On May 11th, the Obama administration announced that it would review the status of 251 candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Candidate species are those which, after scientific review, are deemed to face substantial threats, but haven’t been listed due to funding or logistical constraints within the US Fish and Wildlife Service. These species are relegated to a waiting room – some refer to it as a black hole – in which determination of their status will be made at some future date.
‘Future date’ is a slippery concept, though. Some candidate species have been waiting decades for a review – of the 251 species currently under consideration, 150 have been candidate species for at least 20 years – and a number of species have gone extinct while waiting for a decision. The state of limbo in which imperiled species currently exist is untenable; this review would give 251 species a definite status by September of 2016.
The species on the ESA’s candidate list range from insects to plants to large mammals – including, of course, the wolverine, ruled to be warranted but precluded in December of 2010. The ‘warranted’ designation stemmed from recognition of the risks of climate change to wolverines, which depend on deep spring snowpack to den, and which are only found in regions with maximum August temperatures of less than 22º C. The ‘precluded’ portion of the decision was probably partially in response to a 2008 ruling, tied to the listing of the polar bear, that stated that the ESA could not be used to force regulation of greenhouse gases. This ruling means that a listing for any species facing a primary threat from climate change is essentially symbolic, since the ESA cannot be used to change the behaviors that are threatening the species. In a choice between spending resources to list a species that can be saved by using the power of the ESA, and listing a species that we all like but that can’t be rescued under the current scope of the ESA, it makes sense to spend the resources on the species that can be saved, even if it means forgoing the emotional gratification of official recognition of threats to an amazing animal.
When the review of 251 candidate species was announced, I was pleased that the wolverine was getting a second chance at listing – even if the listing would be primarily symbolic, it would still be a wider acknowledgment of the gravity of climate change issues for wildlife. The sense of pleasure was short-lived, however; the wolverine was not included in the review. Species deemed candidates prior to November 2010 are included, and the wolverine decision didn’t come through until December 2010, so gulos missed the cut by about ten days.
The walrus – another species at risk from climate change – also missed out, leading one member of the lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity, to withdraw from the agreement, claiming that the exclusion of wolverines and walruses represented an attempt by the federal government to avoid dealing with climate-sensitive species. Twelve days after the agreement was reached, a judge put it on hold, agreeing that the plan was too vague, and giving the US Fish and Wildlife service until June 20th to reach a new agreement with environmental organizations. (As an aside, the article linked above incorrectly states that the wolverine would have been included in the review – the press seems confused about the details surrounding this story.)
This is a complex topic, but, reduced to the essentials, the agreement would have suspended all legal actions related to candidate species until after the review concluded in 2016. This would be a boon to the USFWS, for whom the onslaught of litigation is perpetual; they would probably like more time and funds to concentrate on implementing conservation plans. And it probably would have been a boon to the environmental community, because litigation, while effective in some instances, makes a lot of enemies. And it isn’t a particularly creative or dynamic conservation strategy, so it would have been good to have some breathing space and spare funds to develop some new approaches. For the wolverine, walrus, and other species that didn’t make the cut, however, the agreement would probably have pushed any action back by five years, which is frustrating.
In the best-case scenario, USFWS and the environmental groups will expand the review to include all species currently on the candidate list, and proceed from there. This would be a great solution for everyone, including the wolverine. In the worst-case scenario, the acrimony and aggravation will cause both sides to abandon the entire process, leaving 251 species stuck in limbo when they might otherwise have been listed, and leaving the wolverine exactly where it would have been anyway. Let’s hope that June 20th brings good news for everyone.
High Country News published an article related to this topic. I haven’t had time to read it, and it requires a subscription, but it seems like it might be worth the read. HCN also gives a nod to the recent discovery of gulos in the Wallowas – thanks to them, as always, for good wolverine and endangered species coverage.