BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A coalition of advocacy groups on Monday challenged the government’s denial of federal protections for the snow-loving wolverine, arguing in a lawsuit that officials disregarded evidence a warming climate will eliminate denning areas for the so-called “mountain devil.”
An estimated 250 to 300 wolverines survive in the Lower 48 states. The elusive but ferocious members of the weasel family give birth to their young in deep mountain snowfields that scientists say could be at risk of disappearing as the climate changes.
After proposing protections for the species last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in August abruptly reversed course. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said at the time there was too much uncertainty in computer climate change models to justify protections, an issue first raised by two members of a scientific peer-review panel.
Monday’s lawsuit argues the agency acted illegally by ignoring the best available science on wolverines after some of its own scientists said protections were needed. Attorneys for Earthjustice representing eight wildlife advocacy groups filed the complaint in U.S. District Court in Missoula.
The lawsuit names as defendants the Fish and Wildlife Service, agency director Dan Ashe and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
A spokeswoman for Jewell, Jessica Kershaw, said it was agency protocol not to comment on pending litigation. Officials in several western states have said federal protections are not needed and that wolverine numbers appear to be growing.
Another coalition of advocacy groups plans to file a separate lawsuit on the matter later this month, said their attorney, Matthew Bishop with Western Environmental Law Center.
The case carries potential ramifications for other species affected by climate change — including Alaska’s bearded seals, the Pacific walrus and dozens of species of corals — as scientists and regulators grapple with limits on computer climate models.
Based on those models, some wolverine researchers have predicted that almost two-thirds of the species’ denning habitat will disappear by 2085.
Once found throughout the Rocky Mountains and in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, wolverines were wiped out across most of the U.S. by the 1930s due to unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns.
In the decades since, they largely have recovered in parts of the West, but not in other parts of their historical range.
They are currently found in portions of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. Individual wolverines have been documented in Colorado and California, but there has no evidence of breeding populations in those states.
Larger populations of wolverines live in Alaska and Canada. Those animals were never proposed for federal protection.
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