Wolverines are closer to gaining species protections after a federal judge in Montana tossed the Trump administration’s decision against listing the animal under the Endangered Species Act while agencies complete further review.
The judge’s decision marked another win for environmental groups that successfully sued after the US Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew a proposal to list wolverines in the lower 48 states as threatened in 2014. The US District Court for the District of Montana ordered the agency to reconsider its finding that climate change, small population size, and low genetic diversity don’t threaten the species.
The agency once again withdrew the proposed rule in 2020 after concluding that “current and future threat factors are not as significant as believed at the time of the proposed rule.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, and other environmental groups told the court that fewer than 300 individual wolverines remain in the lower-48 states. The animals need year-round snowy habitat, which has been steadily shrinking due to climate change, the groups argued in consolidated cases.
The agency asked the court to leave its decision in place while it completed further review. But “serious errors undermine the Service’s decision,” the court said Thursday.
It’s “troubling” that studies the agency now says warrant further review existed when it made its decision in 2020, but weren’t considered, the court said. The agency could give better reasoning and reach the same outcome, according to the ruling. However, this would mean the Fish and Wildlife Service would provide new justification for its decision, “turning the administrative process on its head,” the court said.
FWS argued tossing the rule would result in “confusion and uncertainty” for agencies, but the court said this alleged harm was “overstated.” Vacating the 2020 decision means the proposed listing rule is in effect, and wolverines receive ESA protections as a proposed species, according to the ruling. Vacatur would “further, rather than set back, the goals of the ESA,” the court said.
Judge Donald W. Molloy gave the agency an 18-month deadline for submitting a new listing decision.
“It’s long past time for the Fish and Wildlife Service to do its job and afford this iconic climate-impacted species with the best safeguards available,” said Bethany Cotton, conservation director with Cascadia Wildlands, in a statement Thursday.
Earthjustice represented the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and eight other groups. Western Environmental Law Center represented WildEarth Guardians, Cascadia Wildlands, and 11 other groups and individuals.
The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Environment is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.
The Justice Department represented the federal government. The Idaho Attorney General’s Office represented the state, which intervened in the case.
The case is Ctr. for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians v. Haaland, D. Mont., Nos. 9:20-cv-00181, 9:20-cv-00183, 5/26/22.