Friday, April 08, 2016

Montana Judge Helps Wolverines

Wolverines (Gulo gulo luscus) are cryptic, solitary animals living at high altitude and dependent on snow pack for their dens.  Consequently, they have become trapped in the debate over how climate change is affecting snowfall amounts. {06.02.13}  Their numbers are declining--only about 300 remain in the lower forty-eight--but the Fish & Wildlife Service refused to extend them threatened status under the Endangered Species Act in 2014.  A Montana federal district judge said Monday in his lengthy opinion vacating the agency's decision that it was arbitrary and capricious. He noted the enormous political pressure by western states (Idaho, Wyoming and Montana) and the fossil fuel industry on the agency to deny the wolverine protected status.  Such a decision could have put entire watersheds out of bounds to resource exploitation.

Judge Dan Christensen ordered the agency to reconsider based on science.  The agency's director Dan Ashe maintains that is exactly what his agency used in reaching its decision.  He says it was presented with conflicting evidence of the effects of climate change on the wolverine, the largest member of the weasel family.  Five scientific studies, according to wildlife advocates, concluded that there is a significant connection between wolverine decline and climate change, but the agency chose to ignore them.  A former biologist for the Forest Service characterized the agency treatment of the studies and the scientists who authored them as "disparaging".  Jeff Copeland said the science is clear, "wolverines do not reproduce in the absence of snow."

Wolverines raise their cubs in dens dug into deep snow at tree line, a limited ecological niche.  They stay there until the snow begins melting in May.  As snow season shortens due to warmer temperatures, wolverines have been unable to adapt to changing conditions.  Wolverines are also sensitive to high altitude intrusions by man such as trappers and snowmobilers.  Some snow mobile groups oppose protections for the animal fearing large areas of already fragmented back country will be closed off to their activities.  As a predator and scavenger, the wolverine roams large areas of high altitude terrain in search of food, traveling as much as twenty-five miles in a day.

The mountain devil as it is sometimes known is a fierce creature, able to fend off larger predators despite its compact size. Adult males weigh up to about 40 pounds  Wolverine has been known to kill bull moose. It's luxurious fur is highly prized for its waterproof and insulating characteristics.  Naturalist Ernest Seton said of the wolverine, it is "a personality of unmeasured force, courage and achievement."  It deserves protection from man's degradation of the planet.