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American wolverine. Audrey Magoun/USFWS via Courthouse News

Montana challenges protections for threatened wolverines

 

Montana is putting threatened wolverines on notice, claiming reasoning behind the species' federal protections is wrong.

 

 

By ALANNA MAYHAM,

Contributing Writer

 

(CN) — Montana wants to end federal protections for North American wolverines, questioning the rationale behind protecting a population with roughly 300 individuals left in the lower 48 US states.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks filed an intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday. It arrives two months after the federal agency announced its decision to list wolverines as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The final rule — published in the Federal Register on Nov. 30, 2023 — states that, while over 15,000 wolverines live in Canada and Alaska, “around 300” individuals remain in the contiguous US

The service wrote in the rule that “a small population in the contiguous United States would be less of a conservation concern if there were greater connectivity with the larger populations in Canada.”

At the same time, the service’s Pacific Region Director, Hugh Morrison, issued a statement citing climate change and habitat fragmentation as relevant factors for protecting the small mammal.

“Current and increasing impacts of climate change and associated habitat degrada- tion and fragmentation are imperiling the North American wolverine,” Morrison said.

 

“Based on the best available science, this listing determination will help to stem the long-term impact and enhance the viability of wolverines in the contiguous United States.”

Yet, the move to protect wolverines is not sitting well with the Montana wildlife agency, mainly as the service withdrew its proposal to preserve the species in 2020 after finding the lower-48 population did not qualify as a distinct population.

That decision — met by two lawsuits in Montana’s federal court — was thrown out in 2022 after U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ordered the service to reconsider its findings.

Nonetheless, Montana released state- ments indicating that the service’s underlying reasoning for its decision is wrong.

 

The specific source of error, the agency wrote, involved the service’s reliance on 2100 climate models depicting decreased snowpack for denning wolverines — a rationale used “despite recent science that shows wolverines are adaptable and able to den and produce without snow.”

“In the Northern Rockies, wolverines are doing well, and states are working closely on monitoring and conservation efforts,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Dustin Temple. “This listing is not only unnecessary, it fails to recognize current science.” 

The agency’s chief of conservation policy, Quentin Kujula, also noted that Montana’s wolverines are doing well and inhabiting “much, if not all, of their available habitat.

“We work closely with our neighboring states to ensure the continued conservation of these iconic species,” Kujula added. “Federal protections in this case will only get in the way of good conservation work.”

Carnivore conservation legal director Andrea Zaccardi from the Center for Biological Diversity disagreed, saying the best and most recent science shows wolverines need protection and that Montana has potentially misinterpreted the studies.

“Recent science shows that there’s no genetic connectivity and only about 10% of that 300-population number is actually reproducing,” Zaccardi said.

Zaccardi said he hopes that the service will vigorously defend its decision.

“It’s just a continuous disappointment when it comes to protecting imperiled wildlife,” Zaccardi said of Montana’s wildlife management.

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A dark brown mustang named Alpine stands between human visitors and his 12-member bandone of the dozens of bands that make up the roughly 500-horse Alpine herd in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Photo by Joe Duhownik

What designates a Wild Horse?

Advocates push back against ‘feral’ classification 

By JOE DUHOWNIK, Contributing Writer

 

This is the first of three stories about free-roaming horses in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

 

ALPINE, Ariz. (CN)—Deep scars run through Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, a constant reminder of a devastating fire that burned more than 500,000 acres across the White Mountains around a decade ago.

That fire destroyed 19 miles of border fence, sparking a heated debate around the horses who now inhabit this region. Experts remain torn on where these horses came from and whether they belong here. Some say the fire and loss of fencing allowed horses to cross from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation into Apache-Sitgreaves. They say horses don't belong in this delicate ecosystem and would like to see them gone.

Others, including indigenous Apache who have long lived in the region, say the horses have been here for generations—long before that 2011 fire. The disagreement cuts to the core of Americans' unique relationship with this charismatic species, which first appeared in North America millions of years ago and later played a critical role in European colonization of the continent.

Hundreds of horses roam free near Alpine, Arizona, just six miles from the Arizona-New Mexico border and more than 8,000 feet above sea level. Locals and wild horse advocacy groups collectively refer to the horses, which roam nearly 75,000 acres of forest known as the Black River watershed, as the Alpine herd.

The U.S. Forest Service and most conservationists call them something else: feral.

"They shouldn't be there," said Robin Silver, founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting endangered species. "These are exotic animals that did not evolve with our habitat."

The existence of free-roaming horses in the American West has been a source of controversy since European settlers first arrived. While horses originally evolved in North America about five million years ago, scientists agree they completely disappeared from the continent around the end of the last Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago. Then, just around 500 years ago, colonizers and settlers from Europe reintroduced them to the continent. New research shows that horses spread quickly across North America in the decades after Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519, but scientists disagree on exactly where they ended up.

North American ecosystems changed a lot in the last 10,000 years—and many conservationists see the return of horses as detrimental. They say horses disrupt delicate ecosystems and take resources away from competing fauna. They’ve urged the Forest Service to remove them from public land.

Other advocates are fighting back to preserve what they say are historically and culturally significant beasts. In his 2011 book "Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America's Mustangs," J. Edward De Steiguer described free-roaming horses as "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West."

Simone Netherlands, horse advocate and president of the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, agrees. Removing horses from public land is "ungrateful" behavior given their significant role in American history, she said.

"This was how the Wild West was won," she said. "Literally on the backs of these horses."

 

Netherlands said she has DNA evidence linking the horses to those that carried the conquistadors into battle. Still, that wouldn’t prove them to be wild in the Forest Service’s eyes. The United States considers unbranded and unclaimed horses that roamed free on federal land before 1971 to be wild, a distinction made in the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act that year. The law allows those horses and their descendants to remain on the land in perpetuity.

 

Under the law, the U.S. Forest Service also must protect them from injury or harassment from humans.

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The gray wolf, Canis lupus, was first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1974. Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission

Colorado signs bill

to aid livestock farmers

For death and injury caused by wolf woes

By AMANDA PAMPURO, Contributing Writer

 

(CN) — In the coming months, Colorado biologists will release a pack of wolves onto the western slope of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The apex predator was hunted into local extinction eight decades ago, clearing the way for another animals to settle and thrive: livestock.

In anticipation of inevitable wolf conflicts, Gov. Jared Polis signed into a bill into law that allocates funding to compensate livestock owners for wolf predation and harassment. Introduced with bipartisan support, the SB23-255 Wolf Depredation Compensation Fund appropriates $525,000 over the next two years to cover livestock losses.

Under the state’s final plan, ranchers will be compensated for vet bills to treat injured animals, including herding dogs, with up to $15,000 for animal deaths. While wolves kill less than 1percent of livestock annually, that risk threatens ranchers' livelihoods. Successful reintroduction of the keystone species therefore hinges on a suc- cessful compensation program for landowners who have unwittingly found themselves living in future wolf country.

A slim 50.91 percent of Centennial State voters in 2020 supported the measure to reintroduce wolves. The proposition backed by conservationists received strong criticism from residents and ranchers along the rural Western Slope, which happens to be ideal wolf habitat.

The gray wolf, Canis lupus, was first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1974. Wolves were then delisted in October 2020 by the Trump administration until a federal judge in the Northern District of California restored the wild canine’s protected status last year. Because wolves are a protected species, the state must move in sync with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal agency proposed complementary rules in February that include lethal management under certain conditions.

With wolves once again protected under the Endangered Species Act, Erin Karney, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association is advocating for the federal government to categorize wolves as a 10(j) experimental species, allowing for lethal takes.

 

"When our producers are faced with this apex predator coming onto their lands, the least we could do is offer them that certainty that they could have management flexibility," Karney said. "As a sign of respect on what's to come, we should listen and act on their concerns to help livestock producers and Western folk communities to ensure that they're there in the future to ensure a successful reintroduction process.” 

Polis vetoed a measure on May 16 that would have paused the state reintroduction plan until the federal government signed off on the 10(j) rule. Polis argued that all the pieces would fall into place so there was no need to wait.

"SB23-256, however, is unnecessary and undermines the voters’ intent and the hard work of the Parks and Wildlife Commission, the expertise of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff, the extensive stake-holding undertaken by the Technical Working Group and the Stakeholder Advisory Group, and the ongoing collabora- tive work with our Federal partners, and could actually interfere with successfully receiving experimental population designation, which is the purported purpose of the bill," Polis explained in a letter.

"The management of the reintroduction of gray wolves into Colorado is best left to the Parks and Wildlife Com- mission as the voters explicitly mandated," Polis said.

The state Parks and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved a plan on May 3 hammering out the wolves’ travel plans after receiving input from more than 4,000 comments submitted online, through the mail and during 18 public meetings.

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