Wolverines are the latest oppressed group to be abandoned by this Administration

Remember when Candidate Obama promised to protect science and even base policy on scientific evidence?

Scientists—especially those in the government’s employ—can look forward to an administration that will not be beset by recurrent scandals over political meddling with research. In fact, Obama has specifically pledged to protect scientist whistleblowers and make sure his administration avoids political interference with scientific reports released to the public.

North American wolverine: Gulo gulo luscus. (Photo by Steve Kroschel. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

North American wolverine: Gulo gulo luscus. (Photo by Steve Kroschel. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.)

That statement was made when change was the touchstone. We are now well into the why bother stage. Let’s see how well that change has worked out for the North American wolverine.

The North American wolverine is the largest land-dwelling mustelid (i.e., member of the family that includes weasels, badgers, martens and otters). The are the size of a medium dog, weighing up to 50 pounds, and therefore smaller than many apex predators. But they are solidly muscular and ferocious, although they specialize in carrion and immobilized prey. Their fur is oily and highly hydrophilic so it is waterproof and impervious to the snow and frost. This allows them to survive subarctic climates in the Northern Hemisphere. It  also made their hides valuable to fur traders, which accounted for their decline since the 19th century.

There are fewer than 300 wolverines in the contiguous United States. Conservationists had have long urged that they be added to the Endangered Species List. Of course the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service during the Bush Administration fended off the requests, and the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife sued. In 2010 the Service concluded that the species deserved the Act’s protection but made the determination that given limited resources higher priorities precluded the listing. Litigation again ensued. Finally, in January 2013 the Service concluded that “[e]xtensive climate modeling indicates that the wolverine’s snowpack habitat will be greatly reduced and fragmented in the coming years due to climate warming, thereby threatening the species with extinction.” It proposed a rule that included the wolverine in the Endangered Species List but provided for only specific regulations like the prohibition against intentional trapping. Logging and recreation would not be impaired by the proposed rule.

The proposed listing was then subjected to the ordinary two-stage review of scientists. (The Endangered Species Act specifically requires the Service to make its determination only on the basis of the best available science and commercial data.) In the first review, in February 2013, 5 of the 7 scientists agreed that listing was consistent with the best available science. In April 2013 a panel of 9 scientists unanimously agreed with the conclusion. Accordingly the assistant regional manager of the Pacific-Prairie region of the Fish & Wildlife Service ordered the wolverine to be added to the List. On May 30, 2014, the Regional Manager overrule the determination, not on the basis of any new science, but on his opinion that the prediction of the impact of climate change was “speculative.” Despite protests by the American Society of Mammalogists and the Society for Conservation Biologists, among many other eminent biologists, after the public comment period had expired, the Service this week withdrew the proposed Rule. So in the face of the Service’s own biologists’ conclusion, the review of two independent panels and the opinion of the most respected mammal biologists in the country, the Agency, without any new scientific input, failed to comply with the mandate of the endangered Species Act and violated the President’s own directive that science not be scrubbed for political reasons. Putting a happy face on this craven political decision the Services director, Dan Ashe, mirroring the now familiar say-one-thing-do-the-reverse of this Administration, said: “If new information emerges that suggests we should take another look at listing, we will not hesitate to do that.”

But what could that new information be? Certainly it couldn’t be science because that did not enter into it. Perhaps, if the wolverines had the decency to move to a more politically secure place, it might make a difference. They are now concentrated in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, states that staunchly oppose the President and all things environmental. And reflecting the lack of any taste for a fight (or even the pretense of standing up) the Fish & Wildlife Service, like the Chief Executive, decided to keep their head down. This is bad news for the wolverine, but they are just another in a long line of casualties of an Administration that simply wants everyone to get along (despite the evidence).

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