Biodiversity: Deadline looming for federal endangered species decision on wolverine

Will wolverines make a comeback in Colorado? PHOTO BY ZAC DOWLING, VIA THE CREATIVE COMMONS.
Will wolverines make a comeback in Colorado? Photo by Zac Dowling, via the Creative Commons.

Conservation strategy could include a Colorado reintroduction effort

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is on track to issue a proposed rule on the status of wolverine by Jan. 18, with most signs suggesting the agency will move forward to protect the rare mammal under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species.

Federal biologists are working under a court-ordered deadline to issue a proposed rule by Jan. 18.  In a Dec. 14 status report, they said they will have rule ready on time. Once the proposed rule is issued, there will be a public comment period, with a final listing decision about one year later.

“All signs are pointing to a threatened listing,” said the Western Environmental Law Center’s Matt Bishop, adding that the USFWS may also prepare a critical habitat designation for release along with the proposed rule.

Bishop said federal biologists are also working on a so-called 10(j) rule for Colorado, which could encourage the state to reconsider a stalled wolverine reintroduction plan. Under a 10(j) designation, wolverines in Colorado would likely be “experimental and nonessential,” making it a bit easier to manage the population — if there is one.

Other examples of species managed under that designation include wolves in the northern Rockies and black-footed ferrets in parts of Colorado. The 10(j) designation means the population is not essential to the recovery and survival of the species, and can generally only be used if there is no existing native population. That enables a reintroduction in unoccupied parts of a species’ historic range.

Under the Endangered Species Act, those individuals are treated as if they are proposed for listing, which means agencies have to analyze whether actions will jeopardize continued existence of the species. But no formal consultation with the USFWS is required, although other agencies (the U.S. Forest Service, for example) can, and often do.

Wolverines were hunted to near extinction during the western settlement era. According to most current research, they are threatened by climate change, since they rely on deep snow cover for denning and breeding.

Wolverines are the largest members of the terrestrial mustelidae family, including mink, ermine and weasels, and are frequently characterized as one of the northern hemisphere’s least known large carnivores. In North America, wolverines occur within a wide variety of habitats, primarily boreal forests, tundra, and western mountains throughout Alaska and Canada; however, the southern portion of the range extends into the contiguous United States.

Currently, wolverines are distributed in two regions in the lower 48 states: the northern Cascades in Washington, and the northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.  Wolverines were extirpated in historical times from the Sierra Nevada and the southern Rocky Mountains.

In a previous status review, the USFWS concluded that climate warming is the primary serious threat to wolverines, but that warming hasn’t yet resulted in any detectable population effects to the species.

Bishop said Colorado could be a key to recovering and maintaining the species in the face of global warming, since the state offers more remote, high-elevation terrain with suitable snow cover and denning habitat than any other region.

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.

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