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Biodiversity: Draft wolverine plan gets mixed reviews

Draft listing proposal ends with mixed reviews

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The USFWS takes another step toward finalizing a wolverine recovery effort. Photo courtesy USFWS/Steve Kroschel.

By Bob Berwyn

*Click here for more Summit Voice wolverine stories

FRISCO —A draft federal proposal to list wolverines as threatened under the Endangered Species Act elicited mixed reviews as the formal comment period ended May 6. Some states  in the northern Rockies opposed the proposal, saying that wolverines don’t need federal protection, but Colorado is generally supportive of the plan. At the same time, coalition of conservation groups asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ratchet up protection with an “endangered” listing.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will now consider all the comments and finalize a listing decision during the next year.

Wolverines are the largest member of the weasel family. They were hunted, poisoned and trapped to near extinction across much of their range in the early 20th century. Since then, populations recovered in the North Cascades, as well the Northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Montana, Oregon (Wallowa Range), and Wyoming.

But the best available science suggests that global warming during the next few decades will reduce wolverine habitat to the point that they probably won’t be able to survive without some help, especially by ensuring healthy populations in areas where spring snow cover is expected to persist, for example in the high reaches of Colorado’s mountains.

Female wolverines use birthing dens that are excavated in snow. Persistent, stable snow deeper than 5 feet appears to be a requirement for natal denning, because it provides security for offspring and buffers cold winter temperatures. That deep spring snow cover is already dwindling across much of the region where wolverines live, and most climate models show that trend will continue.

In short, the listing proposal envisions a federal biologists partnering with state agencies, private landowners and other stakeholders to bolster populations and make populations more resilient to climate change. A draft outline for a potential recovery plan also says more research is needed to understand wolverine ecology.

The steps needed to protect wolverines are described in a draft outline for what will someday become a recovery plan. The outline calls for;

  • Monitoring of wolverine presence, numbers and genetic health range-wide,
  • reducing human-caused mortality of wolverines,
  • working  with partners to facilitate wolverine expansion in occupied areas,
  • expanding the population to isolated areas of suitable habitat needed for recovery,
  • research into possible human impacts to wolverines to ensure that human activities remain non-threatening.

Listing wolverines as “threatened” rather than “endangered” gives wildlife managers much more flexibility in managing the species by limiting protections of the Endangered Species Act only to those necessary to address the threats to the species.

In the case of the wolverine, the USFWS posits that snowmobiling, backcountry skiing, and land management activities like timber harvest and infrastructure development, don’t pose a serious threat, but nongovernmental conservation groups counter that there’s not enough good science to draw that conclusion. Intentional killing of wolverines would be banned in any case.

A threatened listing also enables the USFWS to designate nonessential experimental populations. Even though those populations — proposed for the southern Rockies — wouldn’t have full protection, the designation gives state agencies more flexibility to consider reintroduction programs.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) put together a draft recovery plan several years ago and held a series of meetings with interested parties, including conservation groups, ranchers and the ski industry.

Just in the past few weeks, the state agency rekindled those talks to update stakeholders on the federal listing process, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton.

“We’re trying give everybody an understanding of how some of the things that are proposed would work … The way they’re doing it is kind of new,” Hampton said, referring to the proposed simultaneous listing and nonessential population proposal.

“Overall it was a productive meeting. There were concerns that came up, many related to lynx and the history of that,” he said.

The lynx listing resulted in more stringent reviews for certain types of projects on national forest lands, including logging, ski area operations and expansions, and other recreational uses.

Colorado won’t consider a wolverine reintroduction program until the federal listing is finalized. Then, the State Legislature would have have to give its approval, but Hampton said that state biologists are keen to explore the idea.

“There’s still a great deal of interest in this … Maybe to temper that, there’s biological excitement. There aren’t that many species that you can look at and say, they’re native, were extirpated, and there is general agreement that bringing them back would be a good thing,” he said.

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One Response

  1. […] but more in terms of trying to move it along procedurally). Bob Berwyn posted this on his blog here. It’s interesting that states currently with wolverines don’t seem to be as enthused as […]

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