Federal decision on endangered species listing for rare carnivore will help determine how the state proceeds
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A lone wolverine that’s been crisscrossing the Colorado high country for the past few years will have to wait a while longer for some company.
A tentative state plan to reintroduce the mountaineering omnivores is on hold at least until the federal government decides whether to list the species as threatened or endangered. Opposition from the ski industry and ranchers played a key role in putting the brakes on the proposed restoration.
In particular, Colorado Ski Country USA cited impacts of the lynx reintroduction program on ski areas and expressed concern about how a wolverine restoration could affect ski area plans, including terrain additions and operations within existing areas, said Eric Odell, species conservation coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Those key stakeholders want more certainty and assurances that a wolverine reintroduction won’t affect their activities, said Eric Odell, A reintroduction would also require legislative approval, Odell added.
Most recently, wolverine M56 — a male who wandered from Wyoming to Colorado — was spotted in late April near Mt. Bierstadt, and then again in the vicinity of Winter Park, according to Odell.
Westminster photographer Cameron Miller said he was taking pictures around Mt. Bierstadt, a popular 14er, when he heard noises around a nearby beaver pond.
“I loudly cleared my throat to make whatever it was aware of my presence. Moments later this guy ran up the hill to get a look at me and I managed to get three shots of it before it ran away,” Miller wrote in a post on 14ers.com.
“I honestly had no idea it was a wolverine. It crossed my mind briefly, but I immediately dismissed the idea because they are so rare in Colorado … In the morning I sent the photos to the Division of Wildlife, and they confirmed it. Amazing. I feel like I just won the wildlife lottery,” Miller wrote.
M56 has safely made multiple highway crossings as he ranged as far south as the Sawatch, probably looking for a mate. Before he came to Colorado, there hadn’t been a confirmed sighting of a wolverine for about 90 years.
“In our mind, it’s been great, he’s proving … what everybody suspected; that Colorado provides a lot of great habitat,” said Rocky Mountain Wild conservation director Josh Pollock. “He’s been helpful in underscoring the need to protect those movement corridors … We’re pretty hopeful that there are ways for the ski industry, conservation community to work together on this,” Pollock said.
Wolverines are rugged individualists who eat carrion and marmots and inhabit some of the most remote reaches of the alpine zone, including avalanche chutes. They need persistent spring snow cover for their dens, and regional habitat modeling suggests that Colorado’s high elevation could provide a stronghold for the species in the face of global warming.
Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists started developing a wolverine recovery and conservation strategy back in the 1990s, in tandem with planning for lynx restoration. At the time, some thought was given to trying to introduce both species at the same time.
For various reasons, the agency decided to focus on lynx, but the idea of wolverine restoration simmered on the back burner. A couple of years ago, as state biologists hailed the success of the lynx program, they said they could use some of the science from the lynx program to help guide wolverine recovery.
After getting the OK from the Colorado Wildlife Commission, state biologists developed a draft recovery plan, and started a dialogue with key stakeholders, including ranchers, conservation groups and the ski industry, making it clear that there would be no reintroduction until all stakeholders were comfortable with the plan.
Despite the fact that mapped wolverine habitat overlaps with only a tiny portion (0.65 percent) of public lands designated for lift-served skiing, the state’s resorts, as represented by Colorado Ski Country USA, couldn’t reach that comfort level, Odell said.
About the same time (in 2010) the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put wolverines on the candidate endangered species list, following a 2004 petition for endangered listing from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Additionally, during the stakeholder discussions, conservation groups and the Fish and Wildlife Service reached a far-reaching endangered species agreement covering 757 species that requires the agency to make a listing decision on wolverines by the end of 2013.
Management and options
Federal officials haven’t indicated what path they may be veering toward on wolverines, but a preliminary decision could be issued by September, according to Montana-based Matt Bishop, who’s been tracking wolverine efforts on behalf of the Western Environmental Law Center.
“We’re anxious to see what Fish and Wildlife Service will propose,” Bishop said, adding that it’s important for the bigger wolverine conservation picture to get the animals back into the southern Rockies.
One management option that could give most the stakeholders some of the certainty they want would be to designate an “experimental and nonessential” population of wolverines in Colorado, Bishop said, adding that the Fish and Wildlife Service may also be developing a critical habitat proposal to be released together with the listing decision.
Under the special section of the Endangered Species Act, the state would have more flexibility to manage such an experimental population, Odell said.The provision means there’s less federal oversight and the conservation rules are not quite as strict, helping to ease what some industry stakeholders see as onerous regulatory burdens associated with endangered species management.
Most of the suitable wolverine habitat in the state is already protected in national parks or wilderness areas, so there may not be a huge amount of management issues associated with a wolverine restoration program, said Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild.
In general, the conservation community isn’t always in favor of the nonessential experimental designation, but in the case of wolverines in Colorado, it’s an option that could work, she said.
Mueller, who was part of the stakeholder group, said it’s clear that Colorado Parks and Wildlife is not going to do a reintroduction unless there’s buy-in from the various groups at the table. She said that, as they became more educated about wolverines, there was less concern, but not total acceptance.
“They want some kind of assurance that their land uses won’t be affected .. the best way might be with the experimental and nonessential designation,” she said.
Some very preliminary research in Idaho also suggests that wolverines may do just fine in areas where there is a relatively high level of recreational use, another factor that could smooth the path for a recovery in the Colorado mountains.