Wolverine Foundation Comments on Listing

I meant to put these up several months ago, but better late than never. Here are the Wolverine Foundation’s official comments on the listing proposal, submitted to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in November. These are already in the public record but I wanted to make them available here in case you don’t have time to sort through the Federal Register site in search of them.

The comments are in .pdf form and fairly extensive – I’ll be dealing with some of these topics piece by piece here on the blog in coming weeks, so if you don’t have time to read them all at once, stay tuned for more information. And as always, feel free to share your thoughts.

wolverinefoundationcomments2016

 

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Comment Period on Wolverine Listing Re-Opened

A new comment period on the proposed wolverine listing rule has opened this week. Although the public may comment to express general support of (or opposition to) wolverine listing, the main purpose of the 30-day comment period appears to be gathering of new scientific information that may be relevant to the wolverine’s status.

Back in April, a Montana judge ruled that the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2014 decision to withdraw the proposed listing rule ignored good science, and ordered the agency to reconsider. This was not an order to list wolverines, but the text of the decision makes it clear that the inexplicable abandonment of a listing rule in which the science clearly suggests threat was a misstep in a process that should have led to ‘threatened’ status under the ESA. The USFWS is now saying that the April 2016 ruling sends the process back to the open comment period, and an entirely new review of the wolverine’s status.

In some respects, this makes sense – the original proposed rule was written in 2013, and additional work has been done on the species since then. The judge also found that the original rule failed to adequately consider the effects of genetic isolation and trapping, even in the absence of climate threats. This suggests that at least portions of the rule would have to be rewritten to accommodate these additional concerns.

On the other hand, the timeline is now pushed out to (speculatively) 2018, and it’s likely that there will be additional comment and scientific review periods that will occur before a decision is made, which is at odds with the sense of urgency that the judge expressed. Significantly, this longer timeline will also allow the results of the upcoming multi-state wolverine study – a one-winter effort to determine the distribution of wolverines and create an occupancy model throughout the western US – to be incorporated into the status review. Hopefully, it will also allow the inclusion of potentially important data from the Wolverine Winter Recreation Project, which looked at the effects of motorized and non-motorized recreation on wolverines, and which turned up some interesting observations on other dynamics as well.

It will be interesting to see how this process moves forward. I’ll share a few thoughts on the evolution of my attitudes towards listing in a future post. In the meantime, if you want to comment, you can do so through this site, which also contains links to supporting documentation. The comment period closes on November 17th.

 

 

 

 

How Not to Write a Wolverine Article for the Popular Press

As most readers know, there was an uproar following the death of M56 in North Dakota last month. A new article appeared on the Huffington Post on Monday, using the M56 incident as a jumping off point to talk about the urgent need to list wolverines. The article constructed a chain of argument that was factually inaccurate and flawed in its reasoning, with errors in nearly every paragraph, and an overall picture of the wolverine listing debate that sets us back by years, if not decades. This piece manages to encapsulate all of the  stupid things that advocates do when they push science into the narrow confines of their pre-existing agendas. It’s a perfect case study in how not to write about wolverines.

In summary, the author, Cristina Eisenberg, says that wolverines must be listed, and that the federal government inexplicably ignored documentation of a “plummeting” wolverine population when they decided not to list in 2014. I’m not going to nitpick over the numerous small inaccuracies peppered throughout the piece. Instead I want to bring attention to Eisenberg’s uninformed assertions about wolverine population trends, show how a biased and obviously cursory reading of the science can lead to the wrong conclusions, and make a suggestion about how this has negative repercussions for wolverine conservation down the line.

Recently, the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana used unfounded contentions about wolverine population trends to drive a narrative of “wolverines are doing fine,” which helped undermine the listing process in the latest round of ESA discussions. The states built their case on a paper by Aubry et al. on historic wolverine distribution and habitat associations. I discussed this paper when I summarized the February 2016 court hearing in Missoula, because it was heavily debated there. Let me recap: Aubry et al. 2007 is absolutely not a paper about current wolverine population trends. It’s a paper about historic distribution that tallies and ranks the reliability of different sorts of historic reports of wolverine sightings, posits a range retraction and possible extirpation of wolverines from the Rockies in the early to mid 20th century, and then suggests that they’ve recolonized large parts (but not all) of their former range (the extirpation-and-recolonization idea is reinforced by genetic analysis, described in a paper published in 2013). This speculated recolonization was the basis on which the states rested their case that the wolverine population is growing and healthy. This is also, notoriously, the paper that threw University of Michigan fans into depression by suggesting that the Wolverine State – and in fact all of the upper Midwest – had been largely devoid of resident wolverines since the mid-1800s. (“Our results and all published accounts by early naturalists indicate that wolverines were rarely, if ever, encountered in the upper Midwest….Historical records are sparse and haphazard in that area, and the habitat conditions that are associated with wolverine records in the western United States are generally lacking.”) The paper’s major argument is about habitat associations, but let’s leave it here for the purposes of this piece.

Here’s Eisenberg’s assessment of the situation:

In 1994 and 2000, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considered Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for the wolverine. However, each time it found listing unwarranted due to lack of data about this species’ historic range. To address this lack, ecologist Keith Aubry analyzed wolverine trapping and observation records and found that from 1801 to 1960, the species had occurred throughout the Intermountain West and Upper Midwest. Between 1961 and 1994, people continued to report it in the northern Rockies and Cascade Mountains. Then from 1995 to 2005, these reports declined. Nevertheless, in 2008 USFWS deemed listing unwarranted on a technicality (none of these wolverines constituted a distinct population, as defined by the ESA). Environmental groups sued and won…

By 2010, wolverine trapping had been prohibited in the US, except for Alaska and Montana. In October 2012, environmental groups litigated the ecological soundness of lethal wolverine trapping in Montana and prevailed. Meanwhile, wolverine numbers continued to plummet….

I’m pretty sure that Aubry et al. 2007 now officially qualifies as the most misunderstood scientific paper in the wolverine debate. No sooner have the states finished using this paper to contend that the wolverine population is growing, then someone appears using the paper to suggest that the wolverine population is declining. Eisenberg claims that Aubry et al. state that wolverines were resident in the upper Midwest through the 1960’s, and then says that a decline in reported sightings in the Rockies and Cascades between 1995 and 2005 is evidence for the wolverine population crashing. What Aubry et al. actually say is that wolverines may have been present in the 1800s in the Great Lakes states, but we aren’t sure. They also say that there were a number of reports from the eastern Cascades in the 1960’s-1970’s, and that these reports ceased in the 1995-2005 era. They posit that those 1960’s-1970’s reports reflect “extreme dispersal events that did not represent self-sustaining populations,” ie wolverines that were not reproductive resident adults and that were part of the inevitable source-sink dynamics of a meta-population.

Aubry does not report declines in sightings from the northern Rockies. Between 1961 and 1994, a period of 33 years, there were 326 sightings in total in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Between 1995 and 2005, a period of ten years, there were 215. Even without taking into account the biases and problems with using sightings data as a proxy for population trend, and the ways in which sightings are bound to fluctuate from year to year, there is no decline in sightings, since the periods measured are not comparable (three+ decades vs. one decade) – and I’m willing to bet that if the sightings of the last 11 years were tallied, we’d see an impressive overall increase.

As for the assertion that “the wolverine population continued to plummet” in the US Rockies following the suspension of trapping in Montana, there is no evidence of this anywhere in the literature. It’s hard to see where Eisenberg could be using even Aubry as a justification for this statement, since that paper was published in 2007 and wolverine trapping in Montana was suspended in 2012. Far be it from me to suggest that a self-professed scientist is inventing claims to serve her narrative – but I’d like to see the data on which she’s basing this. In short, Eisenberg misrepresents Aubry and the data to drive a narrative of crisis that is just as counter-productive as the narrative of complacency constructed by the states.

Why is it just as problematic as the states’ misrepresentation of these data? It’s a deliberate attempt to skew the facts to fit an agenda. In the states’ case, it was an agenda to keep wolverines off the list. In Eisenberg’s case, it’s an agenda to list wolverines. Neither the Wolverine Foundation nor I share this agenda a priori, but we do have an interest in accurate representation of the science, and the application of that science to policy and management. The existing science says that wolverines are threatened by climate change, and I believe that this science justifies a ‘threatened’ listing status. But starting with the science and arriving at a conclusion that listing is justified, and starting with a position that listing is necessary and then cherry-picking the science – or inventing incoherent fantasies that you pass off as legitimate interpretation of the science – are two entirely different things.

From the start of the wolverine listing debate (and, for that matter, the entire climate change discussion), we’ve struggled to stand our ground on the idea that near-future threats should be taken seriously, and that a species can be threatened even if we haven’t observed a population decline. Humans are notoriously bad at thinking about the future. We’re bad at anticipating even problems directly related to our personal well-being. Getting people to anticipate problems that affect that well-being of non-humans is an order of magnitude more difficult – but we’ve persevered. We’ve kept this debate alive. We’ve made a case for thinking about the future. It’s a case not just for wolverines, but for all climate sensitive wildlife. We’re entering an era when we won’t be able to show definitively that all populations of concern are currently declining. We’re entering an era when having an edge of a few decades before the decline starts is going to be critical.

Lack of documented decline is one of the big points that opponents of wolverine listing make, over and over again. Polar bears were listed, they say, because we could show that polar bears were dying. They assert that we don’t need to bother with wolverines because we can’t show a similar population decline, and therefore the population is fine. For years, both scientists and advocates have attempted to explain that this listing discussion isn’t about current and documented decline, but about climate effects in the near future. By inventing a population decline and using it to propel arguments for listing, Eisenberg reinforces the idea that we need to demonstrate a population crisis before we list. This is old-school thinking. It’s disheartening to see someone from an older generation of wildlife conservation come along and, from a pretty big national platform, air the same old narrative demanding a demonstrated population decline to warrant protection. Documented population declines should still be a reason to list, of course, but we need to expand our understanding of threat to include problems that we know are coming.

With the population decline fiction, Eisenberg also gets the policy story wrong. The USFWS did ignore good science in their 2014 decision, but they didn’t inexplicably disregard a wolverine population in documented decline. They ignored the science showing impending threat. She touches on this, but with the imaginary population crash in the first few paragraphs, and her statement that the 2010 warranted-but-precluded decision was due to the “plummeting” population (in reality, it was projected climate threats), she implies that this allegedly discounted piece of alleged science is the thing about which we should be outraged. It’s not, and in fact this never happened. There is plenty to think about when we contemplate the wolverine policy situation, and plenty of red flags about how that process went forward. By tossing this invention out to the wider world, Eisenberg distracts from the real story, which is about special interest interference, climate change literacy, and looming issues with how the ESA can be applied.

I’m not particularly familiar with the rest of Eisenberg’s work, but from what I can tell, she worked with wolves and puts herself forth as an advocate for and authority on carnivores. From skimming headlines and the summary of her book, she seems to favor of a “carnivores can fix ecosystems” narrative that focuses on trophic cascades as proof of the value of carnivores, and “carnivore corridors” as a way of connecting the landscape. Fine, but again, all of this is sort of old school and, at least in the case of trophic cascades, overly simplistic. In view of this approach, though, it makes sense that she would latch onto wolverines and try to bring them into her narrative – which presupposes that listing must happen, that it happens because of population declines (as it did with wolves and bears), that corridors are a panacea (regardless of the biology of the species in question – I’ll touch on this in a second post), and that crisis stories with a clear opponent (in this case, the feds who ignored the purported population decline) successfully rile people up and make them into better advocates.

The problem is, wolverines are not wolves or bears. The history, ecology, and biology of the species, the state of the science, and the social and political issues around wolverines are particular to wolverines. Of course carnivore conservation, as an overarching concept, can be discussed, but it’s important for advocates to know that each species has individual requirements, ecology, and socio-political context. It’s important to start with what we know, and decide the best course of action from there, rather than starting with an assumption about what should be done, and cherrypicking the science – or just making things up – to justify your position. It’s important for advocates to get the science and facts right, because when you start with a false claim, it’s easily disproved, and you and your cause end up looking lame.

Yes, the real story is complicated – but not so nuanced that it can’t be told accurately, even in a popular-press piece. And yes, there’s urgency to building wildlife constituencies – but that doesn’t justify spreading misinterpretations of the science in the national press.

When people come to the wolverine constituency, I want them to be informed, well-educated, and capable of understanding the science. I don’t want them to be automaton minions for a particular policy agenda. A decision to list, and any advocacy for listing, must stem from a thorough understanding of the science and the management options. We live in a complex world with multiple and intersecting complex systems (ecological, social, political, etc), and living in that world requires complex thinking, not simplistic – let alone false – narratives. Let’s dispense with the idea that the only thing that justifies listing is observed population decline. In the era of climate change, staying a few steps ahead of those declines is critical to conservation. And let’s all show how much we appreciate Keith Aubry’s wolverine work by making an attempt to use his science accurately from now on.

Full Disclosure and Meta-Commentary

Several years ago Cristina Eisenberg friended me on facebook. I’ve never met her but I accepted her request. For years, she’s posted her articles with an exhortation to “like and share widely.” I’ve never read the articles or interacted with these posts, although I did once point out that a lecture program that she’d linked used the title of someone else’s work and that she might want to check with that person to make sure it was okay. I also once submitted a piece to The Whitefish Review, where she’s an editor, and it was declined for publication – which was the right decision, as it wasn’t a great piece for that journal.

On Monday, Eisenberg linked to her article with the usual command to “like and share widely.” I read the piece and commented about the population trend inaccuracy on her facebook page. I identified myself as ED of the Wolverine Foundation, thanked her for bringing attention to the species, mentioned the lack of documentation of population decline, and offered to chat with her if she had any questions about wolverine research. Within minutes, the post was deleted. I was pretty taken aback by this, so I asked if my post had been deleted. She then defriended me.

For about an hour after this happened, I felt like I’d been coated in slime. I didn’t seek this woman out; she imposed herself on me, evidently with an expectation that I would be her uncritical cheerleader. In years of being her facebook friend, she’s never liked or commented on my posts. She obviously sought out people in the wildlife community to serve as amplifiers and advertisers for her work, and, given the censorship, doesn’t like it when someone demonstrates that they actually want to engage and discuss what she’s written in anything less than enthusiastically positive terms.

One of the purposes of this blog, from its inception, has been tracking press coverage of wolverines and critiquing the ways in which popular press authors report on and build narratives around wolverine research and conservation issues. Even if this facebook incident hadn’t happened, I would have critiqued this piece, simply because it provides such a fine illustration of where advocates go off the rails and become anti-scientific to push an agenda or indulge their preconceived narratives. But my commentary would probably be less extensive if I didn’t have this indication that Eisenberg knows what she’s doing. I find censorship and knowing dissemination of misinformation pretty disturbing.

On a basic level, stuff like this exasperates me because as someone who frequently lectures about wolverines, I end up having to deal with the fallout of inaccurate stories. I’m going to keep a running tally of the number of people who now ask me why the USFWS ignored the population decline, just to see how far this story spreads. Maybe it won’t be an issue. But maybe every question session will henceforth require a response about how this article is bad science writing. It’ll be interesting to see.

At a broader level, the interaction with Eisenberg crystallized something that I’ve been concerned about for the past year or so. I see more and more individuals and groups that ostensibly share my values – which are liberal, egalitarian, environmental, and oriented towards protecting common goods like public land and wildlife – willing to resort to manipulation of facts and data to get what they want. Frequently this involves a heavy component of narcissistic self-promotion or profit, and often it involves insulting “out groups,” entrenching conflicts, and rallying allies around a sense of crisis, persecution, or fear. Skewed clickbait headlines from groups that I used to support, attached to articles that misrepresent science or statistics about some social or political issue, are one very basic example. These are tactics I once scornfully associated only with Fox News and right-wing propagandists. How is this becoming common and uncontested behavior among people who once stood for a reality-based existence? I don’t know if this is an unavoidable consequence of the way we use media, or whether there’s still a point in making a plea for critical and scientific literacy. Regardless, I’m going to make that plea now, and again and again into the future: in the Age of Opinion, inform your opinion with facts and research. Embrace complexity. Consider systems. Engage in conversation. Suspend the need to judge. Indulge the impulse to think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wolverine Decision Ruled “Arbitrary and Capricious”

Judge Dana Christensen issued a ruling today finding the USFWS 2014 decision to withdraw the proposed wolverine listing rule “arbitrary and capricious.” His ruling vacates the decision and remands it to the USFWS. This means that the decision not to list is overturned, and the federal government must reconsider the science and issue a new decision. The court ruling does not require the USFWS to grant wolverines protected status under the Endangered Species Act, but it does find that the USFWS discounted the best available science and applied unnecessarily stringent standards of scientific certainty and precision in reaching the decision not to list.

I’ll get into some analysis in a future post. This decision came out fast, months ahead of what I anticipated, and so I haven’t even had a chance to publish the posts I was working on about the original scientific arguments for and against listing – so I have some catching up to do. In the meantime, the gist of the 85-page decision is summarized in Judge Christensen’s conclusion, for which I think he deserves a heartfelt thanks from future generations of wildlife enthusiasts who might value the opportunity to see wolverines and other climate-sensitive wildlife in the Rockies:

The Service erred when it determined: (1) that climate change and projected
spring snow cover would not impact the wolverine at the reproductive denning
scale in the foreseeable future, and (2) that small population size and low genetic
diversity do not pose an independent threat to wolverine viability in the United
States. By incorporating these determinations into the Withdrawal, the Service’s
decision against listing the wolverine as threatened under the ESA is arbitrary and
capricious. No greater level of certainty is needed to see the writing on the wall
for this snow-dependent species standing squarely in the path of global climate
change. It has taken us twenty years to get to this point. It is the undersigned’s
view that if there is one thing required of the Service under the ESA, it is to take
action at the earliest possible, defensible point in time to protect against the loss of
biodiversity within our reach as a nation. For the wolverine, that time is now.

The document is worth reading in its entirety, so I’m posting it here in .pdf format: Wolverine Ruling 2016.

The decision is detailed, but very readable, and contains a number of statements that made me exclaim out loud and sit up straighter – if you want a concise but thorough understanding of what was going on over the course of the writing of the proposed rule, the evaluation of the science, and the reversal, this is good reading. And those 85 pages are double spaced, so it goes pretty quickly. Enjoy!

Science Goes to Court

On February 9th, the US district court in Missoula, Montana heard oral arguments in the case challenging the 2014 USFWS decision not to list wolverines. The Missoulian published an article about the hearing, and it’s a pretty good outline, but since I was in the courtroom, I’m sharing my impressions and a more detailed synopsis as well. I’ll focus here on conveying what happened, and will share my own analysis later. I do have  opinions about the debate around the science, and those will probably come through, but I will explain my reasoning and, I hope, convince readers as to why that reasoning is sound, in a subsequent post.

First, a bit of background: Back in August of 2014, the USFWS abruptly reversed course following a 2013 proposed listing rule (Proposed Wolverine Rule), and issued a decision not to list the wolverine as threatened under the ESA. A leaked memo (Region_6_Wolverine_Memo_5-30-14) revealed that the reversal seemed to be the result of the opinion of the assistant regional director of region six, in contradiction of a process of several years that found that wolverines were warranted for protection and should be listed. Environmental advocacy groups sued, charging that the decision was “arbitrary and capricious,” and contending that the decision should be thrown out. The defendants included the USFWS, and a number of parties referred to as “defendant-intervenors.” In this case, these parties included the states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; state farm bureaus; several snowmobile associations; and – perplexingly- the American Petroleum Institute and the Montana Petroleum Institute.

To show that the decision not to list was in fact arbitrary and capricious, the plaintiffs had to prove that the reversal was not based on any sound scientific evidence, but rather on whims or machinations outside the bounds of the “best available science,” the standard tool used to determine whether a species warrants protection.

The notion of best available science is tricky. The ESA did not define it when the Act was written, and a definition added by amendment in 2005 – “…scientific data, regardless of source, that are available to the Secretary at the time of a decision or action for which such data are required by this Act and that the Secretary determines are the most accurate, reliable, and relevant for use in that decision or action.” – provoked ire from people who thought that it opened science to politicization by granting a government official the authority to decide what science counts and what doesn’t. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the larger debate about whether our process is effective for incorporating science into policy at all, or the even vaster debate, within the social sciences, about whether science that strives for neutrality is actually a practice of collective cultural self-delusion. Obviously, figuring out what defines good science is a complex issue.

Regardless, the question of best available science has plagued the latest round of the wolverine listing debate, just as the lack of scientific data plagued earlier rounds. The USFWS’ original proposed rule to list, like all such proposed rules, was subject to peer review. During this process, two out of the five researchers who were invited to submit opinions disagreed with the USFWS’ analysis of the science on the relationship between wolverine denning and late spring snowpack, and the models that projected decline in snowpack in wolverine range within the coming century. This dissent provoked an avalanche of further analysis and debate, which included, among other things, expert panels on climate modeling, rancorous attacks on various scientists and scientific institutions, the construction by the states of some fairly shaky arguments about wolverine population trends, and the sudden appearance on the scene of high-powered energy players with – we can speculate – a distinct interest in preventing the listing of a charismatic climate-sensitive carnivore. Months went by. The expert panel concluded that the climate modeling was sound. The decision looked like it would go forward. Then came the reversal; the leaked memo; a letter from the states commending the decision not to list but reiterating flawed arguments about what the science actually says; and the lawsuit.

The major scientific debates in this case – the points that were contended and argued over in the expert reviews, the letters, the memos, and the public forum – can be summarized as follows:

  1. What is the relationship between wolverines and snow, especially spring snowpack?
  2. What is the wolverine population trend in the US Rockies?
  3. Is genetic depression potentially a problem for wolverines?
  4. Are the climate models used to predict reduction in snowpack in the Rockies adequate, both scientifically, and as a justification to list?

The three papers most at issue in this discussion are Copeland et al 2010, which deals with the relationship between wolverines, late spring snow, and low summer temperatures; McKelvey et al 2011, which deals with projected retractions in wolverine habitat and dispersal corridors over the coming century; and Aubry et al 2007 (aubrywolverinedistribution), which deals with the historic and current range of wolverines. I’ve discussed these papers elsewhere on this blog and will dive back into them in subsequent posts, but for now, if you want to review them, there they are.

And thus we come to Missoula on Tuesday morning, February 9th, at 9:30 am. The courthouse gallery was packed – the lady who signed me in and gave me my visitor tag told me that there were at least 50 people, and opined that there were “a lot of people interested in wolverines.” There were also a lot of attorneys, arrayed around their tables facing the judge’s seat – Tim Preso of Defenders of Wildlife and Matthew Bishop of Wild Earth Guardians for the plaintiffs, and the USFWS attorney and the assortment of lawyers for the defendant-intervenors.

Judge Dana Christensen began the proceedings by recounting, with articulate and detailed enthusiasm, his three encounters with wolverines in the wild, and segued into expressing his familiarity with the case, the briefs, and the wider issues at stake. He discussed the prior listing petitions and their outcomes. He mentioned having read Doug Chadwick’s book about the Glacier Park project, and said that he understood from the book that, “The folks who are committed to gathering the science are dedicated…I’ve concluded that this is a hard species to study, and it’s not surprising that we don’t know how many there are….or the exact data about their response to climate change.” Wolverines are a pretty obscure topic and it would have been easy to end up with a judge who didn’t even know what they were. Judge Christensen was admirably well-informed.

The plaintiffs opened by invoking the concept of best available science, and putting forth the argument that the papers used to justify the original listing rule – namely, Copeland et al. 2010 and McKelvey et al. 2011 – were subjected to criticism and then discounted on the basis of speculation rather than definite scientific evidence that they were flawed or incorrect. These two papers have been at the crux of all of the debates, and most of the criticism lobbed at them has had to do with lack of precision rather than lack of broad accuracy. Preso invoked a 2009 case, Tuscon Herpetological Society vs. Salazar, which determined that the government cannot dismiss threats to a species based on inconclusive science. As he stated again and again, in numerous ways, “The ESA does not demand perfect science – it demands the best available science.”

Preso also spent some time on the USFWS’ assumptions about population growth, and the flawed reasoning of relying on Aubry et al 2007 to justify the idea that the population would continue to grow. He argued that the USFWS and its attendant intervenors were conflating range expansion with population growth, and that there was no evidence that the population is growing. He highlighted the dangers of assuming that increased sightings of wolverines indicates that the wolverine population is increasing, mentioning that it was not surprising to see that wolverine sightings had been substantially higher during the years of a wolverine research study than in the years when the study was not operating.

Connectivity and genetics also received attention. Preso argued that connectivity problems should have been considered a primary rather than a secondary threat, referencing the lack of apparent connectivity between wolverines in the contiguous US and wolverines in Canada. The judge questioned this, and Preso responded with the published information that suggests that the trans-Canada highway and Canada’s trapping management regime do serve as effective barriers to free genetic exchange with wolverines in the US Rockies. From here, he ventured into a discussion about widely-accepted biological rules about the problems with inbreeding and genetic bottlenecking, and suggested that these rules most likely apply to wolverines as well. He was referring specifically to the so-called 50/500 rule, which states that a minimum effective (breeding individuals only) population of 50 individuals is needed to insure population survival over the short term, and 500 are needed over the long term. The current effective population of wolverines in the US Rockies is estimated, based on genetics, to be between 25 and 50.

Preso’s next theme was climate change, and the criticisms made of the Copeland et al 2010 paper. The judge asked several questions as Preso launched into his defense of the paper, the first about whether or not there was any published information to contradict either Copeland or McKelvey (Preso: “No.” Judge Christensen: “So it’s basically just criticism….”) Later, as Preso continued to explore the issues around McKelvey et al. 2011 and the question of the scale of the modelling, and stated that, “We know that wolverines are snow-obligate – ” the judge interrupted and said, “That’s a given in this case, so the question is, do we need to know exactly why?”

There was some discussion about another case that had to do with abrupt changes in decisions, which the judge brought up in order to ask whether Preso wanted to rely on this case for precedent; Preso said no and brought the discussion back to the Tuscon Herpetological case. The judge went on to affirm that this was a case about “change in policy needing to be based on good reasoning and logic.”

Preso also spent some time reiterating that California and Colorado, with single male wolverines in each state, should not count as inhabited range. He brought up the fact that some of the estimates of available habitat included habitat in these states, and that that habitat should be removed from analysis because it was not relevant to the population in the US Rockies or the Cascades.

At the end of Preso’s arguments, the judge asked him what he wanted the court to do, and Preso replied that he wanted the judge to apply the arbitrary-and-capricious standard and set aside the rule, remand the decision, and “wait and see what will happen.”

Matthew Bishop then spoke, and in some senses he seemed to contradict Preso’s arguments about not considering uninhabited range as part of the analysis for listing. He made an argument that the retractions in range during historical time should in fact be taken into account in determining the degree of threat faced by wolverines. This discussion revolved around a specific provision of the ESA, and Bishop was arguing that this should be applied; I haven’t had time to research it, so I’ll leave this here for now. Bishop also mentioned genetic issues, and inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms (one of the categories of threat under the ESA). Like Preso, he stated that the best available science in this case had been ignored.

Then came the defendants’ turn to speak. Trent Crable was arguing for the USFWS, and stated that since climate change was ruled the major and only primary threat, the science regarding wolverines and climate change should be the only issue under consideration. The USFWS had found that McKelvey et al was not enough, on its own, to show threat in “the foreseeable future.”

The judge at this point asked whether there was any published research to contradict Copeland or McKelvey, and Crable responded, “If by published, you mean peer-reviewed, then no.” The judge then asked, “What then was Noreen Walsh [the region 6 assistant director] relying on in making her decision?”

Crable replied, “Her understanding of what is needed to list, and the report provided by Dr. Torbit, in consultation with Andrea Ray of NOAA, saying that the modeling was insufficient for us to know what will happen to wolverine habitat.” This was in reference to an internal study on downscaling of climate models that the USFWS requested after the expert review panel found that the the snow modeling in Copeland and McKelvey was adequate. I have not seen this report, but it is referenced in Walsh’s memo, and was the linchpin in justifying the reversal. Crable explained that the report highlighted difficulties in modeling what will happen with precipitation on local scales; he said that modeling temperature changes was comparatively easy, but that precipitation projections were much more difficult, implying that our ability to understand future snowfall is compromised.

The judge produced emails that seemed to suggest that Walsh had made the decision to reverse prior to the submission of the Torbit and Ray report, and asked several questions to try to clarify the timeline. Crable said that Walsh had probably seen earlier drafts and/or talked with Torbit, since they are colleagues. The judge asked whether other scientists within USFWS or beyond were given time to respond. I don’t recall a direct answer to this question, but the implied answer was no, and as the exchange continued, the judge said, “So the same people who were tasked with the listing rule were then tasked with coming up with the exact opposite decision? That must have been distressing, if not demoralizing.” Crable stated that it was not the “exact opposite view, just a different conclusion.”

At this point, Crable steered the discussion back to McKelvey, saying that although McKelvey represents sophisticated science, the question was whether that single paper was enough to list. The USFWS contended that it wasn’t because it doesn’t tell us what will happen to habitat in the future, which is the real issue. He then stated that the burden of proof is on the USFWS to show why a species should be listed, not why it shouldn’t be listed, and said, “This is the law for listing under section 4.”

Despite his contention that other arguments about secondary threats should not be at issue, population trend was a theme with both Crable and the other lawyers at his table. Most of their arguments relied on Aubry 2007, a paper about historic range; they were using this paper to build an argument that wolverines have recovered in the US Rockies following an early-20th-century extirpation. Crable did venture into discussing genetic diversity and the 50/500 rule, stating that this rule was difficult to demonstrate in reality and that “small population sizes don’t necessarily mean that there is a threat,” and – again, drawing presumably on Aubry – “Population size is probably not substantially lower than prior to European colonization.”

I found the breadth of assumption in this statement so astonishing that I was scribbling notes and missed the exact flow of the next few moments of argument, but soon thereafter, the issue of trapping was raised. Montana maintained a trapping season – at first unlimited and then, after 2008, much more carefully managed – until it was shut down by court order several years ago, pending the listing decision. Crable said that “no trapping of wolverines is allowed,” in response to a line of discussion about the potential effects of trapping on the population. The judge said that he understood that the closure was the result of a court order, and Crable confirmed this, but said that the court order was lifted and that trapping had not resumed.

This was the conclusion of Crable’s argument, and he took a seat, while the lawyer from Wyoming, whose name was Peterson, stood up to speak for the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. He talked about the environmentalists using whatever means necessary in “attempting to achieve their goal, which is listing the wolverine.” He argued an equivalence in uncertainty over population growth and the uncertainty in Copeland and McKelvey, saying that “environmentalists” were applying a double standard by invoking lack of evidence of population growth to justify listing, while ignoring uncertainty in Copeland and McKelvey that suggested that wolverines might not be threatened. He said that it was the responsibility of the USFWS to decide what represented an acceptable level of uncertainty for a particular decision. “At heart,” he said, “This is about a difference of opinion” – again, neatly implying a scientific equivalence between the two sides of the discussion.

Peterson brought up the fact that wolverines had been extirpated and then rebounded over the past century as evidence of population growth, in spite of a continuing trapping season, and then said that “there was no trapping when the decision was made,” reiterating Crable’s implication that trapping was not something to worry about. Here, Judge Christensen interjected, bringing up emails sent by the USFWS about potential reactions by various parties to the reversal of the decision to list. Among these, the section about the reaction of the states proclaimed that they were unlikely to object, since “many of the arguments for the withdrawal of the listing decision originated with the states.” The email also clearly said that Montana intended to reopen the trapping season. The judge questioned the intent of the states. Peterson quickly deferred to the lawyer for Montana, who stood up and stated that “We’d like to keep a limited and carefully controlled trapping season on the table.”

The states took a seat, and the lawyer for the “non-government defendant intervenors,” a coalition representing farm bureaus and snowmobile associations, took his turn at the podium. This was by far the wackiest segment of the hearing, because the lawyer, Blevins, argued that wolverines in the US Rockies should not be considered a listable entity since they are a subspecies with conspecifics in Eurasia, and in order to list them, we would need to do a review of the global population. I’m going to let my bias out to play here and get it over with so I can focus on more relevant discussions in subsequent posts – this argument was ridiculous, but in light of who the lawyer was representing, the absurdity may have an explanation. As I understand it, he was attempting to get into the record a nitpicking dispute over semantic ambiguity in the ESA, which is certainly an object of almost totemic hatred among farm bureaus in the western US. I’m pretty sure I saw people of significant stature rolling their eyes when he stood up. During the rebuttal, Crable disavowed association with Blevins’ line of argument. Enough said.

Next up were the “energy intervenors,” the American Petroleum Institute, and the Montana Petroleum Institute. The lawyer for the Montana Petroleum Institute, D’Angelo, stood up to present the energy industry’s arguments, but before he could begin, the judge interjected to ask, “Please tell me why the American Petroleum Institute and the Montana Petroleum Institute have a dog in this fight?”

D’Angelo responded by citing concerns about restrictions on operating in wolverine habitat if the species is listed, and then quickly went on to state that the USWFS started with a conclusion that wolverines should be listed, and then backfit evidence to that conclusion.

The judge here interjected again to ask, “Where’s the evidence in the record? That’s a serious contention.”

D’Angelo brought up emails from Shawn Sartorius, who wrote the listing decision. In the courtroom, Sartorius was quoted as writing that “wolverines will have a proposed rule,” and D’Angelo argued that this was evidence that the USFWS was biased. Again, I’m going to get this out of the way by contextualizing where the lawyer failed to do so. I don’t know what was going on in Sartorius’ mind when he wrote that, but these emails were sent at a specific moment in the listing debate. In 2010, wolverines were deemed warranted-but-precluded, which meant that a scientific analysis found that there was justified evidence of a threat, but that the USWFS did not currently have the resources to list the species, particularly in light of more immediate and habitat-based threats facing other species. In essence, and perhaps with some defensible logic, the decision said that the resources of the agency should be applied to species who are threatened by something that the ESA is capable of dealing with (in situ habitat-based threats) rather than something that the ESA is not authorized to regulate (carbon emissions). A warranted-but-precluded ruling places a species in limbo, which can last for many years. Shortly after the 2010 wolverine decision, environmental groups sued over undecided ESA cases, including warranted-but-precluded decisions, and won an order that all of these cases had to be decided within a limited time frame. The wolverine was one of the first to go up for consideration. The McKelvey et al 2011 paper that is the object of so much dispute had entered the literature in the interim, but beyond that there was no new peer-reviewed science to consider. Since wolverines had already been found warranted for listing, and McKelvey added substantiation to the idea of threat, Sartorius’ emails at this point are less evidence of a nefarious plot to rig scientific data to fit a pre-ordained, agenda-based conclusion, and more a logical outgrowth of the fact that a very recent review of the science had reached a particular scientific conclusion that suggested that a listing rule would follow.

The judge didn’t get into any of this, he let the matter sit, and D’Angelo went on to assert that, “It’s not reasonable to dispute that the population is increasing….and projected to increase.” He referenced an Inman paper from 2013 and Aubry 2007 to back his claim, but the judge again began to question him, saying that, “Within the [proposed listing] rule, scientists disagree [about population trajectory], I can’t see where everyone agrees that population will increase forever – maybe you weren’t saying that?”

D’Angelo replied, “I wasn’t. I apologize.”

The judge said, “It sounded like you were.”

D’Angelo managed to recontextualize his argument and put some time scale boundaries on his contentions about population growth. He then ventured into a criticism of Copeland and the snow modeling, stating, among other arguments, that the obligate relationship between wolverines and snowpack was “on a denning scale,” and that “Copeland describes where wolverines are, not what they need.” He said that the authors on Copeland et al “drew a line around the wolverine population” and then backfit the snow data. He concluded by saying that the paper was good for predicting where wolverines are found, but not as a premise for the McKelvey paper, which relied on Copeland to model habitat loss.

With this, the defendants concluded, and the rebuttals began.

During the rebuttal, Preso talked about modeling and uncertainty, saying that McKelvey was not a stand-alone, that the expert panel convened by the USFWS agreed with him, and then said that the USFWS had in the past relied on the same kind of modeling to conclude that pikas were not warranted for listing – that decision stands. Preso stated, regarding the contention that Copeland shows where wolverines live but not what they require, that it was unreasonable to assume that wolverines were living in places that didn’t provide what they needed. He again talked about uncertainty in population trend, citing a number of studies including Inman 2013 to highlight the lack of any kind of evidence about current demographics. He reiterated the lack of connectivity with Canada, and said that the 50/500 rule was “basic biology” and that it should apply to wolverines. The judge briefly questioned him about the uncertainty in modelling precipitation versus the relative ease of modeling temperature. Bishop then spoke again, briefly, about the fact that trapping was “still on the table” by the admission of the lawyer for Montana. The judge sought some clarification about the concerns over trapping, saying that he understood that incidental take was a possible source of mortality on top of the prospect of a managed season, and Bishop confirmed this.

Crable then gave his rebuttal, drawing again on Aubry to contend that the population is increasing and will continue to do so. He said that decline in snowpack doesn’t mean that wolverines are threatened, nor does inbreeding or genetic depression, and that there was not enough evidence of any of it to warrant listing, He again came back to population growth, saying that “estimates have gone up in published literature,” that there was no evidence that the population was declining, and that – again – there were no grounds to list.

He then ventured into the trapping discussion, saying that Inman had argued at some point – I missed the paper reference – that trapping was not a problem and might even be good for the effective (breeding) population, “because if you take out a male and he’s replaced by multiple other males, it will increase the effective population.”

The judge intervened here and said, “I don’t suppose that you’re suggesting that we resume trapping in wolverine habitat to increase the population?”

Crable looked somewhat sheepish and said no, that wasn’t what he was suggesting.

He concluded by saying that this was not “a coin flip” between equally robust sets of evidence. He emphasized again that a single study (McKelvey) was not enough to justify the listing, and said, “just because they [the USFWS] said that there was another way to do this doesn’t mean it was a coin flip.”

With that, the hearing concluded. The judge stated that he had “a lot of work to do” on this decision. We will probably have to wait at least six months for a ruling.

Thoughts and comments welcome. Stay tuned for some analysis over the next week or so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Martha

The long-expected news that wolverines will not be listed under the Endangered Species Act finally appeared in the official record last week. I said I wasn’t going to analyze this situation any further than I already did in a previous post a couple of weeks ago. Digging further into the science isn’t going to do any good, since this situation involves political currents that are far outside my realm and that have nothing to do with research. But here is a general press roundup, with attention to a few statements made by key players.

The original AP article, picked up by outlets nationwide, and expanded upon in various publications (including Science) outlines the decision to withdraw the proposal for listing, and quotes a number of people involved in the decision. First, issues of factual accuracy: of note here are statements made by Dan Ashe, the director of USFWS, particularly the assertion that recent confirmed records of wolverines in places like Utah, Colorado, and California suggest that wolverines might be “adapting” to climate change. Let me put this in the most temperate fashion I can muster right now: this idea is absurd. We believe that wolverines were extirpated from their former range – including Utah, Colorado, and California – due primarily to poison bait campaigns against wolves and other predators in the early 20th century. They are currently reoccupying former range, not expanding into new and different habitat. This reoccupation of former range offers zero indication of adaptation, although it is certainly testimony to the enduring toughness and resilience of the creature in question. Wolverines suddenly denning in the lowlands of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho might suggest evidence of adaptation to higher temperatures and less snow. So far, however, we have no such examples. The fact that the director of the USFWS conflates re-inhabiting former range with adaptation to climate change is distressing because it suggests a casual – dare I say negligent? – attitude towards the realities of evolutionary biology, within the very agency that is supposed to be addressing these realities in the interest of protecting the nation’s wildlife. I know that I just wrote a long post about how science is malleable in the face of people’s underlying values, but I am still taken aback by this casual glossing of ‘adaptation.’

Very quickly after the official announcement of the decision not to list, the environmental advocacy community declared their intention to sue the USFWS. Statements appeared from, among others, Rocky Mountain Wild, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Climate Science Watch, and the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. In the past, I’ve been skeptical about the value of litigation. It’s not a tactic of which I approve, since it usually escalates identity politics and creates a committed cadre of conservation opponents. I’ve done my best, within the limited scope of my powers, to encourage people to pursue alternative options to deal with wolverine conservation needs. In this instance, however, I am going to stay out of it. I’m not saying that I’m now in favor of litigation as a general tactic. I’m just saying that in some cases, one finds oneself more interested in sitting back with a good book and glass of wine and remaining judiciously quiet.

Nevertheless, I hope that the environmental activist community continues to maintain a high standard of accuracy in their statements about this situation, and doesn’t stoop to pushing the same old identity-based narratives that certain other parties (beyond the environmental community) in this debate have already resorted to. I’m not going to point to specific individuals here, but I did hear a radio interview in which some generally inaccurate statements were made by an environmental advocate – wolverines are threatened by logging, wolverines are threatened by snowmobiles, the wolverine population was originally knocked back to Canada by trapping, etc. None of this is true, and while I think the idea of building a broad base of support for wolverine conservation may be moot by now, it still doesn’t serve the wolverine’s interests to cultivate more enemies by picking at snowmobilers, trappers, and the logging industry. Climate change threatens snowmobilers and wolverines alike. Most likely, it will also change forest ecology and take a toll on the timber industry. And as for trappers, they can’t trap wolverines if there aren’t any around, so if they’re serious about preserving trapping culture, they have every reason to be interested in real conservation. This is bigger than wolverines – it always has been, because it’s always been about the survival of human communities that depend on mountains, as well as natural communities. So I hope that the environmental advocacy community will remain attentive to the story they chose to tell about why this animal is important, and I hope that that story will still leave room for everyone who wants to be part of it.

The round of lawsuits was entirely predictable, and it’s probably going to cost more in time and resources to settle this issue in court than it would have to provide resources for wolverine conservation through listing in the first place. This is the biggest tragedy, and the thing that I’m still having trouble getting my head around, especially since part of the argument against listing had to do with limited resources. Of course, listing would have set a precedent and provoked a conversation that USFWS is perhaps eager to avoid – more on that in a later post. For now, however, the situation remains strikingly illogical.

The proposed Colorado reintroduction may or may not be another casualty of the decision not to list. Right now it’s unclear what is happening. It still could go forward, especially since a state-led effort might be more palatable to people who are suspicious of federal government.

I’ve started this post a number of times, and have remained unable to find anything eloquent to say about a situation that evokes no elegant language, only simple disgust. I’m posting this today, in its raw and unbeautiful form, because September 1st, 2014, marks a sad centennial that has a certain resonance for the topic at hand. A century ago today, the passenger pigeon went extinct. In a New Yorker post, Elizabeth Kolbert gives us these facts:

The passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird in North America, perhaps in the world; it’s estimated that when the first European settlers arrived, at least one of every four birds on the continent was a passenger pigeon. The early colonists were awed by the vastness of the flocks, which contained hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of birds. 

Jonathan Rosen, in a longer New Yorker article, worth the read, further elucidates:

In 1813, John James Audubon saw a flock—if that is what you call an agglomeration of birds moving at sixty miles an hour and obliterating the noonday sun—that was merely the advance guard of a multitude that took three days to pass. Alexander Wilson, the other great bird observer of the time, reckoned that a flock he saw contained 2,230,272,000 individuals….

But the profusion was misleading. [In 1900], a boy in Ohio shot a passenger pigeon out of a tree with a twelve-gauge shotgun, killing what was quickly identified as the last wild member of the species…A small captive population remained at the Cincinnati Zoo, including a pair patriotically named George and Martha, but there would be no new feathered nation. By 1910, Martha was the sole survivor, an extraordinary fate for a bird whose ancestors had, in Audubon’s words, sounded—from a distance!—like “a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel.”

Martha spent four years as a melancholy zoo attraction. Visitors tossed sand to get her to move. Officials offered a thousand-dollar reward for a mate, but on September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon in the world died.

When Europeans arrived here, passenger pigeons existed in flocks that numbered in the billions, flocks that took three days to fly by and that denuded entire stretches of forest when they roosted and ate. The passenger pigeon was a victim of human greed in combination with technological innovation – specifically, transportation technology. The advent of refrigerated train cars made it possible to ship dead pigeons from rural areas to urban markets, and they were quickly hunted down to low densities by people eager to exploit this market. As both authors point out, however, the pigeon was also brought down by some mystery of biology, some aspect of its life history that we still don’t understand. Kolbert again:

By the eighteen-nineties, the only passenger pigeon sightings were of small, ragged flocks. And this is what makes the bird’s extinction difficult to entirely explain. Once the passenger pigeon was no longer abundant, it also was no longer worth hunting, or at least no more worth hunting than any other medium-sized bird. So why didn’t it persist at low densities?

There are several other factors that could have contributed to the pigeon’s ultimate inability to recover. Whatever the final fatal factor was, though, we can be sure that no one in early 19th century America would have imagined that the passenger pigeon was at risk of extinction “in the foreseeable future.” We can be sure that every single person who witnessed those massive, sky-obliterating flocks imagined that the species would persist forever. How could it not? What was there to worry about? Nothing at all. And even if they had had an inkling that there was some ecological or biological need or condition with which humans were interfering, the parameters of those needs and conditions were uncertain, unclear, imprecise….and so caution was not warranted.

My ancestors were around during the demise of the passenger pigeon. They probably killed and ate some of the birds. They didn’t know the consequences of what they were doing, but I’m still mad at them for depriving me of the chance to see a flock of birds so vast that it could wipe out the sun. I’m mad at them for depriving all of us of our natural heritage. A hundred years is the foreseeable future – your grandchildren, if you’re of my generation, will probably still be alive. Two hundred years is also foreseeable, to anyone with even minimal vision. And when we can look two hundred years back in time and see what happened in the past, the future comes into even clearer – even if not absolutely precise – focus. USFWS is taking an official stance that wolverines are not threatened in a clearly definable way in the “forseeable future.” Tell that to Martha, and see if she agrees that lack of foresight and lack of ecological understanding are an excuse for inaction.

I give the final word to Jeff Copeland, who went on the record to sum up the entire situation in the AP article: “What’s happened today is nothing less than a travesty of science…This was not a scientific process. It was a political process.”