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Citing Climate, Judge|Gives Wolverines a Hand

MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) - Climate change could hurt the snowpack-dependent wolverine's chance of survival and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must take a closer look before refusing to list it as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Chief Judge Dana Christensen rejected criticism from governors of Utah, Alaska, Montana and Wyoming, all of whom challenged the scientific reality of climate change.

In his April 4 order, Christensen asked why, after 13 years of controversy and litigation, Fish and Wildlife in February 2013 issued a proposed rule to list the wolverine as threatened, based in part on climate change, only to withdraw it in 2014.

"Why did the Service make the decision it did in the proposed rule, based on what it determined to be the best available science, and reject that decision 18 months later?" Christensen wrote in his 85-page order.

"Based on the record, the court suspects that a possible answer to this question can be found in the immense political pressure that was brought to bear on this issue, particularly by a handful of western states. The listing decision in this case involves climate science, and climate science evokes strong reactions."

The order grants partial summary judgment in an October 2014 consolidated lawsuit from the Defenders of Wildlife others against the Forest Service, the Department of the Interior and 14 intervenor defendants, including the American Petroleum Institute, the Western Energy Alliance, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and two snowmobile associations.

The environmental groups claim the federal government violated the Endangered Species and Administrative Procedures Acts.

A Fearless Reputation

The wolverine is the largest member of the weasel family. Its ferocious disposition has made it the subject of worldwide lore, due to its resemblance to a bear and because though it weighs in at only 17 to 40 lbs. it can kill prey many times its size, including mature bull moose.

It has historically been found in the northern United States, where snowpack is vital for its reproductive.

But Defenders of Wildlife says wolverine populations in the U.S. are dwindling as habitat shrinks through climate change, and because of extremely low reproductive rates and lack of genetic diversity.

"The metapopulation of wolverines in the contiguous United States ... consists of a network of small subpopulations on mountaintops, some consisting of fewer than 10 individuals," the Defenders said in the lawsuit. "The total wolverine metapopulation is estimated to contain 250-300 individuals. The effective population - that part of the population that reproduces - is estimated to be just 35 breeding individuals."

Defenders sued the federal government in 2000, seeking to compel it to list the wolverine as a threatened species. Fish and Wildlife issued a proposed rule to do just that in February 2013, but withdrew the rule in August 2014. The Defenders sued again two months later.

It asked the court to vacate Fish and Wildlife's withdrawal of its proposed rule to "list a distinct population segment of the wolverine within the contiguous United States as a threatened species," and to remand for reconsideration.

Plaintiffs' attorney Summer Nelson with Gentry & Nelson Merrill Law Group in Missoula was out of the office this week and not available for comment.

Co-counsel Michael Senatore with Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C. did not immediately respond to a phone message and email inquiring to what extent, if any, corporate or other interests played a part in the withdrawal of the rule.

Christensen's order, however, details several comments submitted in response to Fish and Wildlife's proposed rule, including some states' questioning the notion of climate change.

Utah, for example, submitted comments through its Office of the Governor's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office on May 2, 2013, decrying Fish and Wildlife's use of "unvalidated climate models" it called "neither rigorous nor sufficiently scaled at a fine-scale level for evaluation of the threats necessary to support [a listing] decision," and claiming that "(t)he global models employed and proposed as the 'best available science' are not precise enough to constitute a predictor of any actual threat to populations and metapopulations of wolverines at the landscape level."

Alaska, through its Department of Fish & Game, commented on May 6, 2013 that it opposed the proposed rule because it "appears to follow the rationale used to list the polar bear and various species of ice seals: it is based on untested or unverified models that speculate on a species' possible future fate, rather than focusing on current population health and trends and immediate threats."

Wyoming Gov. Matthew Mead said that a listing "attributed to climate change is particularly troubling because there is no immediacy, seemingly no connection, and few, if any, conservation measures would ameliorate climate change in a manner that could lead to delisting."

Montana submitted a 23-page submission, in which its Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Jeff Hagenar said the wolverine is not a designated distinct population segment, is not warranted for listing, and that "a broader review of the available science indicates that there is no imminent threat to wolverines in North America."

Christensen disagreed, granting Defenders of Wildlife summary judgment on two of its arguments, including the claim that Fish and Wildlife "unlawfully ignored the best available science by dismissing the threat to the wolverine posed by climate change" and that "the Service unlawfully ignored the best available science by dismissing the threat to the wolverine posed by genetic isolation and small population size."

"The court agrees with plaintiffs as to the first and second ... arguments, [and] will remand this matter back to the Service based upon them," Christensen wrote.

The defendants' attorney Trent Crable, with the U.S. Department of Justice, Wildlife & Marine Resources Section, did not return a phone call made after hours Wednesday.

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