SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shouldn’t wait for “better evidence” before acting to protect the coastal marten from extinction, an Earthjustice lawyer told a federal judge Thursday.
“In California, populations are declining to such an extent, that if the service waits until it has evidence that it’s down to 50 we won’t be in court anymore, because frankly, there won’t be anything that can be done,” attorney Greg Loarie said.
Conservation groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2015, after it issued a report saying there simply wasn’t enough evidence to put the coastal marten on the endangered species list.
At a Thursday hearing on the agency’s motion for summary judgment, Loarie said only 100 coastal martens are left in California.
The slender, evasive carnivore is a species of mustelid. With its triangular ears and bushy tail, it resembles a more adorable cousin of a mink or weasel.
Loarie told U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar that decades of logging, fur trapping and illicit marijuana growing have devastated coastal marten populations. Three remaining populations in Northern California and the Oregon coast represent less than 17 percent of its previous numbers.
Coastal martens were once thought to be extinct in California, until a 1996 sighting of a marten in Northern California became the first confirmed proof of the species’ existence in the state in 50 years.
In this lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmentalists challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service’s policy that warrants a species being listed as endangered only if it is at risk of extinction throughout all or a significant part of its range.
“Their position is if it’s not threatened everywhere and the stress is the same everywhere then it must not be threatened anywhere. And that’s what happened in this case,” Loarie said. “The problem is that the Service’s own scientific analysis shows that the threats to the marten are not relatively consistent. The record shows the exactly the opposite.”
Loarie said the coastal marten is significantly more threatened in California, where they feed on prey poisoned by marijuana growers.
“There are far more illegal marijuana plantations in California than in Oregon, and as a result, martens are at greater risk,” he said. “This is a dire straits situation in California.”
Loarie said the agency ignored its own scientists’ Species Report, which stated that all three of the species’ populations are “presumed to be in decline.” But Fish and Wildlife said it found no good evidence that the coastal marten numbers are dwindling.
“Absence of evidence could just as easily be evidence that it is declining,” Loarie said.
Government attorney Nicole Smith said Fish and Wildlife found some degree of genetic overlap between the three populations, suggesting that they are not functionally isolated and could interbreed. The record for distance traveled by one coastal marten is 43 miles.
Tigar commented: “That strikes me a little bit like saying that the open ocean swimming record is 138 miles, so if people are only separated by less than 138 miles of open ocean we know they can breed with each other.
“Isn’t the opposite of functionally isolated something different than ‘not impossible’? If you’re trying to say the population is not functionally isolated, don’t you need to say something stronger?”
Smith said Fish and Wildlife is not claiming that such movements are common.
“Your point is well taken,” she told Tigar. But she said there’s enough evidence to show that breeding across populations does happen.
“They are not divergent populations. There is some sort of dispersal, at least fairly recently,” Smith said.
She said Fish and Wildlife does not deny that there are fewer coastal martens than there were many years ago, only that it found no evidence of continued population decline since 2008. “There just isn’t enough information,” Smith said.
Loarie countered that that is not a good reason not to act, as the population has been shrinking for decades.
“Martens have declined precipitously in the past and there’s every reason to expect that they will still decline,” he said.
Tigar took the arguments under submission.