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Eight environmental groups took their first opportunity to file a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday for not protecting the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act. A week from now, another dozen will join in.

After waiting the required 60 days after notification, a coalition of eight environmental groups, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity, sued the USFWS for ignoring scientific evidence and the recommendations of the scientific panel when it decided not to list the wolverine as threatened under the ESA.

“In its rule withdrawal, FWS unjustifiably reversed its position from the proposed rule … and did not articulate a rational connection between the facts found and the choice ultimately made by the agency,” Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso wrote in the lawsuit.

On Aug. 12, USFWS Director Dan Ashe approved a recommendation not to list the wolverine because Regional Director Noreen Walsh said it could not be shown how climate change would affect wolverine habitat, primarily the snowpack that wolverines use for den-building.

Ashe said scientists suspect climate change would affect the wolverine, but unlike with the polar bear, the USFWS has insufficient evidence to establish a strong correlation between dwindling snows and wolverine survival.

But the lawsuit argues that there are several studies that make connections between climate change, snow reductions and wolverine response.

In particular, it quotes the service’s own 2013 conclusion that “wolverine habitat is projected to decrease in area and become more fragmented in the future as a result of climate changes.”

The lawsuit also points to the fact that the species’ range has already shrunk as population numbers have dropped.

Scientists estimate that only 300 wolverines remain in the U.S., and of those, only 35 or so actually get together to reproduce. So inbreeding can cause additional problems.

Some of the suing organizations were the first to petition to list the wolverine in 2000 and that kicked off a series of half-measures on the part of the USFWS regarding the wolverine.

Ten years and several court challenges later, the USFWS ruled that climate change was a threat to wolverines but said it couldn’t list the wolverine because too many other species had higher priority.

Then the Center for Biological Diversity sued to force the USFWS to deal with the backlog of species awaiting protection. The USFWS said it would make a decision on the wolverine by 2013.

In February 2013, the USFWS proposed to list the wolverine due to threats from a combination of climate change, trapping and small population size.

But the service delayed its final ruling for six months to take a final look at the best science of wolverine ecology and climate change modeling.

All nine scientists on the review panel verified the science used to propose the listing and “expressed pessimism for the long-term (roughly end-of-century) future of wolverines in the contiguous U.S. because of the effects of climate change on habitat.”

But in her memo, Walsh rejected both the findings of the panel and the recommendation of the USFWS Montana Field Office to move forward with the listing.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Walsh’s recommendation was based on politics, not science.

“All of the science and the agency’s own scientists say the wolverine is severely endangered by loss of spring snowpack caused by climate change, yet the agency denied protection anyway,” Greenwald said.

The eight organizations aren’t the only ones that will be challenging the ruling.

Attorney Matt Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center said he would file a lawsuit on Oct. 20 for another 12 groups, including the Helena Hunters and Anglers and the Friends of the Wild Swan.

“It’s a multi-state group that includes hunters and conservation groups who think science is being abandoned,” Bishop said.

Bishop is delaying a week to make sure the lawsuit isn’t thrown out because of a technicality.

Groups are required to wait 60 days to sue after they notify federal agencies of their intent.

Monday marked that 60-day point, but Bishop doesn’t want to be accused of jumping the gun.

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Laura Lundquist can be reached at llundquist@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638.

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