SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The fight to save the West Coast population of Pacific fishers heads to court, with environmental groups accusing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of bowing to pressure from the logging industry.
The Center for Biological Diversity and three other groups sued the federal government on Wednesday, claiming Fish and Wildlife wrongfully withdrew a proposed rule to list the population as threatened after two years of study.
“When the science shows that a species is facing extinction, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s job is to step in. If we’re going to save the Pacific fisher, the service has got to get over its political anxiety and start listening to its own biologists,” the environmentalists’ attorney Greg Loarie told Courthouse News in an email.
Pamela Bierce, external affairs coordinator for Fish and Wildlife’s Pacific Southwest region, defended its interpretation of the science, saying data indicate that threats to the Pacific fisher are not as dire as previously thought.
“Our review included the threats, both singly and cumulatively, of wildfire, rodenticides, climate change, population size and timber harvest,” Bierce said. “Although these stressors exist at varying levels across the fisher’s range in California, Oregon and Washington, they are not causing significant impacts or declines in the population. Based on this information, we found that the West Coast DPS of fisher is not at the risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.
“We will continue to work closely with our partners in California, Washington and Oregon to ensure fisher populations are stable and healthy.”
Pacific fishers are fierce members of the weasel family with thick, dark coats and long, bushy tails. Their name is somewhat of a misnomer, as they do not eat fish. They feed on berries, nuts, insects, small birds, and mammals — including porcupines.
Once found in the mixed conifer forests along the West Coast and the Cascade Mountains of Canada, the Pacific fisher’s numbers have sharply declined due to deforestation, logging, poisoning and fur trapping.
Only two small, isolated populations remain: one in the southern Sierra Nevada, the other in the Klamath-Siskiyou region of Northern California and Oregon. According to Fish and Wildlife estimates, the California/Oregon population ranges in size from 258 to 4,018, and the Sierra Nevada population is 100 to 500 animals.
Environmentalists, including the plaintiffs, petitioned Fish and Wildlife in 2000 to list the Pacific fisher as threatened. Though the petition included ample scientific data indicating the species was at risk of extinction from habitat loss and genetic isolation, Fish and Wildlife did not respond by the statutory deadline, according to the new federal complaint.
Fourteen years of what the plaintiffs call “illegal foot-dragging” and several trips to court later, Fish and Wildlife published a proposed rule to list the species as threatened. It had until October 2015 to finalize the rule, but withdrew it in April, saying the Pacific fishers are not as threatened as once thought.
The environmental groups say this about face ignores the best available science, which indicates that Pacific fishers are in danger of extinction. They say, among other things, that Fish and Wildlife falsely concluded in its final species report that the stressors affecting fishers were not significant because they did not appear to affect them on population- or range-wide scales.
But the Endangered Species Act requires agencies to list a species as threatened if it is faced with extinction in the foreseeable future, regardless of whether known stressors are causing significant harm, the groups say. Since the withdrawal does not rationally explain why Fish and Wildlife came to a conclusion contrary to indications of scientific data, the withdrawal is arbitrary and capricious and must be set aside.
In their notice of intent to sue, they said the real reason Fish and Wildlife abandoned efforts to protect fishers was kowtowing to the timber industry.
In their notice of intent, the groups said Fish and Wildlife is increasingly making politically motivated decisions. A Montana judge lambasted the service this summer for reversing course on protections for wolverines due to political pressure, and environmentalists sued in December 2015 after it withdrew protections for Humboldt martens, a species similar to fishers that also faces extinction.
Co-plaintiffs are the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and the Sierra Forest Legacy. They seek declaratory judgment that the withdrawal of the rule violated the Endangered Species Act, and want it reinstated and a final version published within six months.
Attorney Loarie is with EarthJustice.
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