The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's position on whether wolverines are endangered must reflect the threat of climate change and projected declines in snow cover, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ruled Monday.
The agency's stance also must reflect that small population size – an estimated 300 wolverines in the U.S. – and low genetic diversity pose a threat to the viability of the species, said the order remanding the wolverine listing decision to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In the case filed by a coalition of conservation groups, the order shows how the agency made a 180-degree turn in its listing decision, first finding ample evidence that wolverines need spring snow and, therefore, protection in the face of climate change, to withdrawing its proposal to list the animal as endangered.
The judge found "immense political pressure" from Western states may have influenced FWS in the case, Center for Biological Diversity et. al. v. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other defendants.
The agency argued the science was uncertain – despite repeated findings to the contrary by its own biologists. The judge disagreed and said the agency "sought certainty beyond what is required" by the Endangered Species Act.
"No greater level of certainty is needed to see the writing on the wall for this snow-dependent species standing squarely in the path of global climate change," Christensen said.
"It has taken us 20 years to get to this point. 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.
"For the wolverine, that time is now."
FWS public affairs specialist Serena Baker said the agency was reviewing the order and did not have comment. Late Monday afternoon, Baker could not immediately say how much time the agency needed to issue a decision consistent with the judge's order.
State wildlife managers of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming also supported the no-listing decision.
In a statement, Bethany Cotton of WildEarth Guardians lauded the decision as a win for science that rippled beyond the wolverine.
"Today's win is a victory not just for wolverine, but for all species whose fate relies on the scientific integrity of the Fish and Wildlife Service," said Cotton, wildlife program director. "We called on the agency to stop playing politics and start living up to its mandate to protect our country's most imperiled species."
Matthew Bishop, a Western Environmental Law Center attorney who represented the plaintiffs, said the ruling makes clear the agency cannot ignore published literature and its own biologists when making listing decisions.
"The court sent a clear message to the service: Don't let politics trump science," Bishop said in a statement.
In February, the parties made their arguments in federal court.
Bishop and Tim Preso represented plaintiffs, the CBD, Conservation Northwest, Friends of the Clearwater, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Rocky Mountain Wild.
U.S. Department of Justice attorney Trent Crable represented the Fish and Wildlife Service along with a table of lawyers for the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, farm bureaus from all those states, two Colorado snowmobile clubs and the American and Montana Petroleum Institutes.