How do you protect species disappearing because of climate change?

April 19, 2016, 6 a.m.
Photo: Michal Ninger/Shutterstock

The wolverine just took a step closer to being listed under the Endangered Species Act — but it's not out of the woods yet.The decision is a controversial one because the main threat to the future of this species is no longer hunting or trapping, but the loss of snow. Wolverines require snowpack to build their dens and raise their young.

Listing the wolverine as an endangered species would bring renewed attention to the threat of climate change on species. It also raises questions about what we can do, and what we should be required to do, to protect species against the effects of climate change.

Opponents say listing the wolverine based on the threat of climate change doesn't provide an actionable plan to bring the species numbers back up, and also claim that it could mean a free pass for the government to list practically any species as endangered.

"Private property advocates warn that the climate change argument, used in conjunction with the Endangered Species Act, could ultimately lead to the shuttering of power plants, oil fields or coal mines in the name of protecting any number of species," reports The Washington Times.

But if those things causing climate change are also causing the extinction of species, then perhaps it's time to factor them into the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Those against the listing say the ruling changes the way the ESA has been interpreted since it became law in 1973. But much has changed since 1973, including our understanding of human-caused climate change.

The wolverine's listing could help the ESA keep up with the times, but it also raises big questions about the roles and boundaries of the ESA. How far should regulations go when protecting a species against changing temperatures, a complex and global issue?

The contentious ruling underscores the political pressures surrounding climate change science and how it affects laws about wilderness and wildlife.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, who made the ruling, notes that climate models showing the loss of snow pack — with two-thirds of the wolverines' denning habitat disappearing by 2085 — represents the best available science, and has to be considered. The judge also scolded the Fish and Wildlife Service for buckling under political pressures, rather than sticking to the science, when the wolverine was denied listing in 2014.

Christensen told the Fish and Wildlife Service to "take action at the earliest possible, defensible point in time to protect against the loss of biodiversity within our reach as a nation. For the wolverine, that time is now."

"The court sent a clear message to the service: Don’t let politics trump science," said Matthew Bishop, a Western Environmental Law Center lawyer who represented conservation groups in the lawsuit. "The service cannot ignore the published literature and advice of its own biologists when making important listing decisions."

Though the case is a win both for the wolverine and for climate science, the ruling still raises many questions questions that will have to be addressed as climate change is factored into the reasons for listing a species as endangered and the extent of protections offered for those species. These are political issues that are sure to create difficult legal battles surrounding endangered species in the future.

As Seth Jaffe writes at Law and the Environment:

The FWS service cannot roll back climate change through its listing decisions, but those decisions can have very broad consequences. When the Court asked why the FWS tried to backtrack from its proposed listing, its answer was brief and again almost certainly correct: "the Court suspects that a possible answer to this question can be found in the immense political pressure that was brought to bear on this issue, particularly by a handful of western states." This is not a problem that’s going to go away any time soon.

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