MISSOULA, Mont. December 14, 2020 — A coalition of conservation groups filed a lawsuit today challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to withhold Endangered Species Act protection from wolverines in the lower 48 states, where no more than 300 wolverines remain. Without the new conservation efforts that would be triggered by the Endangered Species Act listing, wolverines face localized extinction as a result of climate change, habitat fragmentation and low genetic diversity.
Wolverines are fierce, independent creatures that range over hundreds of square miles. They are at risk from climate change, which is diminishing the mountain snowpack that wolverines rely on for their primary habitat. In particular, wolverines in the lower 48 seek out areas with persistent spring snowpack to dig dens to birth and raise their young.
“The wolverine is a famously tough creature that doesn’t back down from anything, but even the wolverine can’t overcome climate change by itself,” said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Galvan. “To survive, the wolverine needs the protections that only the Endangered Species Act can provide.”
Earthjustice is representing a broad coalition of conservation groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Clearwater, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club and Rocky Mountain Wild.
“For more than 25 years, the government has stonewalled federal protection for wolverine,” said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest. “It is time to stop playing games, follow the science, and work together to counter threats to wolverine survival.”
“For years scientists have been sounding the alarm on how wolverines are severely affected by climate change,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The future of the wolverine in the lower 48 now stands on a knife edge thanks to the Fish and Wildlife Service refusing to do its job. We hope this lawsuit finally puts the species on the road to recovery.”
“We have been seeking federal protections for wolverines for more than two decades, and we will not abandon them now,” said Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains program director at Defenders of Wildlife. “The threats to wolverines are very real and the Fish and Wildlife Service must act on its duty to protect this animal.”
“It’s hard not to initiate this round of litigation without a certain level of indignation towards our government,” said Katie Bilodeau of Friends of the Clearwater. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to protect the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act in 2000. Over these past 20 years, citizens and organizations have had to sue the agency five separate times over the wolverine, twice for utter inaction in making any decision and three times for failing to properly consider science when denying ESA protection. In each lawsuit, either the court found the agency’s decision unlawful or the agency chose not to defend its decision. Yet here we are again, one entire generation later, with the wolverine’s future bleaker than ever. Our window of opportunity to save the wolverine is closing.”
“I and countless other Idahoans were heartbroken when Idaho’s last remaining mountain caribou herd went extinct,” said Brad Smith of the Idaho Conservation League. “The Fish and Wildlife Service must act soon to ensure that Idaho’s wolverines do not share the same fate.”
“With shrinking snowpack brought on by climate change, the wolverine’s habitat is also shrinking,” said Joseph Vaile from the conservation group KS Wild in southern Oregon. “Without federal protections, this majestic species will be another climate change casualty.”
“With only a few hundred left across the entire lower 48 states, wolverines are barely hanging on even without the added threat of climate change,” said Bonnie Rice, senior representative with the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign. “It’s shameful that the Fish and Wildlife Service is not following the science and instead trying to manufacture uncertainty about the profound impacts of climate change on wolverine habitat. This fierce but extremely vulnerable species deserves the protection of the Endangered Species Act now before it’s too late.”
“The science is clear — climate change and habitat fragmentation are threatening the iconic wolverine,” said Chelsea Carson, conservation program manager at the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. “We urge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do its job, listen to the science, and protect wolverines under the Endangered Species Act.”
Wolverines, the largest land-dwelling members of the weasel family, once roamed across the northern tier of the United States and as far south as New Mexico in the Rockies and California in the Sierra Nevada range. After more than a century of trapping and habitat loss, wolverines in the lower 48 states today exist only as small, fragmented populations in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and northeast Oregon.
With no more than 300 wolverines remaining in these regions, the species is at direct risk from climate change. 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 new conservation efforts the dangers faced by wolverines threaten remaining populations with localized extinctions and inbreeding.
Recognizing these threats and the need for new protection measures, conservation groups petitioned to list the wolverine as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2000. For two decades the Fish and Wildlife Service has time and again delayed and obstructed the proposed wolverine listing. These tactics have required public advocates for the wolverine to repeatedly turn to the courts for enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.
Earthjustice and the groups it represents have won every case they have filed on behalf of the wolverine, either through judicial rulings in their favor or through favorable settlement agreements.