Fierce, cunning and built for survival on unforgiving mountain landscapes, wolverines can rip apart frozen carcasses and have been known to chase away grizzlies.
But wolverines are caught up in a fight even they may not walk away from.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week overruled the recommendations of its own scientists and withdrew a proposal to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. The decision stands to have tragic consequences for one of the rarest mammals in the lower 48.
Today, there are fewer than 300 wolverines occupying a fraction of their historic range in the continental United States, most of them in the northern Rockies, including at least one in Utah. Prior to decades of trapping and poisoning, wolverines once also occurred throughout the southern Rockies, Cascades and Sierra Nevada.
Now, global warming is melting the spring snowpack wolverines need to build dens and raise their young. Federal scientists say that, over the next 75 years, warming temperatures could rob wolverines of 63 percent of their snowy habitat.
It’s not hard to imagine what that will do to an animal whose numbers are already precariously low.
In February 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Endangered Species Act protection for wolverines, saying the warming climate is "threatening the species with extinction." The proposal won strong support from five of seven scientific peer reviewers.
After several states, including Utah, objected to the proposal, the service took the unusual step of convening an independent panel of nine scientists to review it. The panel confirmed the conclusions of the agency’s scientists and unanimously concluded the wolverine’s future does not look promising. The assistant director for the service’s Rocky Mountain region then recommended finalizing protection.
That all changed on May 30, when Noreen Walsh, director of the agency’s Rocky Mountain Region, sent out an internal memo ordering federal scientists to reverse course.
Had some new science come to light casting doubt on the science underpinning the need to protect wolverines? No. Instead, Walsh was relying on her own opinion over uncertainties in modeling studies used in making the decision.
The reversal is deeply disturbing, not only for wolverines but for any species needing the kind of federal protection that rescued bald eagles, American alligators and other imperiled species.
The decision to protect an animal or plant under the Endangered Species Act is a serious one that deserves a rigorous scientific examination, not only on its current status and threats but its prospects for long-term survival. It’s a process rightly designed to avoid politics and political pressure from states or anyone else.
Wolverines went through that process and the best scientific minds, including those who know this species best, said they need protection to avoid extinction.
Yet that prospect now has been abruptly taken off the table.
Less than three weeks ago, some of the nation’s top wildlife biologists, along with the American Society of Mammologists and the Society for Conservation Biology, sent a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service saying that the Walsh memo set "a dangerous precedent" by allowing "an administrator to overrule the expert judgment of Service scientists and independent peer reviewers." They also rebutted the use of uncertainty as an excuse for inaction.
Absolute certainty has never been the standard for protecting endangered species. And there’s little scientific mystery over the wolverine’s prospects for survival.
The only real mystery is why the Obama administration would ignore its own scientists and allow wolverines – strong enough to tangle with a grizzly but powerless against the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen – to walk the path alone toward extinction.
Shaye Wolf, Ph.D., is the climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
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