Letter: Override of Wolverine Scientists Sets 'Dangerous Precedent'
SAN FRANCISCO— More than 50 scientists today called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to follow the recommendations of its own scientists, who proposed Endangered Species Act protection for American wolverines in the lower 48 states due to threats from climate change. In a letter signed by some of the nation’s leading wildlife biologists, the scientists voiced strong concern over an agency administrator’s last-minute order to withdraw the proposed protections, overriding the expert judgment of Service scientists and independent peer reviewers.
“Wolverines are threatened with extinction, and if they’re going to survive, they need our help,” said Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke chair of conservation at Duke University, who signed the letter. “It’s disturbing to see federal regulators suddenly claim the science is uncertain and suggest that plans to protect wolverines should be withdrawn. It’s like calling off a hurricane warning while the storm is making landfall. The damage is already being done to wolverines, the question now is whether we’re going to help them or not.”
The estimated 300 remaining wolverines in the lower 48 face severe threats from global warming, which is shrinking the spring snowpack they need for building sheltered dens to raise their young. A recent study projected that climate change could reduce wolverine habitat by 63 percent over the next 75 years.
The letter, signed by 56 scientists, notes that the federal proposal to protect wolverines was “based on the best available scientific information,” including numerous peer-reviewed studies demonstrating the wolverine’s dependence on snowpack and predicting extensive loss of the snowy habitat they need to survive.
The protection proposal received strong support from five of seven peer reviewers and a separate, nine-person independent science panel convened in April to review the science underlying the proposal. The plan, though, came under strong opposition from state officials in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
On May 17 the assistant director for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rocky Mountain region issued a memo recommending finalization of protections, concluding that the Service had not found “any other peer-reviewed literature or other bodies of evidence that would lead us to a different conclusion.”
However, on May 30, the Service’s regional director ordered agency biologists to reverse their conclusions and withdraw the listing proposal. The administrator acknowledged that her decision was based on no new scientific information, but rather on her own opinion regarding uncertainties in the modeling studies used in the listing determination. The Service’s final decision on whether to grant the wolverine protection is due by Aug. 4.
Today’s scientist letter notes that because the Endangered Species Act gives the benefit of the doubt to the species, it requires careful consideration of the best available science rather than absolute scientific certainty prior to taking a protection action. The letter states that “using uncertainty as an excuse to dismiss the best available science sets a … dangerous precedent given that so many rare and imperiled species are very difficult to study and assess.”
The letter urges the Service to uphold the scientific integrity of its listing process, stating that “the regional director’s decision to overturn a scientifically well-vetted and well-supported listing determination sets a bad precedent by allowing an administrator to overrule the expert judgment of the Service’s scientists as well as independent peer reviewers.”
“The science is clear that global warming threatens the wolverine with extinction,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director of the Center for Biological Diversity, who signed the letter. “It’s deeply disturbing that the Service might allow an administrator’s last-minute conjecture and obfuscation to trump science and deny these amazing animals the protections they need to survive in our western mountains.”