Yesterday the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the review for listing the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act has begun. This is the fourth review since 1994; in the first two instances, the wolverine was turned down for protection due primarily to lack of information. The deadline for the third verdict was extended to allow for the publication of a special volume of The Journal of Wildlife Management focusing on the wolverine, which essentially doubled the amount of peer-reviewed scientific literature on the species in the Lower 48. This perpetual shortfall in data has been the wrench in the system for years, and illustrates the challenges of even determining the legal status of a species when information is lacking. (It also illustrates our lack of will to implement the precautionary principle in environmental matters.) In March of 2008, the USFWS returned a verdict of ‘not warranted for protection,’ despite the fact that the articles in JWM strongly suggested that wolverines do face threats. This is purely a statement of opinion and I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but one notes inconsistencies in the 2008 decision between the analysis of data, and the conclusion reached. The Wolverine Foundation‘s official statement bears repeating here: “…a decision regarding listing protection of the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act, regardless of the finding, should be developed from an objective assessment based on sound science. It is our consensus that this was policy-based, rather than a biologically-based finding…”
Reaching a similar conclusion, environmental advocacy groups challenged the 2008 decision, and the current review is the result of that lawsuit. The only substantial additions to the scientific literature since the 2008 review are wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland’s paper, just published last month in The Canadian Journal of Zoology, linking wolverine distribution to deep spring snowpack, and Mike Schwartz’s November 2009 paper in Ecology, linking wolverine dispersal and gene flow to snowpack, and placing the effective population size of the Rockies (ie, the number of individuals contributing genes to the population) at 35. Most of the scientific data under analysis will be the same information that was considered in 2008, but these two new papers offer the first statistically conclusive connections among wolverines, snow, and genetic diversity. To put it more simply, these papers link wolverines to the major themes of conservation today: corridors, and climate change. These connections should not be oversimplified, and the ESA review may or may not return a verdict of ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered,’ but these new data are significant to wolverine conservation regardless of the listing decision.
The announcement yesterday also serves as a call for other relevant information that might help the USFWS reach a decision about whether the wolverine should be listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA. The USFWS is looking for well documented scientific data about things like climate change, conservation actions, commercial use, and the distinctness of the Lower 48’s population in comparison to the population in neighboring Canada. Since this is a scientific review process, letters of support (or opposition, for that matter) without accompanying data will not have much effect on the decision itself.
If you do feel like you have information that has a bearing on the conservation status of the wolverine in the Lower 48, the link above will take you to the Federal Register site announcing the review. Comments should be submitted by May 17th. The official date for the announcement of the decision is December 1, 2010.