Groups Sue Over Wolverine Listing Decision

Two weeks ago, eight environmental groups filed suit over the wolverine listing decision, with twelve more following last week. Additional information and a more comprehensive article are here. This has been expected since the USFWS withdrew the proposed listing rule back in August. Groups are required to submit a 60-day notice of intent to sue, and the Monday on which the lawsuit was filed marked the 60th day since the decision came out. The document itself is here, and cites the abrupt change in direction that the USFWS made in May when a regional director circulated a memo – later leaked – ordering the withdrawal of the proposed rule:

“In executing this sudden about-face, FWS did not identify any new scientific information that cast doubt on the previous conclusions of the agency’s own expert biologists. Nor did FWS identify any existing scientific information that the agency’s biologists had overlooked. Instead, FWS attempted to apply a new interpretation of the existing scientific record in an effort to justify a refusal to afford the wolverine any protections under the ESA. In so doing, FWS disregarded the best available scientific information and the recommendations of
its own scientists, made numerous analytical errors, and ultimately violated the ESA.”
If environmental groups form one clear stakeholder group in this argument, state wildlife agencies form another – the third major character in the ongoing perspectivist morality play that is environmental policy-making in the American West. The states, too, issued a follow-up document to the listing decision, and I want to give them their due, and representation here. Here’s the text of the letter, which was published in various newspapers and circulated on various email lists:

Wolverine fares well

The states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have noted the recent criticisms about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Aug. 12 decision to not list wolverine in the western United States as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. For the record, our states opposed the service’s original recommendation to list wolverines based on our concerns about listing a species that is at its highest population level in the past 80-100 years and still increasing. This fact supports the conclusion that state management works for the wolverine. The states also expressed our concerns over the uncertainty inherent in using projected changes in climate over the next 40-80 years to speculate about what might happen to wolverine habitat and wolverine populations.

The service, however, didn’t reverse its original proposal due solely to state input. The service chose, instead, to convene an independent panel of climate and wildlife scientists to review and discuss the science underlying the original listing proposal. Endangered Species Act listing is a complex arena that requires decisions based on imperfect data, and we applaud the service’s efforts to seek independent advice. It’s likely the model used for wolverines — a model based on cooperation with the states — will have utility for future decisions.

Ultimately, the service made the right decision for wolverines for the right reasons. We thank the service for its willingness to listen, keep an open mind and utilize additional methods to fully explore science in its decision process.

Together we remain fully committed to the conservation of wolverines.

— Virgil Moore, director,

Idaho Department of Fish and Game

— M. Jeff Hagener, director,

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

— Scott Talbott, director,

Wyoming Game and Fish Department

The purpose of the letter seems to be three-fold: to express approval of the decision, first of all, and to deny that the states exerted any undue influence on the decision – both of which are perfectly reasonable things to assert (I have no information about whether the second claim is true, but let’s just assume that it is, so that we can avoid venturing into speculation unfounded on evidence.) But the third purpose is an attempt to push a particular story, a story titled “Wolverines are fine, so don’t worry about anything!” This story, of course, stands in opposition to the other dominant narrative around the facts, a story titled, “Wolverines are facing some problems and we should try to do something about it.”

The “Wolverines are fine!” story purveyed in this letter is one that I’ve heard, in various fragments and in its entirety, since the listing decision, and it deserves some scrutiny. Let me establish my standpoint from the outset; I obviously disagree with this narrative, and I’m not going to hide that bias behind a blind appeal to neutral and objective science. There are uncertainties in the science (albeit about the margins, not the substance, and even those uncertainties cut both ways), and the science does not tell us what we should do about wolverines, in either the policy or the moral realm. But neither do the scientific facts correspond to the “Wolverines are fine!” narrative, which is based on assumptions and glosses that betray a way of thinking about problems – and science – that is less complex than the world we’re living in calls for. The science does indeed indicate that wolverines face a threat, and in an ideal world, that would trigger a precautionary stance, which is the stance implicit in the “Wolverines are facing a threat” narrative. In this case, it has not triggered a precautionary approach; instead, it’s triggered a stance of apathy and inaction, related, I think, to fear, confusion, and a sense of being overwhelmed, which is wrapped up with the “Wolverines are fine!” story. But the current, and perhaps temporary, triumph of this story doesn’t change reality. The most fundamental logical error in the “Wolverines are fine!” narrative is the notion that because USFWS decided not to list, wolverines actually aren’t facing a threat. A human decision to ignore the preponderance of scientific evidence does not vindicate the notion that the science is wrong (I refer you to the Catholic Church on the matter of Galileo and heliocentric solar systems) – but it does betray, yet again, the endless conflation between human values and science.

And that’s just the beginning.

As I write, I’m sipping tea in a snug apartment overlooking the cold expanses of Ulaanbaatar, waiting for a plane flight north to wolverine country to meet with protected areas staff who will, I hope, help me take the wolverine research here to the next level. (Incidentally, I’m so excited about this unexpected development that my head is spinning – but more about that later.) So the detailed analysis of the two conflicting stories will have to wait until I return to UB next week – if I’m really on top of things – or until I return to the US in mid-November – the more likely alternative, since this post will require illustrations that I need to draw and scan. Yes, that is correct – you will be treated to cartoon wolverines explaining wolverine science, listing politics, and even the Black Death. And that little matter of Galileo and the Catholic Church. It’s all relevant, trust me. So check back in a couple of weeks, and in the meantime, for those of you in the northern hemisphere, anyway, enjoy the slow tilt of the planet away from the sun and back towards wolverine season.

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