SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reevaluate its decision to deny endangered species listing to the coastal marten.
Martens are small, catlike carnivores of the weasel family. With red-orange fur, bushy tails, and pointy ears, they are cuter than many of their cousins.
Once found throughout Northern California and Oregon, coastal martens were devastated by the fur trade, logging in their old-growth forest habitats, and loss of genetic diversity. They were believed extinct until 1996, when a small population was rediscovered. There are fewer than 100 coastal martens in California, according to Center for Biological Diversity.
In September 2010, the Center and the Environmental Protection Information Center petitioned Fish and Wildlife to list the coastal marten as endangered or threatened.
After four years of study, Fish and Wildlife determined that neither the species as a whole nor the tiny California subpopulation qualified for protection because the marten was not at risk of extinction throughout all or a significant part of its range.
The environmental groups sued Fish and Wildlife in January, claiming the conclusion that the coastal marten population was not small or isolated enough to pose a threat to its existence was not supported by the best available science.
U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar on Tuesday sided mostly with the environmentalists, overturning the government’s decision not to list the coastal marten.
Greg Loarie with Earthjustice, who argued for the plaintiffs, praised the ruling.
“Everyone thought we’d lost these martens forever, until scientists discovered less than 100 still alive in coastal Northern California in 1996. We have a rare second chance to stop this incredible animal from going extinct, so long as the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t squander it,” he told Courthouse News in an email.
Wyn Hornbuckle with the Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Public Affairs declined to comment.
While the government erred by basing its conclusion about the California population on outdated data, missing the fact that it had declined by 42 percent, high-quality surveys of the Oregon population and road kill data indicate that though smaller than ideal, the population is relatively stable, according to Tigar’s 17-page ruling.
But the government missed the mark in its analysis of isolation. Its 12-month finding contradicts the species report’s conclusion that these populations are functionally isolated by claiming there is evidence of overlap. Though Fish and Wildlife was not required to accept the report’s conclusion as is, it must use the report’s data in reaching its decision, but it did not, Tigar found.
“Moreover, although the Service is entitled to deference when weighing conflicting views or studies, it is unreasonable to disregard a three-year study in one of the relevant population areas with over 3,000 locations where not a single tracked animal moved from Northern California to Southern Oregon. … The Service offers no convincing rationale for relying instead on 1) isolated examples of Canadian martens dispersing beyond their mean distances, 2) the fact that low quality habitat between California and Southern Oregon could theoretically allow for dispersal, and 3) genetic differentiation studies of martens in Canada,” Tigar wrote.
“In other words, the Service improperly based its isolation finding on ‘speculation’ rather than on the data to which it had access.”
With the exception of the environmentalists’ challenge to the finding that the Oregon coastal marten population is not small and declining, Tigar awarded summary judgment to the plaintiffs, and ordered Fish and Wildlife to reconsider the coastal marten with due regard for the Endangered Species Act.