Who Will Save the Wolverine? Not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

How one bureaucrat’s climate denial overruled wildlife scientists and put the Northern Rockies species on the road to extinction.

Paul Oomen/Getty

A witless remark by a single bureaucrat may be dooming America’s remaining wolverines to extinction.

The specious crack by Noreen Walsh, the Rocky Mountain region director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, denies climate-change models and claims that predictions of reduced snowfall because of rising temperatures are merely “speculative.” This bureaucratic ignorance, buried in a recently leaked memo, in essence overrides government field scientists who have been urging the FWS to list wolverines south of the Canadian border as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. These researchers, the 17-page letter says, have been ordered to reverse their own conclusions. A final decision is due from agency director Dan Ashe on August 4.

It was a careless political statement—and it’s the latest case that reflects the estrangement many environmentalists feel about this Obama White House. The administration remains unresponsive when it comes to the welfare of iconic animals like grizzly bears, bison, wolves, or wolverines, thanks in large part to a bureaucracy left over from the Bush administration, which twice denied protection for the wolverine and failed to confront the considerable and urgent threats presented by global warming.

(“This is a thing we all should be proud of, to explain to the field people the basis of that disagreement,” Ashe told the North America Congress for Conservation Biology in Missoula this week. “[Walsh] explained in writing to our field biologists why she had reached different conclusions that was respectful of their initial recommendation. That’s exactly how you want scientists to behave—transparent, logical and understandable.”)

Yet Walsh’s simple, willful inaccuracy could put wolverines in the Northern Rockies on a cattle train to eradication.

Why are our wolverine populations under such stress? In short, snowfall is the key to the species’ survival.

The most credible scientific data on wolverine behavior documents an absolute dependence on “persistent spring snow habitat.” A study of 562 denning sites between 2000 and 2006 demonstrated that wolverines made a home in areas of spring snow 100 percent of the time. These snowy spots—officially defined as the areas where snow lingers from April 24 to May 15—host the final weeks of wolverines’ denning period, when they shelter and raise their young kits. This data comes from satellite images and telemetry sites. During summers, 95 percent of telemetry locations of wolverines were in areas of persistent snow; in winter, 86 percent fell in these spots. The proxy of persistent spring snow for critical wolverine habitat is as close to a perfect wildlife-management indicator that we have for any large mammal in the continental United States. Snow is what wolverines need to survive.

Climate warming can be charted as a long-term rising trend with variation. The winter temperatures where wolverines live here in Montana have been on the rise since 2002. But there are bumps in the straight-line graph. For example, in October 2009, a cold snap caused a temporary hiatus in the mountain pine beetle epidemic in whitebark pine forests; that lethal outbreak resumed in spring of 2013. During the winter of 2013-2014, snowfall was heavier than average. This anomaly may be what spurred the FWS’s Walsh to consider global warming, and the resultant decreased snowfall, “speculative.”

But here’s the nub: Does anyone think global warming is waning or going away in the near or distant future? The polar caps are melting at a frightening rate. The U.S. Navy predicts summer Arctic sea ice will be gone by 2016. Up in the Yukon, along the Beaufort Sea, permafrost is breaking up along coasts and riverbanks, eroding and belching huge gasps of methane. In the Amazon, warming of 2 degrees C, which we are rapidly approaching, would cause a 20 to 40 percent collapse of the rainforest, irreversible damage that would significantly amplify worldwide warming.

The highest density of wolverines left south of Canada is in Glacier National Park. The well-studied glaciers, for which the park was named, occur when more snow dumps on the mountains in winter than melts during summer—accumulation exceeds ablation. Today, the opposite is happening; researchers now predict the park’s glaciers will disappear by 2020. This is not “speculative” science. The glaciers are melting because snowfall is decreasing and temperatures are rising—bad news for wolverines.

On July 2, the National Park Service released a comprehensive climate-warming report in the journal PloS ONE. Global warming is happening in 235 of the 289 parks they studied, the NPS reports. In northeastern Yellowstone, the snowpack has declined 22 percent since 1975. Apparently, the FWS’s Walsh has not read that study either.

It’s why the wolverine is becoming the Northern Rockies’ “polar bear.” As the polar bear drifts toward extinction because of melting polar ice, so will wolverine populations disappear as warming weather shrinks our Rocky Mountain snowpack. The wolverine’s only chance is total protection under our Endangered Species Act. And that’s merely a chance: None of us on this mysterious blue planet will escape the affliction we call global warming.