Wolverines could get another shot at federal protection, thanks to a revised plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that places the species near the top of a list of species to be considered for protection.
The work plan is part of an ongoing litigation battle with advocacy group WildEarth Guardians, headquartered in Santa Fe, N.M.
The service attempted to settle the suit in early May by announcing a plan that would allow it to more effectively address the status of species that have been identified as needing protection under the Endangered Species Act.
A challenge from endangered species advocates at the Center for Biological Diversity stalled the settlement and sent the service back to the drawing board to address what the center called "serious flaws" in the service's plan.
The new work plan provides more specific guidelines for when the service will review the status of individual species and determine whether federal protections are warranted.
Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, said the new agreement would require the service to either list or make "not-warranted" findings for 261 species, as well as filing 90-day and 12-month findings (preliminary reports on species proposed for listing) for a total of 646 species.
The agreement provides specific time frames on listing proposals and final listing rules for about 40 species, most of which were included in the May agreement. But this week's agreement provides further certainty for these species at risk by including additional deadlines.
The goal of the new plan, according to a service press release, is to "provide state wildlife agencies, stakeholders and the public clarity and certainty about when listing determinations will be made."
If approved by the court, the plan would allow the service to work through a backlog of petitions for species listings under the Endangered Species Act. According to the service, more than 1,230 petitions have been filed since 2007.
The North American wolverine will be considered by the end of fiscal year 2013, placing it near the top of a list of over 250 species the service will consider over the next six years.
The service denied wolverines federal protection last December, choosing instead to list them as "candidate species." Like other candidate species such as the sage grouse, wolverines were designated as in need of protection, but the service's limited resources led it to address other more threatened species first.
An estimated 300 wolverines remain in the western part of the United States. Biologists estimate that a minimum of 400 breeding pairs nationwide is required to keep the animals from extinction.
"This is welcome news indeed for the wolverine," said Dave Gaillard, spokesman for environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. "We're hopeful that, by making a final listing decision within the next two years, the Fish and Wildlife Service will have wolverines on a path to recovery in the very near future."
The service will also consider the greater sage grouse for listing, proposing a deadline date of the end of fiscal year 2015. Sage grouse were described as threatened by the service in March 2010, but listing the species under the act was "precluded" by the agency's need to focus on other species.
Sage grouse status has special relevance to Blaine County, which is currently exploring construction of a replacement airport in a large area of sagebrush steppe habitat just north of the Lincoln County line. Opponents of the plan say the airport would fragment already-threatened sage grouse habitat and possibly irreparably damage the species and its survival.
WildEarth Guardians applauded the service's revised plan in a press release on Tuesday.
"The endangered species candidate backlog needs to be addressed without any further delay," Rosmarino said. "Our nation's imperiled plants and animals need all the help they can get."
Federal judge Emmet Sullivan considered the settlement in a hearing on Tuesday, but did not make a ruling. The case was still unsettled as of press time on Thursday.
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org
The greater sage grouse was denied federal protection in March 2010. To read the full story by Jason Kauffman, search for "Sage grouse saga far from over" on our home page, www.mtexpress.com.
Wolverines were precluded from listing in December 2010. Katherine Wutz's story, "Wolverines denied federal protection," can be accessed from the home page as well.
If the agreement is approved by federal Judge Emmet Sullivan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will commit to either listing or making "not-warranted" rulings on the following species and others by the end of the listed fiscal year:
- 2011: Cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.
- 2012: Mexican wolf, Miami blue butterfly, Mt. Charleston blue butterfly, spring pygmy sunfish.
- 2013: Ashy storm petrel, greater sage grouse (in California and Nevada), North American wolverine, northern long-eared bat, Oregon spotted frog.
- 2014: Yellow-billed loon, Arctic grayling, black pine snake.
- 2015: Greater sage grouse (all other populations), New England cottontail, roundtail chub, Kentucky arrow darter, headwater chub.
- 2016: Southern Idaho ground squirrel, relict leopard frog, Tahoe yellow cress.
- 2017: Pacific walrus.