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Go Blue: The First Chapter In An Endangered Species Epic

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A real wolverine, not the U of M kind, has appeared in the Golden State:

On 2/28, this photo of a wolverine was taken by a motion-and-heat-detecting digital camera in the northern part of the Sierra Nevada range in California, surprising biologists who didn’t think the animal was still abroad in those parts.

The article helpfully notes:

The discovery could affect land-use decisions if the wolverine is declared an endangered species, a step the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering, although the animals typically live at high elevations where there is limited development.

There is a near certainty that the Sierra Nevada population of the wolverine will be on the federal and possibly California endangered species list soon, and that it will have an impact on development in the regions for years to come. It is too bad that the return of a long vanished critter –even the mascot of a forlorn and doomed-to-lose-to-the-Buckeyes collegiate football program– would carry with it the prospect of economic ruin for at least a few and perhaps many more people.

When I am not on the radio or teaching, I represent landowners in endangered species or other natural resource disputes, and have been doing so since 1989. Here’s how it will work.

Once this new, “distinct population” of wolverines is listed as “threatened” or “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act (“ESA” or “FESA”), which a known and remote population of one almost certainly is, it becomes a felony to “take” the animal, which means to harm or harass any member of that population in any way –a good thing. (The owners of the automatic camera might want to check with the local U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office about getting a permit for that project.)

One view of the ESA holds that it is “take” to destroy the habitat necessary for the animal to forage or breed, and that could be a huge expanse. One online assessment of the wolverine notes that:

According to Verts (1998), the critical component of modern day wolverine habitat is the absence of human activity and development. Similarly, Hornocker and Hash (1991) found that wilderness and remote country are essential to wolverine population viability.

Lets say Verts, Nornocker and Hash are right, and that to keep this wolverine alive you need its breeding and foraging habitat completely free of human activity and development. If that’s the case, your plan to build a cabin nearby the photo shoot is going to be understood to be “take,” a felony unless the cabin builder gets a permit first. The same is true for any road work nearby –noise will impact wolverines– hunting and camping, and of course the operation of ski resorts or the construction of vacation villas in the region.

Wolverine enthusiasts (or anti-growth activists using the wolverine’s cameo) will urge a broad definition of the region in which the wolverine or its spouse or offspring might be found, and an immediate curtailment of all human activity within that region. Land owners and project proponents (and the state or federal agencies conducting road work or authorizing logging or resource extraction in the region) will argue that their projects can’t possibly be impacting the Alpha Wolverine. The over-under on the first law suit has got to be this time next year.

Thus begins a decades-long, very expensive set of battles over who gets to build what where in the Sierra Nevada.

Because this is such a clean start to an endangered species controversy, I will keep you posted. But a hearty welcome back to the Golden State to S.T. Wolverine: Long may you flourish here, regardless of the silliness you set off among the humans.

UPDATE: One activist already has plans to enlist the wolverine on her side.


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