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The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) recent decision to ignore agency biologists’ recommendations and withdraw the draft listing of wolverine as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is raising some concern among the scientific community. The draft listing in response to fears that climate change will cause massive reductions in snow cover, which is an essential component of the wolverine’s habitat, has been dismissed by FWS Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh. Walsh, who initially supported the listing recommendation, cited “uncertainty of climate models, and the fact that we do not have the fine scale modeling available to make accurate predictions” as a basis of her decision.
Predicting the long term effects climate change will have on a specific species is a difficult and speculative process. The FWS uses this uncertainty to stand by its decision on the wolverine and state that the potential effects are not as significant as climate change studies suggest.
“In this case, based on all the information available, we simply do not know enough about the ecology of the wolverine and when or how it will be affected by a changing climate to conclude at this time that it is likely to be in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future,” FWS Director Dan Ashe said.
While climate change was listed as the main factor threatening wolverines, some biologists believe the FWS did not take into account other potential threats. There are only an estimated 300 wolverines in the contiguous United States and their habitat, not just snow pack, may be at risk. Projected losses in habitat paired with a slow reproductive rate should make, in some biologists’ eyes, wolverines a prime candidate for a threatened listing. However, the FWS believes that the science currently does not indicate the species warrants listing.
Now compare the wolverine to the polar bear. In 2008, the FWS listed the 20,000-25,000 polar bears as threatened under the ESA, citing the potential impacts of climate change in the foreseeable future as a main reason. SCI Foundation does not support this decision because of the high level of uncertainty of the science. Yet when multiple threats, including the uncertainty of climate change, are attributed to the 300 wolverines, their proposed threatened listing is withdrawn. It is becoming evident that polar bears and other large, charismatic megafauna garner more public attention, involve more political interest, and expose inconsistent decision-making by the FWS. If wolverines were found more often on soda cans, cuddled more as stuffed animals, and seen more on television, would the decision to list them under the ESA have been different?
Unfortunately, this is not the first time the FWS has made an important decision over a lack of information this year. The recent decision to ban imports of elephants from Zimbabwe was admittedly based on anecdotal information and a lack of scientific information needed to make a positive enhancement finding. Rather than basing a decision on the best-available information, the FWS upheld their ban because Zimbabwe’s best information showing that hunting was enhancing elephant populations wasn’t enough. Like polar bears, elephants are much more publicly and perhaps politically influenced.
It is the duty of the United States government to uphold the scientific integrity of wildlife conservation decisions made at a federal level. Unfortunately, the Endangered Species Act allows for too much subjectivity when determining what information should be used when listing species, and how much information is enough. SCI Foundation is not advocating for a change in the wolverine listing but rather for consistency in the ESA listing process.
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