The wolverine––also called the mountain devil, the quickhatch, the carcajou, the skunk bear––is a cantankerous, and sometimes vicious animal about the size of a small labrador retriever. It is the largest land dweller in the weasel family, and an an odd fit to be at the vanguard in the debate of how climate change threatens animals and what should be done about it.
In the lower 48 states, there are believed to be only some 300 wolverines left, and the Rocky Mountains are one of their few remaining American homes. Snow there has been thinning, which researchers blame on climate change. So in 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the animal receive threatened status under the Endangered Species Act, saying that “climate warming over the next century is likely to significantly reduce wolverine habitat,” and that without interventions its survival “is in doubt.”
Then in 2014, the agency backtracked on its proposed decision, calling the science it’d used inconclusive. Conservationists filed a lawsuit against the reversal, arguing Fish and Wildlife had ignored solid scientific data. Backing the agency were snowmobile associations, farmers, the states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as oil and fracking companies.
On Monday, Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen of the U.S. District Court for Montana handed down an 80-page—and at times harsh—judgment in favor of the conservationists. Christensen ordered Fish and Wildlife to reconsider its position, saying the agency had “unlawfully ignored the best available science by dismissing the threat to the wolverine” due to “immense political pressure.”
“The reality is that, in some instances, species conservation is a political issue as much as it is a scientific one,” Christensen wrote in his decision.
The court’s decision is a major victory for conservationists on two levels. Not only have environmental groups tried to get the animal listed for 20 years, but the status would set a sort of Endangered Species Act precedent. Listing the wolverine would show that animals at risk of extinction because of climate change––however tangentially–– deserve protection that comes with the federal listing.
It’s not unusual that industry and the states that profit from them should side against listing an animal under the Endangered Species Act. Big Industry is often loathe to support an animal’s listing, because that means more regulation. A similar battle played out with the greater sage grouse, a wild bird the size of a chicken that lives among the West’s grasslands and sage––prime fracking territory. In the grouse’s case, it was not granted protection.
For wolverines, the debate came down to the animal’s dependency on snowpack, and whether or not climate change posed a significant enough threat to snow levels to risk the animal’s future.
Wolverines live in the world’s northern hemisphere, in boreal forests and alpine tundra. It is a solitary animal, and one male may mark off a territory up to 600-square miles (half the size of Rhode Island), breeding with several females in its range. Those females raise their children in the spring, in the heavy snowpack, sometimes no lower than 8,000 feet high in the mountain peaks.
A strong and sometimes deceptively fierce animal, the wolverine weighs around 40 pounds, but can claw and gnash down an elk, and even fight off wolves and bears. Specialized to live in high, arid, and freezing climates, it has wide flat feet like snow shoes, and its fur is frost resistant, which made it prized among trappers. Early hunting by trappers, as well as their inclination to be loners, has made them a fragmented and isolated animal, one with a small population poorly adapted to survive in today’s ever-anthropocentric world.
Fish and Wildlife argued the science around snowpack decline was still shaky, and that because there’s a debate about why wolverine mothers den in snow, knowing how the species would react to the loss of snow would be impossible. Thus, the agency’s argument went, climate change’s impact on wolverines is unknowable. More specifically, the agency questioned the findings of a study––one it admitted was the most sophisticated on the subject––that predicted huge declines in future wolverine populations because of climate change.
As support for their argument, the agency’s Mountain-Prairie regional director, Noreen Walsh, also submitted a memo full of research contrary to conservationist thought that’d been collected by one of the agency’s regional assistant directors, Stephen Torbit. But the judge wasn’t having it. “The Court views Torbit's comments as nothing more than an unpublished, unreviewed, personal opinion, elicited by Walsh in the eleventh hour to back fill her foregone conclusion to withdraw the Proposed Rule,” Christensen wrote.
Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe said he could not “disagree more strongly” with the judge, adding that he’d made “a sweeping statement about political interference for which there is not a shred of evidence.”
Christensen agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that snowpack decline at high elevations would have a huge impact on wolverines. He even went as far to write that wolverines require snow to reproduce. When it came to the Fish and Wildlife questioning that point because science had not proven what part snow played in the denning process, he said their logic “borders on the absurd––if evidence shows that wolverines need snow for denning purposes, and the best available science projects a loss of snow as a result of climate where and when wolverines den, then what sense does it make to deny that climate change is a threat to the wolverine simply because research has yet to prove exactly why wolverines need snow for denning?” The emphasis was his.
In his conclusion, Christensen called Fish and Wildlife’s reversal “arbitrary and capricious.”
If the wolverine is deemed threatened by the agency, it could open the gates for other animals to win similar status based on climate-change claims. The label would be further evidence that humans, in their pursuits to profit from the land, have irreversibly altered it, and consequently that wolverines are worse off for it––to the point that they deserve special legal protection.