Wolverine’s wandering ways end in N.D.

A wolverine identified as M56 is seen near Guanella Pass in 2012. The animal was shot by a rancher last month in North Dakota. Photo by Cameron Miller.

A wolverine known as M56 proved to be quite the traveler and survivor until it all came to a tragic end last month in North Dakota.

The animal met his demise as so many predators have — at the receiving end of a rancher’s bullet after reportedly harassing livestock. But before that, he saw more of the West than a lot of Westerners do, previously having ventured from Wyoming to Colorado, where wildlife officials last located him in 2012 before he went AWOL and left them speculating as to his fate.

M56’s life also spanned a turbulent time policywise for his species, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has grappled with whether to list the wolverine for protection under the Endangered Species Act. A federal judge recently vacated its decision not to list the animal as threatened.

That agency’s ultimate approach to wolverine management, and the willingness of other wolverine to roam as much as M56 did, could ultimately determine whether the animal again becomes a regular resident of Colorado, where it had been wiped out by the early 20th century.

The appearance of M56 in North Dakota was the first confirmed wolverine appearance in that state in more than a century, the Associated Press reported.

“It’s an extraordinary story for sure,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Matt Robbins said about M56’s much-documented life and travels.

The animal had been trapped and given an abdominal transmitter implant, and then covered more than 500 miles in two months in making his way from the Grand Teton National Park area to Colorado in 2009. CPW biologists kept track of him, and photographers also captured images of him in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Guanella Pass/Mount Bierstadt area.

“Amazing. I feel like I just won the wildlife lottery,” photographer Cameron Miller previously wrote on the website http://www.14ers.com in describing his Guanella Pass encounter.

He said by email Tuesday, “It was very sad to read the news this morning about the death of M56.”

Robbins said it was assumed when researchers lost track of him in Colorado that he had died, the transmitter had stopped working or its battery had died, or he had left the state.

The end of M56’s story was a bittersweet one, in that he was killed, but it’s now known that he lived several more years and ranged even further, Robbins said.

“It could have just naturally expired and we would have never known its fate, but now we know that much more about the animal and how far it eventually did travel,” Robbins said. “… I think that seeing that this animal lived as long as it did and traveled as far as it did, that does help validate the reports of what these animals are capable of,” Robbins said.

The animals are thought to live 6 to 10 years in the wild, he noted. “It had a good run,” Robbins said.

Said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, “I think quite a few folks thought he probably had passed because he was getting up there in age.”

She said she wasn’t entirely surprised to hear he had lived four more years and traveled so much farther.

“They’re incredibly tough animals,” she said of wolverine.

Wolverine are the largest member of the weasel family and are known for being feisty, bear-like omnivores and predators. They typically live in alpine environments, and just a few hundred of the animals are thought to live in the Lower 48 states.

Cotton said the fate of M56 underscores the need to protect animals such as wolverine, grizzly bears and wolves as they seek to recolonize historic ranges. “Unfortunately a lot of the evidence we have about animals returning to historic habitat is because we only learn because someone shot and killed them,” she said.

According to the AP story, the shooting of M56 was legal in North Dakota because the rancher was protecting livestock. Such an action would be illegal if the animal is listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, Cotton noted.

Fish and Wildlife determined in 2008 that the animal didn’t deserve Endangered Species Act protection, then changed course in 2010, saying such protection as warranted, but precluded by other priorities.

In 2013, it proposed listing the animal as threatened, and also proposed establishing nonessential, experimental populations of the animal in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, should those states agree to lead such efforts.

In 2014, Fish and Wildlife withdrew its proposed listing and the proposed experimental program. Last month, a federal judge in Montana vacated that decision, citing concerns that climate change threatens the spring snowpack it burrows into for denning sites. Cotton, whose group was part of the legal challenge, said the animal is now again a candidate for listing, and the agency has 12 months to issue a new decision.

Robbins said any possibility of reintroducing the wolverine in Colorado is on hold until the Fish and Wildlife decision is issued.

“We’re not going to engage in any kind of discussion about that until we know what the final decision is from the Service,” he said.

If a reintroduction is considered in Colorado, any decision would come only after involvement from partners and stakeholders, he said. Local governments and industries such as skiing and agriculture would be among the interested parties.

“I think Colorado is going to be exceptionally important for the future of wolverine,” Cotton said.

She said as climate change worsens, the state’s high elevation and deep spring snow could provide crucial habitat for the animal.

For now, said Robbins, if more wolverine showed up in Colorado on their own, they would be off-limits to hunting, but as in North Dakota could be shot if they harass livestock. Should they arrive in sufficient numbers, CPW would work with partners to devise a management plan for the animal.

Cotton said M56 was presumably “looking for ladies” in his travels, and unfortunately probably not finding any. Still, efforts to put trackers in wolverine, and the subsequent travels of animals like M56, have led to “just an incredible increase in scientific understanding of this species,” she said.


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