Gulo gulo: Precluded

Monday’s USFWS decision on the wolverine was two-fold:  wolverines do face threats, primarily from climate change, but they are also currently precluded from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA.) The “precluded” portion of the decision hinged on the word “imminent,” which to many implies “looming,” but which, under the ESA, means “on-going.” In other words, wolverines were deemed, at this moment, to be free of the effects of climate change, and therefore not in immediate need of protection.

Wolverines are currently expanding their range throughout the Rockies after being extirpated by predator control programs – probably most significantly poison baits – during the first half of the 20th century. This paradox is partially responsible for the ‘precluded’ designation, because the wolverine population in the Rockies is apparently growing. But the decision acknowledges that even though wolverines are recolonizing long-vacant habitat, they are coming home to a less secure and already-shrunken range that is likely to continue to diminish in the future. The triumphant and epic journeys of wolverines like M56, who traveled from Wyoming to Colorado, and the Sierra male, who apparently trekked from Idaho to California, mask the hard reality of what will happen in coming decades, even if reproductive populations return to the wolverine’s entire historic range.

As a warranted but precluded species, the wolverine now becomes a candidate for listing, with the current decision revisited each year until the species is either listed, or deemed not warranted.

The ESA uses a ranking system of one to twelve to assign threat level; the wolverine received a six. The threat is recognized as substantial, but other species facing more immediate difficulties will be prioritized. The wolverine will likely remain a candidate for some time. As a candidate species, the wolverine will receive a few benefits – funding sources for candidate species research and conservation exist, and being on the shortlist for the ESA will encourage public lands managers to pay more attention to the needs of the species. But the status offers no solid protection.

Since the decision came out, I’ve swung through an array of emotions, from being relieved and pleased that the wolverine is finally receiving some recognition and at least a small measure of legal protection, to annoyance with the USFWS for their definition of “imminent,” to deep – heart-deep – frustration with Americans who refuse to acknowledge that climate change is a threat, and who thereby, in their ignorance, destroy the world. Through it all, I keep coming back to the conviction that the USFWS actually made the right and most logical decision. Seeing the wolverine listed as endangered would have been great, but unfortunately it would also have been a primarily symbolic victory.

When it became clear that the polar bear would be listed under the ESA, the Bush Administration issued a rule stating that the ESA couldn’t be used to enforce emissions regulations or any other action to mitigate climate change. Despite early signs that the Obama Administration might overturn this rule, they haven’t. For any species threatened by climate change, listing essentially became a bittersweet status symbol, a statement that we might be allowed to regulate the smaller stuff, but we have no mandate to tackle the bigger issue.  It undermined an incredibly powerful piece of legislation that has done great things for our country’s wildlife.  It essentially said, to all the species threatened by climate change, “Rome’s burning? Yeah, we can see the smoke. Here, have a fiddle.”

So while I would love to see the wolverine listed, the basic question is this: given the fact that the ESA has no power to address the causes of climate change, and given the vast number of species facing threats for many reasons, and given the USFWS’ limited resources, does it make more sense to list and actively protect species for which the ESA is able to immediately address threats? I love wolverines and my work with them has constituted the most inspiring four years of my life, but I’m not selfish enough to say that they should be (symbolically) listed at the cost of the extinction of another species. There’s an argument to be made that listing would allow us to address secondary threats more decisively,  but for most of those threats, the science isn’t adequate to prove that they’re having a population-level effect – yet. And without the science, we need to be careful about how we deal with claims for the need for regulation. Therefore, in the real interests of biodiversity, the USFWS probably made the right decision.

Make no mistake: we should concentrate attention and effort on reversing those rules that don’t permit us to protect wildlife as we should. And the second the climate change rule is reversed, the wolverine should be on the list – let us hope that happens before we get to a situation so dire that we have to begin addressing the secondary threats as a last-ditch option. But we should also be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that the act of listing is equivalent to having protected the species, or that listing is the only solution. Hopefully the ESA will soon regain its rightful place as a protector of all of America’s threatened wildlife.  Right now, unfortunately, it looks as if we’re going to have to start looking and thinking beyond the ESA to find ways to address climate change – and to protect the wolverine.

As an initial foray into alternatives, the Colorado Division of Wildlife went public with the news that they are considering options for reintroducing wolverines there. So much wolverine news, so little time. More on this next week.

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