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.