October 1, 2008

Environmental Groups Sue Government To Protect Wolverines

Nine environmental groups sued the federal government Tuesday, claiming that the U.S. Interior Department and one of its agencies had dismissed scientific consensus that wolverines were in jeopardy.

The environmentalists hope their suit will provide protection for the wolverines under the Endangered Species Act, a status denied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March when the agency said that even if wolverines disappeared from the U.S., the species would survive because of the large populations in Canada.

"Americans want these animals protected on our own soil," David Gaillard, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiff organizations, told the Associated Press.

The lawsuit is requesting that the U.S. District Court in Missoula order the agency to reconsider its decision to deny the wolverine endangered species protection.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that, excluding Alaska, the U.S. wolverine population consists of about 500 animals.  But plaintiffs argue that figure may be high by 20 percent or more.  The wolverine population in Canada has been estimated at 15,000 to 19,000 animals.  Within the U.S., wolverines inhabit Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Washington.

Diane Katzenberger, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Gaillard cited documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that revealed the upper echelon of the Interior Department rejected the Fish and Wildlife Service's conclusion that wolverines required protected status, and agency staff then "fell into rank."

Gaillard said that climate change is one of the threats the wolverines face, and that the Interior Department did not want another instance of climate-driven threats to wildlife to coincide with a status decision on polar bears.

In May, the government declared polar bears a threatened species due to decreasing Arctic sea ice, something scientists have attributed to global warming. 

Gaillard said wolverines require alpine snow in the spring to successfully rear their young.

The Montana Furbearer Conservation Alliance, which supports wolverine trapping in Montana, favors the agency's decision against listing the wolverine as an endangered species.    Montana is currently the only state besides Alaska to permit wolverine trapping.

Don Bothwell, a spokesman for the alliance, said the agency acted properly in evaluating the U.S. wolverine population in the context of Canada's.

"The wolverine range crosses international and state boundaries," Bothwell said. "Wolverines have no concept of our political divisions. They travel where they will," he said.