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Wolverine Denied Endangered Species Protection

WASHINGTON, DC, March 12, 2008 (ENS) – The Bush administration announced today that it has no obligation to protect endangered wildlife, provided their U.S. populations are contiguous with larger populations in Canada or Mexico.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it has determined that protecting the wolverine in the contiguous United States as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act is not warranted because “the wolverine population in the contiguous United States is not discrete … it is not separated from wolverine populations in Canada, and is likely dependent on them to some degree for maintaining genetic diversity.”

The wolverine is the largest land species of the weasel family, with adults weighing up to 40 pounds. It looks more like a small bear than a weasel, and feeds primarily by scavenging on carrion.

In North America, wolverines occur in boreal forests, tundra and western mountains throughout Alaska and Canada, with the southern portion of the range extending into the contiguous United States. There are an estimated 15,000 wolverines in Canada

The current range of the wolverine is found to be the northern Cascades in Washington and possibly Oregon, and the northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

The species was likely driven from the Sierra Nevada and the southern Rocky Mountains with the early westward expansion of settlers, the Service said.

Last week, a graduate student studying another member of the weasel family, the marten, photographed a wolverine in the Sierra Nevada north of Lake Tahoe. News of the picture surprised scientists.

When considering whether to add a species to the federal list of threatened and endangered species, the Service can determine whether a portion of a species can be designated as a distinct population segment. “A distinct population segment must be geographically discrete from other populations and also be significant to the survival of the species,” the Service said.

The Service determined that the contiguous United States population of wolverine does not significantly contribute to the Canadian and Alaskan wolverine populations’ ability to maintain their genetic diversity and viability and, therefore, does not warrant further listing consideration.

In 2000, the Service was petitioned by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation and others to list the North American wolverine within the contiguous United States as a threatened or endangered species. In 2003, the Service published a finding that the petition did not present substantial information indicating that listing was warranted.

The nonprofit group Defenders of Wildlife filed a lawsuit in 2006 alleging the Service used incorrect standards to assess the petition, and the Montana U. S. District Court ordered the Service to conduct a new status review by February 28, 2008. This finding was published in the Federal Register on March 11, 2008.

The former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Clinton administration, who is now executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, said the decision is “a stunning interpretation” of the Bush administration’s responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act.

Jamie Rappaport Clark said, “This sets a new low in a long line of irresponsible, disturbing decisions made of late by the Bush administration.”

“The Endangered Species Act was designed to protect and preserve imperiled wildlife populations – not so that we can pass our responsibilities off onto our border neighbors, who may not have the resources or protections that we have here,” she said.

“As the famed naturalist Aldo Leopold said about grizzly bears, ‘Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.’ In this case, grizzlies can be substituted with wolverine – a species not as fortunate as the grizzly in gaining federal protection.”

“I am deeply disturbed by the refusal of the Bush administration to protect species such as the wolverine, jaguar, pygmy owl and marbeled murrelets,” said Clark today. “There is undisputed scientific evidence proving that federal protections are needed due to their precarious status in the United States.”

If the same narrow criterion that is being applied to the wolverine was applied to the American bald eagle,” she said, “it would no longer be with us.”

“The future of the wolverine depends upon the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doing the job that it was entrusted to do; protect and recover imperiled wildlife within our borders,” Clark said. “Instead, the Bush administration is once again shirking this duty and ignoring science. The Bush administration is essentially telling our wolverines ‘sorry we can’t help you, try Canada.’”

A number of environmental groups are considering a legal challenge to the decision.

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