A feisty weasel may make comeback
In 2010, state wildlife officials declared a roughly decade-long program to reintroduce lynx in Colorado a success.
“Then we said, ‘Let’s start thinking about the next thing. Let’s start thinking about the wolverine,’ ” said Eric Odell, species conservation coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
But that same year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the big, feisty, bear-like weasel on its candidate list for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Parks and Wildlife already had begun discussions with skiing, logging, mining, recreation and other interests a year earlier about the possibility of bringing the wolverine back to Colorado. But the Fish and Wildlife Service’s action created concerns among these interests about potential federal restrictions being placed on land uses for the sake of the animal, Odell said during a recent public presentation in Carbondale.
This year, though, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed proceeding with listing the wolverine as threatened, as part of an action that may breathe new life into the prospects for reintroduction in Colorado. That’s because the agency also is proposing establishing an experimental, nonessential population in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. That means reintroduction could occur in Colorado under a state-led, voluntary basis.
“It really should address the concerns that the stakeholders have expressed thus far,” Odell said.
The wolverine is an alpine-loving scavenger and predator with big paws that float well on snow. It has a particular appetite for marmots and a reputation for sometimes chasing a bear off a kill, Odell said.
While far more wolverine live in Alaska, only 250 or 300 are estimated to live in the continental United States, mostly in the Northwest, with about 175 in Montana. Odell said it’s estimated that Colorado could sustain a population of about 100 wolverine, which could make a big contribution to the animal’s Lower 48 numbers.
Its young are white when born, and the wolverine relies on springtime dens in snow to rear kits. The Fish and Wildlife Service considers climate change to be the animal’s primary threat. But despite Colorado being south of the animal’s current general range, its high-elevation areas with persistent snow cover hold promise of serving as a sanctuary even in a warming world, Odell said.
The state is estimated to hold about 8.2 million acres of model habitat, with more than 7 million of those acres being Forest Service land, and much of that being wilderness.
Wolverine were extirpated from Colorado in the early 1900s due to hunting and trapping. The state is home to one wayward wolverine now. It left Grand Teton National Park in May 2009 and was photographed in Rocky Mountain National Park a month later. It has continued to be tracked and sometimes spotted in the state.
But Odell said it’s not expected that the wolverine would return to somewhat isolated habitat in Colorado on its own anytime soon. While the male has a range of 600 square miles, female ranges are 200 to 300 miles. That’s still huge, but females tend to take over their mother’s range rather than making big movements the way males sometimes do, he said.
The animal’s large range should ease concerns that reintroduction could result in restrictions on mining, logging, skiing and other activities, because those “happen at a small scale for a wolverine’s perspective,” Odell said.
He said if reintroduction occurs, it likely would involve about 30 or 40 animals trapped in Canada or Alaska, relocated to perhaps four or five Colorado locations. The closest to Grand Junction might be areas like the San Juan mountains, West Elk range and Flat Tops, he said.