December marks a possible turning point for wolverines in the Lower 48. Sometime in the coming month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service should release a finding on whether or not the wolverine is warranted for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Although we have no way of knowing how the decision will go, here’s some background and a quick review of the possible outcomes.
The ESA was passed in 1973 to provide protection to species that are at imminent risk of extinction, and to preserve the species’ ecosystems. The 1973 Act was an iteration of a long-running process that began in the early 20th century as American society became aware of the environmental costs of unlimited human activity.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administer the act, with USFWS taking responsibility for terrestrial and freshwater species, including, of course, the wolverine. Species may be listed by the services, but may also be petitioned for listing by the public, which must present information that suggests that the species is threatened. Once a species is petitioned for listing, the responsible federal agencies undertake a review of available scientific data and decide whether or not the species is warranted for protection. A species may be listed for one or more of five reasons, as defined by the ESA:
1. There is the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range.
2. An over utilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes.
3. The species is declining due to disease or predation.
4. There is an inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.
5. There are other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.
There are three potential outcomes after the scientific review: not warranted, warranted, or warranted but precluded. A finding of “not warranted” removes the species from consideration for protection; a “not warranted” decision may be based on data suggesting that a species does not face substantial threat, or it may be based on a lack of sufficient data.
A finding of “warranted” means that the data suggest that the species faces substantial threat for one of the five reasons listed above, and that the responsible agency recognizes the need to immediately dedicate resources to protecting the species. A recovery plan is created and implemented for the protection of the species; when the recovery goals are reached, the species may be removed from the list.
A “warranted but precluded” finding means that the data suggest that the species faces substantial threats, but that there are other species that are in more urgent need of resources for protection. In the case of a warranted but precluded finding, the species becomes a “candidate species” and the decision is reconsidered annually until a finding of either “warranted” or “not warranted” is reached. The agency monitors the status of the species in the meantime, and some measures for protection of the species are put in place.
So what does all of this mean for the wolverine?
Even if wolverines are listed, the only immediate action would be the closure of the wolverine trapping season in Montana. At the southern extent of their range, wolverines overlap very little with human activity; they stick to extreme territory that we venture into only occasionally, and mostly for recreation. So far, there’s no scientific evidence that wolverines are disturbed by recreation, and although there are anecdotal claims, recreation probably wouldn’t be restricted. Wolverines are not a threat to livestock or to big game, so the potential for conflict is minimal. But the clear long term threat, climate change, cannot be addressed by the ESA, so listing, while an important symbol of protected status, would be somewhat symbolic. A decision of “not warranted” would most likely be challenged, while a decision of “warranted but precluded” would offer some leeway to explore options, but without the symbolic weight of official protected status.
It’s pointless to speculate on the outcome, but a brief history suggests that the wolverines’ aspirations (or the aspirations of environmental groups on the wolverines’ behalf) to attain protected status have required gulo-esque tenacity. Wolverines were first petitioned for listing in 1994, by a coalition of environmental groups, and were found not warranted in 1995, due to lack of data. In 2000, environmental groups again petitioned for listing; in 2003, they were again denied due to insufficient data. In 2006, environmental groups filed a complaint asking the USFWS to reconsider their decision. By this time, the Glacier National Park Wolverine Project was generating a wealth of data, and the listing decision was delayed to allow the publication of a special volume of the Journal of Wildlife Management. The decision, handed down in March of 2008, was, once again, “not warranted,” despite the scientific papers’ indications that the wolverine does face threats in the Lower 48. The 2008 decision was based on the assertion that the US population was not distinct from Canada’s and therefore could not be considered a listable entity. For obvious reasons, this was perplexing for those of us who believe that the United States bears responsibility for protecting its own wildlife.
Defenders of Wildlife filed a lawsuit within six months, and in 2009 the government agreed to reconsider the decision. The review was announced in April of 2010, with a decision originally slated for December 1st – today. I haven’t yet seen any news, and today’s Federal Register appears devoid of wolverines. But keep an eye out over the next few weeks.