Here Comes The Judge!

by Greg Walcher on June 9, 2017

The Great Falls Tribune reported, “Wolverine study’s plan preferred to endangered species listing.” That is a common sentiment in the West, where almost anything is preferable to endangered species listings, and the accompanying federal control over private land.

When I started as Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, we were just beginning our State’s wildly successful reintroduction of lynx into the Southern Rockies. It is among the great success stories in conservation history, with a thriving lynx population, and new births outnumbering mortality every year. As originally planned several years earlier, the program would have reintroduced both lynx and wolverines.

The wolverine part of the program was very controversial. Animal rights activists claimed it was cruel, ranchers worried about livestock, and outdoor groups thought wolverines dangerous. As children, my brothers and I were fascinated by animal books, and the main word always used to describe wolverines was “ferocious.” It has powerful jaws, sharp claws, can kill prey as large as a moose, and will steal food from bears and wolves.

Several legislators opposed Colorado’s reintroduction program, and even tried to cut our budget to stop it. By separating the two, we were able to proceed with the lynx, and permanently postpone the wolverine. History has proven that decision popular and successful.

Now we are again faced with the prospect of wolverine reintroduction into Colorado, not because the public or their elected officials have changed their minds, but because of lawsuits and judges.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was forced to reopen the entire process on a 6-year old proposal to list wolverines under the Endangered Species Act. The agency studied it for several years, but ultimately withdrew the listing plan after concluding that the animal is not in danger as previously thought. That didn’t suit environmental groups who prefer federal control, so they sued, and a federal judge with very little discussion overturned the withdrawal, effectively restarting the listing process. Under the law, that means the judge had decided the wolverine “is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

How would a federal district judge know that? He was not present for any of the analysis undertaken by the Service, nor the scores of meetings held with other experts. Judges are not scientists, yet they dictate to the agency charged with administering the law based on “the best available scientific” information. Court orders are now so numerous that the Service has little discretion over its own budget and priorities.

The Obama Administration devised a system for prioritizing listings, so limited resources could be used on the most at risk species, but that also resulted in a lawsuit – and a court order disallowing such prioritization. Almost in exasperation, Obama asked Congress (in vain) to cap the amount of money that can be spent to process petitions. The agency has completely lost control of the process Congress intended it to manage for the benefit of endangered species.

Will wolverines now be added to the threatened and endangered list despite the best efforts of 11 western states to conserve their habitat and population? That question now awaits a new multi-state survey to determine exactly where wolverines live. We know at least 300 occupy their historic range in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. They are occasionally seen in California and Colorado, too, though probably not in significant numbers. We cannot guess; we need to know. Thus, this new survey should form the basis for all decision-making on the animal’s potential listing. But will it?

To be clear, this is not about whether wolverines can peacefully coexist in a State with 5.6 million people and 4,000 sheep and cattle. That is a topic for legitimate debate among Coloradans. Rather, this is about who should make that decision – the national environmental lobby, federal judges, or the people of Colorado?

Conservation plans adopted by State and local governments, landowners, and local user groups always enjoy broader support than federal judicial mandates. So the 11 States plan to write conservation plans that will avert the federal listing of wolverines. We know from experience (i.e. Gunnison sage grouse) that the federal government cannot be trusted to keep that promise, so a survey documenting the “best available science,” and an agreement on how many wolverines ought to live where, is the only sensible approach.

The left frequently complains that science should not be manipulated by appointees with political agendas. It should not be manipulated by lawsuits with political agendas, either.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel June 2, 2017.

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