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Colorado ski industry should embrace wolverine restoration

Bob Berwyn.

Bob Berwyn.

Opinion: Obstructing conservation runs counter the interest of most skiers

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — The upcoming listing of North American wolverines as an endangered or threatened species has huge implications for Colorado, and also gives the Colorado ski industry a chance to work off some of the bad karma it earned for opposing the reintroduction of lynx to the mountains of our state.

Wolverines are largest member of the weasel family and need rugged alpine terrain covered with deep snow to reproduce. Sometime soon, within the next few weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will announce its listing decision, with the best available science suggesting that global warming is likely to reduce habitat for denning and breeding to the point that it will threaten the existence of the species.

That’s were Colorado comes in. With more high-elevation terrain than any other state in the Rockies, and plenty of steep, remote brush- and rock-strewn avalanche paths, our mountains could be a climate refuge for the animals, according to conservation biologists working on recovery plans for the rare critter.

Colorado biologists have already developed a draft reintroduction plan, identifying suitable habitat and estimating how many of the animals could live in areas like the San Juans and the Flattops, and concluding that bringing wolverines back to Colorado would have very little impact on human activities.

But despite those findings, the very idea of restoring another native species elicited the same knee-jerk response from some groups as the lynx restoration that started back in the 1990s — primarily the ski industry, as represented by the state’s ski resort trade group, Colorado Ski Country USA.

In the delicate language of stakeholder negotiations, the group’s position was characterized as one of wait-and-see what a federal listing decision looks like, but in an interview with the Denver Post, CSCUSA president and CEO Melanie Mills was more direct, saying that ski resort expansions, and even existing operations, could be hindered by a wolverine reintroduction.

The state’s ski areas expressed similar concerns about the lynx program, with some resorts even challenging lynx conservation measures adopted as part of the White River National Forest plan in 2002. That plan was adopted pursuant to a very public process that gave all stakeholders equal opportunity for public comment.

But when the Forest Service finalized the plan, the ski industry took its gripes to the political level, and ultimately convinced a political appointee in the Bush administration to cut some of the protective standards for lynx out of the plan — without any additional public process and without any regard for conservation science.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A federal listing could well include a special designation for Colorado, declaring wolverines in the state as a nonessential, experimental population. The designation is suited to reintroduced species and would alleviate some of the ski industry concerns.

But there’s an even more important reason. Lynx and wolverines are the native residents of the same terrain that Colorado skiers love so much: Shady evergreen glades, and steep, powder-filled couloirs hidden away in spectacular glacier-carved canyons. They roamed the territory long before the first ski lift was built and deserve refuge there long after we’ve burned our last few gallons of oil and natural gas.

The ski industry should embrace these species as iconic residents of the Colorado high country and adopt them as symbols of all that we know and love about Colorado’s mountains. Instead of fighting wildlife protection at nearly every turn, the state’s resorts should become full partners in the restoration effort, and help to educate their customers about the importance of maintaining intact ecosystems.

I’m sure most skiers and snowboarders would approve.

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