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Commissioners back feds in lawsuit over wolverines

by DERRICK PERKINS
Daily Inter Lake | August 13, 2021 7:00 AM

The Lincoln County Board of Commissioners last month waded into civil litigation between the federal government and a coalition of conservation groups over the status of the nation’s wolverine population. Commissioners voted unanimously July 28 to approve a resolution to join other counties and organizations in backing a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision against designating the wolverine as a threatened species.

County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) compared the resolution to a “friend of the court” brief.

“We’re just throwing our support in,” said County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2) of the resolution.

Conservation groups have pushed the federal government for decades to place wolverines under the Endangered Species Act, filing multiple lawsuits against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2013, the federal agency agreed to consider the move, but backed away last October, citing new research.

“New information from genetic and observational studies shows that wolverines in the lower 48 are connected to populations in Canada and Alaska, these populations interact on some level, and migration and breeding is possible between groups,” reads a press release issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife that month. “Wolverines in the lower 48 states do not qualify as a distinct population segment and they are instead an extension of the population of wolverines found further north.”

As evidence, the agency held up a species status assessment, independent peer-reviewed report and an evaluation of the species’ potential stressors.

The decision leaves management of the wolverine up to state and tribal governments.

In December, a coalition of conservation groups banded together to challenge the ruling.

Western Environmental Law Center is spearheading the effort, drawing support from Wild Swan, Swan View Coalition, WildEarth Guardians, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Footloose Montana, according to earlier coverage by the Daily Inter Lake. The groups argue that shrinking mountain snowpack caused by climate change represents a major threat to the species, but also cites trapping and human disturbance as risk factors. “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,” said attorney Matthew Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center in a prepared statement last year.

“It has taken us 20 years to get to this point.

It is the [court’s] view that if there is one thing required of the Service under the Endangered Species Act, 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,” he said. “For the wolverine, that time is now.”

As part of the resolution, the commissioners also added their support to the government in another lawsuit, that one concerning Canada lynx.

The suit, filed by a few of the same groups in the wolverine case, comes several years after U.S. Fish and Wildlife announced it planned to remove the threatened species tag from the lynx, according to the Associated Press.

The resolution allows the county to obtain intervener or amicus curiae status in both cases, but spares it from any legal costs, which instead be borne by the nonprofit groups opposing the lawsuit.

Bennett said he attended hearings on the wolverine several years ago. At the time, it did not appear as though the wolverine was endangered. “From what I remember of the hearings, it was scientifically proven that they weren’t endangered where they were at,” he said last month.

Letcher made the motion to approve the resolution and Bennett offered a second before it went to a vote.