mountain devil,” a federal judge ruled Monday.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ordered wildlife officials to act as quickly as possible to protect the species as it becomes vulnerable to a warming planet. Wolverines need deep mountain snows to den, and scientists warn that such habitat will shrink as the planet heats up.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the views of many of its own scientists in 2014 when it said the effects of climate change on wolverines remained ambiguous.
Christensen said in his 85-page order that the “time is now” to take action to protect the animals.
“No greater level of certainty is needed to see the writing on the wall for this snow-dependent species squarely in the path of climate change,” Christensen wrote.
The case carries potential ramifications for other species caught in the debate over how climate change affects wildlife, including the Pacific walrus and dozens of corals.
In the Lower 48 states, an estimated 250 to 300 wolverines survive in remote areas of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state, according to wildlife officials.
Larger populations of wolverines live in Alaska and Canada. Those animals were never proposed for federal protection.
Fish and Wildlife officials declared in 2013 that future temperature increases could melt snowfields occupied by wolverines in some high-elevation mountain ranges in the Lower 48. They called for increased protections to keep the species from going extinct — a conclusion backed by most outside experts and the agency’s own scientists.
The government reversed course when a Fish and Wildlife regional director in Denver overturned her staff’s recommendations to give wolverines protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Officials from Western states including Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho had opposed federal protections, saying the animal’s population has increased in some areas in recent decades.
The judge’s ruling sends a message to federal officials that politics don’t trump science, said Matthew Bishop with the Western Environmental Law Center, who represented some of the environmentalists who sued over the decision not to protect the wolverine.
“We’re really happy with the decision,” Bishop said.