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Federal Scientists Ordered to Drop Proposal to Protect Wolverines

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The wolverine is a true creature of winter. It is entirely dependent on deep, persistent spring snowpack to protect kits in snowy dens, cache carrion and avoid competition from other predators for food. The worldwide distribution of wolverines is defined by areas where the snowpack lasts the longest.

It should come as no surprise, then, that wildlife and climate scientists alike have serious concerns that the fewer than 300 remaining wolverines in the lower 48 states are severely threatened by our warming world.

Spring snowpack is disappearing earlier and winter snows are getting wetter across much of the West, trends expected to worsen.

Citing these concerns, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists last year proposed Endangered Species Act protection for wolverines, a finding based on peer-reviewed studies that nearly two-thirds of their habitat in the conterminous U.S. is expected to disappear this century.

An internal memo obtained by the conservation organization I work for, the Center for Biological Diversity, shows that as recently as May 17, agency scientists recommended the finalization of wolverine protection.

In their recommendation, agency scientists concluded they were "unable to obtain or evaluate any other peer-reviewed literature or other bodies of evidence that would lead to a different conclusion," and that "any conclusion that there will not be population effects appears to be based on opinion and speculation."

Given these conclusions, one would think finalizing protection for wolverines would be a no-brainer.

But according to a second internal memo dated May 30, a regional director for the agency suddenly ordered the scientists to reverse their conclusions and withdraw proposed protections.

The details of the Tea Party-style push by state officials that preceded the reversal order provide only the latest evidence of a troubling trend in which politics rather than science are guiding many of our most important wildlife protection decisions.

In their push to kill the protection proposal, officials from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming offered up a large dose of politically driven skepticism about the protection proposal but no compelling new research challenging the science behind the decision.

In response, the Fish and Wildlife Service convened a panel of nine biologists to reevaluate the science underpinning the proposal. In April the panel firmly backed the research, concluding that by the end of the century the already fragile wolverine population was likely to be significantly affected by climate-change driven habit loss.

Based on the panel's findings, Fish and Wildlife scientists properly recommended proceeding with the process of protecting the wolverine. Instead, they were ordered to reverse their conclusions by Noreen Walsh, the regional director for the Rocky Mountain region.

In her reversal order, Walsh cited questions raised by states about the degree to which scientists can predict climate change impacts on wolverine habitats. In fact, those were the very questions reviewed and dismissed by the nine-member panel convened after the state complaints.

This reversal order reflects a growing trend of federal officials failing to follow the science and is counter to repeated promises by the Obama administration to let science guide important policy decisions about our environment.

By contrast, whenever federal scientists follow the intent of the Endangered Species Act and allow the best-available science to guide decisions, they've saved species and the habitats we share with them. To date, the Act has prevented extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects, in the process preserving ecosystems key to the nation's long-term environmental and economic health.

Just as we did with bald eagles, peregrine falcons, sea turtles and grizzlies, we have a legal and moral duty to protect wolverines, remarkable survivors able to sniff out carrion buried beneath several feet of snow and to rip apart frozen carcasses with their powerful jaws and claws.

Like many species they're totally unequipped to overcome the escalating challenges of human-caused climate change.

Only we can help them out of this jam.