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Utah wolverine visit cited in move from endangered listing

Published July 7, 2014 9:52 pm

Memo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife cites confirmed sighting of animal in Utah.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Citing the recent confirmed sighting of a wolverine in Utah to support her decision, a federal wildlife official has told staff to work on withdrawing a proposal to protect the animal under the Endangered Species Act.

Noreen Walsh, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Mountain-Prairie Region, said the impact of climate change on the wolverine is unclear in a memo acquired by the Center for Biological Diversity.

A wolverine's visit to Utah's Uinta Mountains last winter indicates the rare species is seeking to expand its range, one reason it should not be considered for listing under the act, she wrote in the memo, stamped May 30, 2014. It was addressed to an assistant regional director.

The center said in a statement Monday that the memo "tells federal scientists to set aside" conclusions on global warming and the impacts it may have on the ability for wolverines to den. The proposed listing is based in part on modeling that shows wolverines rely on snow-covered terrain for 5 ½ months during their denning season, between January and May 15.

"The Obama administration's own scientists have said for years that global warming is pushing wolverines toward extinction and now those conclusions are being cast aside for political convenience," Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the center, said in a release.

"This is a bizarre and disturbing turn, especially for an administration that's vowed to let science rule the day when it comes to decisions about the survival of our most endangered wildlife," Greenwald said.

The deadline for a final rule or withdrawal of the wolverine proposal is Aug. 4, but it could be announced at any time. The Fish and Wildlife Service did not immediately comment on the memo.

Before photographs of a wolverine — the first confirmed Utah sighting in 35 years — were recorded in February on the north slope of the Uintas, Utah biologists were already expressing reluctance for a possible endangered species listing.

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) biologists joined officials from other states in asking for a 90-day extension on comments on the proposal in November 2013.

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies crafted a response during a meeting in Salt Lake City.

Discussions centered on the states "feeling that climate change models are not a reason to list species under the Endangered Species Act," Bill Bates, wildlife section chief for the DWR, told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time. "We feel the population is at a historic high level from the time of European settlement, and we can wait and see what happens with climate change in the next 20 to 30 years."

There have been other Utah sightings reported, in 2003 near Morgan and in the Bear River range in 2005. "We definitely see transient males just passing through," Bates said.

In her memo, Walsh acknowledged the association's opposition to listing wolverines. She also appeared to distance herself from the states.

"I emphasize that while state agencies are our primary partners in conservation, the determination I have come to as stated in this memo about the wolverine's status under the Endangered Species Act is mine alone, and has not been influenced in any way by a state representative," she wrote.

brettp@sltrib.com

Twitter: @BrettPrettyman