MISSOULA — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe defended his agency’s commitment to strong science Monday in light of recent controversies over wolverine and wolf protection.
Last week, members of the Center for Biological Diversity criticized Fish and Wildlife Service Rocky Mountain Regional Director Noreen Walsh for overruling the conclusions of field scientists regarding wolverine listing. The agency also had to reverse an effort to reject certain scientists from a wolf study peer review panel in January.
Ashe was a keynote speaker at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology in Missoula.
The federal agency’s field scientists had recommended in May that wolverines be given “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act because climate change was taking away the widespread, long-lasting snowpacks the high-altitude carnivore uses for denning and reproduction. But Walsh’s memo ordered a withdrawal of the recommendation.
“The Obama administration’s own scientists have said for years that global warming is pushing wolverines toward extinction, and now those conclusions are being cast aside for political convenience,” CBD’s endangered species director Noah Greenwald said in an email. “This is a bizarre and disturbing turn, especially for an administration that’s vowed to let science rule the day when it comes to decisions about the survival of our most endangered wildlife.”
Greenwald accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of ignoring “the substantial evidence and conclusions of the proposed rule, the independent science panel report, and the strong conclusions of the Montana field office, which is staffed with the agency scientists who have the greatest knowledge of wolverines.”
Ashe strongly defended Walsh and his staff Monday.
“It’s not common for a regional director to reverse, but neither is it unusual for that to happen,” Ashe said. “This is a thing we all should be proud of, to explain to the field people the basis of that disagreement. (Walsh) explained in writing to our field biologists why she had reached different conclusions that was respectful of their initial recommendation. That’s exactly how you want scientists to behave — transparent, logical and understandable.”
Ashe said the wolverine decision was different than an animal like the polar bear, where research shows shrinking pack ice in the Arctic is hurting the species’ reproductive success and body fat.
“We know climate change is having an effect on the late snowpack (wolverines) use,” Ashe said. “But in fact the population has been increasing for a decade or more. There’s not the same type correlation as with polar bears.”
Of the wolf peer review panel, Ashe said an FWS staff member had made a mistake and it had been fixed.