Photo: National Science Foundation

Photo: National Science Foundation

The decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to deny protection to the American wolverine as a threatened species appears to be another case of the administration setting politically inconvenient science aside. The decision overrides a scientifically based recommendation by the agency’s own wildlife biologists and peer-review panels that the last 250-300 wolverines in the continental U.S. deserve this status because global warming threatens them with loss of snowpack habitat.

Wolverines are an important component of a larger group of species associated with the western snowpack, which is rapidly declining due to global warming. Wolverines remaining in the continental U.S. face multiple threats to their habitat. In particular, global warming is shrinking the spring snowpack they need for building sheltered dens to raise their young.

Wolverines were first petitioned for listing by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as far back as 2000. A “threatened” species is one that is projected to become “endangered” in the foreseeable future. This designation calls for habitat protection under the ESA.

The FWS didn’t act for years until it was forced to by litigation. Finally, in 2010, the agency made a scientifically based determination that wolverines warranted protection but that the agency would take no action because it had higher priorities with available funding. (Add underfunding of endangered species protection to the growing list of congressional inadequacies). After more litigation – bless those who battle to get threatened and endangered species their day in court – FWS agreed to make a new decision this year. That’s the decision that just went against the wolverine – but only after political appointees overruled the scientific experts on what is called for under the terms of the ESA.

In February 2013, the FWS proposed listing the wolverine, based on the scientific evidence and the advice of the agency’s wildlife biologists. Also in February 2013, an independent peer-review panel reviewed the scientific evidence and five of seven members supported the listing. Then in April of this year a nine-biologist panel, commissioned by FWS to review the data again, concluded unanimously that the proposed listing was well-supported.

That should have been sufficient. The ESA specifies that determinations should be based on the best available scientific data. The Department of the Interior’s scientific integrity policy, adopted in 2011 (the FWS is part of Interior), also directs the agency to use the best available science in decisionmaking. But then the decisionmaking level of the agency kicked in. A regional FWS director directed federal scientists to withdraw their recommendation that wolverines in the continental U.S. deserve threatened species status. (For more on that, see our July 7 post, Save the Wolverine.) That kicked the decision up to FWS Director Dan Ashe, an Obama appointee.

Greenwire reported ((“Contradicting its biologists, FWS denies wolverine protections”) on August 12 (paywall subscription):

[Fish and Wildlife Service] Director Dan Ashe emphasized that while climate change has real consequences, its effect on wolverines is uncertain. …

“In this case, based on all the information available, we simply do not know enough about the ecology of the wolverine and when or how it will be affected by a changing climate to conclude at this time that it is likely to be in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future,” he said. …

Specifically, FWS decided that climate-change-model forecasts do not reliably predict snow cover in wolverine denning locations.

In a letter to Ashe calling for the wolverine to be protected, the American Society of Mammalogists and the Society for Conservation Biology addressed the use of models in making decisions about species threatened or endangered by the projected impacts of climate change:

The Regional Director explained her conclusion [in a May 30, 2014 memo on pulling back the recommendation to protect the wolverine] by characterizing the evidence of threats to wolverine from loss of snow cover under future climates as “speculative”. This conclusion was not based on new scientific data, but rather on the Regional Director’s ad hoc interpretation … regarding the “foreseeable future” clause in the ESA’s definition of a threatened species. …

[T]he “foreseeable future” [extends] as far into the future as predictions based on best available data can provide a reasonable degree of confidence. This does not preclude use of predictive modeling approaches that are well-supported in the scientific literature, such as those used to project future effects of climate change on snow cover, and of loss of habitat components such as snow cover on species dependent on or limited by these factors. In the case of the wolverine, the best available science necessarily incorporates results from predictive modeling. The May 30 memo interprets [“foreseeable future”] to require data – specifically “experimental evidence” — that in all likelihood would be impractical or impossible to obtain for a rare free-living mammal. The memo thus represents an arbitrarily narrow interpretation … that, if generally applied, would substantially limit the ability of science to inform listing determinations.

[T]he Regional Director’s interpretation [runs] counter to recommendations from the National Research Council (NRC). Specifically, in its report entitled “Science and the Endangered Species Act”, the NRC recommended greater use of predictive modeling techniques such as population viability analysis in ESA decision-making.

In overriding the conclusions of staff scientists and two independent peer review panels, the May 30 memo demonstrates a serious flaw in the FWS’s listing determination process and continues a troubling pattern of disregard for best available science that has characterized other recent FWS listing and delisting determinations. … [emphasis added]

For example, an independent scientific peer review panel concluded in February 2014 that the FWS delisting proposal for the gray wolf (Canis lupus) was not based on best available science.

In the ongoing collision of science with wolf protection politics, an independent expert review panel concluded in February 2014 that the Obama administration’s proposal to remove endangered species protection nationwide for the gray wolf lacks a sound scientific basis. In this case, in order to be able to reoccupy the geographic range in which they had earlier been decimated, the gray wolf needs protection from ranchers, farmers, and hunters.

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to remove the gray wolf from Endangered Species Act protection raised questions about the trade-offs between science-based decisionmaking and political pressure. A group of 16 leading wolf research scientists had raised serious questions about the scientific basis of the proposal to ‘de-list’ the wolf. This in turn raised the question of whether the Obama administration was once again setting science aside when its message is politically inconvenient. As with the wolverine?

E&ENews PM reported on August 12, 2014 (paywall subscription):

Some environmental groups went further than others, accusing FWS of bowing to political pressure. The Western Environmental Law Center, WildEarth Guardians and other conservation groups promised to file their own lawsuit over the decision.

“This is another example of the service and Director Ashe caving to political pressure from the special interests preventing sound wildlife management in the Western states,” said Matthew Bishop, the law center’s office director. …

Critics accuse Walsh and the agency of bowing to pressure from states, which argued that a threatened listing was premature and based off uncertain climate change models.

What might be the basis of this pressure, coming from out in wolverine country? A Reuters item on August 12 gave one clue:

The decision was welcomed in states such as Montana, which will determine next year whether to reinstate a limited wolverine trapping season that was suspended in 2012 after a lawsuit by conservationists.?Listing would have banned trapping of wolverines, which are prized for their fur, and imposed restrictions on snowmobiling and other winter recreation in areas inhabited by the solitary creatures.? Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tuesday’s decision was part of a disturbing trend by the Obama administration of managing imperiled wildlife based on pressure by states and industry instead of science.? “All of the science points to the wolverine being in serious trouble. The Service’s own biologists said global warming was pushing the wolverine toward extinction and urged listing,” he said.

So apparently the FWS thinks it’s OK to throw out projected climate change impacts on habitat in deciding on whether a species is threatened or not. Should that be allowed to stand?

In response to the decision, a coalition of 9 groups announced they will file notice of intention to sue the FWS for refusing to protect the wolverine.

“The Service’s decision not to list wolverines failed to address all of the multiple threats to this highly imperiled species,” said Kylie Paul, Rockies and Plains Representative with Defenders of Wildlife. “With a population of only 250–300 in the lower-48, low genetic diversity, one of the lowest successful reproductive rates known for mammals and a gauntlet of threats to their habitat, protections are vital. Wolverines warrant federal protections under the Endangered Species Act now, regardless of the Service’s opinions of climate change impacts.”

Earlier posts:

Save the Wolverine (July 7)

Scientific integrity and whistleblower retaliation problem at Fish & Wildlife Service (July 9)

Federal wolf delisting proposal found to lack scientific basis (February 12, 2014)

Proposed ending of federal gray wolf protection: Another case of setting science aside? (June 9, 2013)

“Smog Rules” — Obama, scientific integrity, and environmental policy (December 5, 2011)

What to do when the White House sets science aside? (January 8, 2012)