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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political Animals

Go away for two months, cut yourself off from communication with the outside world, and one of the first things you notice on returning is how little you missed blow-by-blow news updates. While I was buying my ticket back to UB from the provincial capital of Murun, I ran into an Israeli guy who mentioned that some of his friends were headed home from their travels, which, in his opinion, was deeply stupid. I nodded politely and then said, “Wait. Why is it stupid?”

He looked at me as if he might have just found a new definition for the quality we were discussing, and said, “There’s kind of a war going on in Gaza right now.”

And I thought, yes, of course there’s a war in Gaza, and I am back in the real world, which is actually a sort of manufactured world compared to the even more real world of mountains and weather and horses and wildlife in which I’ve been living for the past eight weeks, but this is the world with which I am supposed to be current, and right now I do not care, because there is always conflict in the Middle East and there is nothing I can do about it. In my pocket, during this conversation, I had a USB drive containing all of the photos we’d downloaded from our camera traps, which I hadn’t yet been able to look at, and the sum total of pressingly urgent business in the entire universe revolved around whether or not there was a snow leopard among those pictures. I wanted to ignore everything else.

When I got back to the city, however, and opened up my email, it was full of alerts and messages about other news that I would have preferred to ignore in the excitement of sorting through what turned out to be more than 15,000 photos from the camera traps. I am working on a luxuriantly long set of posts detailing the adventures that led to those photos, because it was an amazing summer and deserves a good story, well and carefully written. But time flows relentlessly here in the clock-and-calendar-governed world, and it turns out that on Monday – while I am on a plane for the 24-hour trip back to the United States – the decision on wolverine listing under the Endangered Species Act will at long last be issued. So before I enter the time warp of jetlag, here are a few thoughts on some recent developments in the wolverine world of the US.

First, a wolverine was finally captured on camera in the Uintas in Utah. The presence of the species there has long been suspected, and after a wolverine was photographed this spring in Evanston, Wyoming, close to the state border, the idea of wolverines in the Uintas picked up even more currency, so it’s nice to have some confirmation. The big question now is whether they’re breeding there, or whether the animals in Utah are dispersers – a great research project for a particularly determined gulo-phile.  As recent efforts in Montana make clear, capturing wolverines on camera – let alone figuring out what the animals are up to – is not easy. But people will persist, because this is a compelling species.

Second, in July a leaked memo from a regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service reached the press. The memo, written in late May, ordered the withdrawal of the proposed rule for listing. The author, Noreen Walsh, director of Region 6 of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which includes the Rocky Mountain states, stated that climate change should not be considered a threat to wolverines, since there is “uncertainty” around the scale at which wolverine habitat will be affected by snowpack loss, and also uncertainty about the status of the current population in the Rockies. Walsh made this determination despite the fact that the majority of scientists – including the majority of the original reviewers and the majority of a panel convened to consider the debate over the climate modeling – concurred that wolverines rely on snowpack and are threatened by the future loss of snowpack. The memo includes more detail, and there are some excellent quotes that could be pulled out to highlight and explore her reasoning, but in summary, that is the essence.

Immediately, the environmental community decried the fact that politics were influencing what was supposed to be a neutral decision process governed by scientific reason. The memo makes it clear that an individual is exercising a position of influence to go against the grain of scientific consensus and making an arbitrary decision based on the fact that she does “not believe that the available information indicates that listing as threatened is warranted” (memo, pg 17.) She makes some reasoned points about the scope of the ESA and the limitations of language that require it to assess the threats to a species within “the foreseeable future,” which, when you are dealing with geophysical processes like climate and biological processes like evolution and maintenance of genetic diversity, is, legitimately, difficult to define. But her assessment of the science is simply an exercise in delving into more what-ifs and uncertainties, and this is where the memo becomes a tool for exploring how science really works in environmental policy-making.

Let me make it clear that I don’t know the author of the memo, and I have nothing against her, and I am not trying to use this post as a platform to suggest that she’s scientifically ignorant. In fact, I do not intend to go into the details of the scientific arguments and counterarguments made in the memo. I’ll simply restate my position: Wolverines are cold-climate dependent animals. We don’t understand with precision the mechanisms of their relationship with cold and snow, but we know it’s there, and we have a strong inference that it revolves around snow-obligate denning, and around other benefits accruing to a creature who can monopolize and maximize a snowbound niche for much of the year. We also know that during a colder age, in the Pleistocene, wolverines were much more widespread than they are now, with fossils and human cultural artifacts attesting to their presence as far south as Maryland in the US, and France and Spain in Europe. We have the capacity to observe, though the fossil and archaeological record, the consequences of climatic warming on wolverines during a previous episode of major climate change. They vanished from the southern extent of their range. Whatever human-related factors the species was dealing with at that time, when the entire global population of Homo sapiens was a bare handful of dust tossed into the wind and scattered across the landscape, pale in comparison to what they are coping with now, when there are seven billion of us occupying every spare corner of the planet. I doubt that humans were the decisive factor in the previous range contraction of the wolverine, and I doubt that it’s happenstance that the places in which they persist are Pleistocene-reminiscent swaths of snowbound tundra habitat, with a near-perfect adherence to these conditions, at varying elevations, throughout their global range. I admit that I am unaware of anyone ever having written a paper looking closely at the fossil, archaeological, and climate records as they relate to the previous range contraction of wolverines, so this is off-the-cuff and not backed up by anything in the literature other than the various published reports of wolverine fossils. But when you see a trend in the past, with an animal responding in a particular way under particular conditions, and you see those conditions rolling towards you again, and you have a whole pile of additional evidence, based on what we know about their needs and behavior through observation, about why the animal responded as it did, it seems reasonable to conclude that there is a looming threat.

So much for my opinion. As for politics coming into conflict with science-based decision-making, this is like conflict in the Middle East: inevitable, unless and until there’s consensus among all stakeholders about underlying values and goals. And that’s why I think this memo is particularly illustrative of the role – or non-role – of science in the decision process. Science, to quote my father, is about making natural phenomena incrementally more observable to limited human vision, adding, bit by bit, to our store of knowledge about how the world around (and, in the case of human biology, inside) us might be operating. It is not a process that reveals immutable and absolute truth – not because natural laws somehow change in the face of subjective interpretation, as people on both the right (climate deniers, anti-evolutionists) and the left (certain social science professors, anti-vaccine activists) would have us believe, but because our vision will always be limited, no matter how much technology or philosophy we create to improve it. In the case of ecology and wildlife biology, we are attempting to comprehend incredibly complex systems that operate with different pitches of intensity at different scales. This is not an easy endeavor. The science we produce is, therefore, always going to allow room for uncertainty, which makes it (as opposed to the broad natural laws that it describes) open to differing interpretations. This, in turn, renders our discussions about it, as we seek to create policy, vulnerable to the kind of nit-picking that’s endemic to wildlife policy-making and that has been on display in the case of wolverines over the past year. In short, science is an amazing endeavor, but it is not a good tool for making clear policy decisions, because it very seldom provides a definite description of what is going on. And policy is about the concrete.

Case in point: the memo references two uncertainties, which I’ve mentioned above. One is the “uncertainty” about wolverines being cold-climate dependent and vulnerable to climate change. I put this in quotes because I don’t see that there is uncertainty about this fact; there’s uncertainty about precise mechanisms. The second uncertainty – which is a real uncertainty, because of the difficulty of studying the species – is about the demographics and population status of wolverines in the Lower 48. In the memo, Walsh argues that we don’t know that climate change will have impacts at the scale of wolverine denning habitat, so therefore we shouldn’t worry, because this might not happen, they might be fine. She also argues that we are not certain what is going on with the population, and that the population might just as easily be increasing as decreasing, and that, in the absence of any evidence either way, we might as well assume that they are actually doing really well. This reflects a stance that concludes that we shouldn’t worry about something if we can’t describe the problem with 100% precision, even if we can describe it in broadly accurate terms.

These interpretations could easily be shifted in the opposite direction – that we don’t know how climate change will affect wolverine habitat and that we have little idea of demographics within the population, and so we should therefore take a precautionary approach, list the species, and seek to better understand the demographics and ecology until such a time as we are certain that they are going to be okay (and then delist) or are certain that they are not. This reflects a stance that concludes that we should worry about something if we can describe the problem even in a broadly accurate sense, even if we can’t be 100% precise.

The decision that one makes about how to interpret and deal with these uncertainties – precautionary approach versus doing nothing – will almost certainly rest on one’s pre-existing values and how far one’s sense of obligation extends into the outer reaches of various social ingroups and outgroups through time and space. Some people value the wolverine’s inherent right to exist, other people would like their children and grandchildren to have a chance to see one, still others see the close link between ecological and human well-being, and place priority on these outcomes. Other people see interference in the autonomy of state government and the potential for restriction on the growth of profit for companies operating in wolverine habitat, and place priority on mitigating these possibilities. The marginal scientific uncertainty can be exploited to support policy that benefits either position, but the emotional root of either stance has nothing to do with what the climate models say. There is no consensus that the overarching goal should be fulfillment of a moral obligation to protect a species’ right to exist, or, on the other hand, to ensure that every American citizen has an uninfringed right to profit. We do not agree about these things, and the disagreement mutates and pops up in various distressing ways in policy debates, well beyond the wildlife world, that are supposed to be based in science and evidence, but that very seldom are.

Scientists have subsequently submitted letters urging the Secretary of the Interior to overturn the order to withdraw the listing. Additional letters were submitted by the Society for Conservation Biology and the American Society of Mammalogists. I would have signed the letter too, if I’d been in communication when it was circulating, because I am convinced, through the preponderance of evidence in the published literature, the fossil record, and through unfortunately as-yet-unpublished results from my own work in Mongolia, that wolverines are bound to the cold and snow. Uncertainty is part of science, but uncertainty doesn’t absolve us of what I perceive to be our responsibilities to take a precautionary approach when the evidence supports the fact that there is a threat. But my reasons for supporting a precautionary approach are not rooted in science; they’re rooted in my own values, experiences, and upbringing. And unfortunately, not everyone has the same goals I do. So this sort of debate will continue, on and on into the ever-diminishing future of diverse life on planet earth, well after I’m dead.

This summer, while hiking up precarious 10,000 foot ridges, dodging bolts of lightening, and fording raging rivers through roiling water up to my waist, I spent a lot of time thinking about why I do what I do, and it’s not because I enjoy engaging with people and their issues, nor because I see myself as a warrior committed to a particular side in a predetermined battle of some sort. Nor am I fan of the intricacies of policy-making, because policy-making is inherently about dealing with people and their issues. I do what I do because I’m curious. I do it because I’m addicted to stories, and there is a story about wolverines and I barely even know what that story looks like, and I want to know. I do it because I like pushing myself, physically and intellectually. I do it because I think that this process of making natural phenomena more observable to humans, and of finding a way to explain what we are observing, is infinitely enthralling. And, since I’m as self-indulgent as everyone else, let me admit: I do it because I like being out in the mountains and I like seeing wildlife. I don’t know why, but it makes me happy, and it makes me kinder and more generous and altogether a better person.

I’ve spent the past year not writing much on this blog because the major trends in the wolverine world were about policy and human identity issues, not about wolverines. I’ve tried to figure out how to tell this story alongside the one that I’m really interested in, without pointing fingers or suggesting that individual people are inherently wrong in either their scientific interpretations or their value positions. This is a very tricky thing to pull off, especially since I genuinely do respect everyone involved in the wolverine world, and because no matter how wearying I find segments of society that are more interested in power and profit than in pure intellectual enlightenment, everyone is entitled to their own values and beliefs. I hope now for two things: one, that this situation will be resolved in the best interests of wolverines and their ecosystem, in a way that gives them the most enduring chance for survival over the long term. And two: that I’m able to get back to writing about the species and its ecosystem with an enthusiasm and a clarity of focus that have been lacking. So while I’ll probably write a post on whatever the final decision turns out to be, I’ll keep it brief. There are fantastic stories to be told, about the work in Mongolia and about other research, and that’s where I’ll be putting my creative energy.

Thanks for reading. Onward to an account of Mongolian adventures, and to a better, clearer, and more certain understanding of the wolverine and its ecosystem.