District Court Sharpens ESA’s Teeth in Wolverine Decision

Posted on May 31, 2016 by Gregory Bibler

In an 85-page decision filled with rebuke, Defenders of Wildlife v. Sally Jewell, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana found in April that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to withdraw its proposeda listing of the wolverine as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act was arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to the ESA’s requirement that decisions be based on the “best available science.”

The court criticized the Service for mischaracterizing scientific consensus as “substantial disagreement,” and for employing an inappropriately high standard of absolute certainty.   The court suspected the Service’s sudden loss of confidence in its listing decision resulted not from scientific diligence but, instead, from “immense political pressure” exerted by a handful of western states. 

Although the decision is replete with references to wolverine denning statistics, sophisticated snow cover assessments based on satellite imagery, and emerging climate models, the court made clear that the Service changed its decision based on policy considerations, not science. That the wolverine depends on persistent snow cover to reproduce, and “relies on snow for its existence at the most fundamental level,” the court said, was not disputed.  That climate change is occurring, and will in the future result in reduced snowpack and loss of denning habitat, within the wolverine’s U.S. range also was not disputed.  The western states, however, questioned how reliably the Service could predict either the pace or the foreseeable impacts of climate effects far into the future.  The states, and many senior staff within the Service, also questioned whether the ESA is an appropriate or workable tool to address the large-scale effects of climate change on North American ecosystems. 

Alaska, for example, linked the wolverine listing decision to what it claimed were equally flawed decisions to list the polar bear and various species of ice seals, based on what it said were dubious models and speculative future climate effects.  Idaho questioned whether the Service’s use of models and projections would eventually lead it to list every species in the U.S., based on predictions of widespread and pervasive climate impacts throughout the country.  Two of the Service’s own Regional Directors echoed the refrain, saying that demands for listing particular species based on predicted effects of climate change “will become a common source of petitioned actions and threaten the Service’s resources to address priority issues.”

The court dismissed these concerns without hesitation:  “It is the undersigned’s view that if there is one thing required of the Service under the ESA, it is to take action at the earliest possible, defensible point in time to protect against the loss of biodiversity within our reach as a nation.” 

If the Service reinstates its prior listing decision, the wolverine will join the polar bear, ringed and bearded seals, and other species listed because they rely on snow and ice “for existence at the most fundamental level.”  The policy challenges at the core of the Service’s listing decision, however, remain unresolved.  Species affected by climate change are not limited to those dependent on snow and ice.  If climate trends continue, the list of species affected will grow and grow.  The ESA can do nothing to reverse or decelerate those impacts.  The Service cannot build an ark to save every species ultimately displaced or threatened.  Any realistic hope for slowing the loss of biodiversity in the U.S. must depend, therefore, on comprehensive and lasting reforms to address the underlying causes of climate change, and not the predicted effects of climate change at the species level.



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