Wandering Wolverines: Southern Rockies to be experimental area for wolverines

Sporting such colorful names as carcajou, glutton, skunkbear and quickhatch, wolverines nevertheless are fierce predators. Although they may look like small bears, they are the largest members of the weasel family.

Photographer Cameron Miller was fortunate to capture this photograph of a wolverine in Rocky Mountain National Park. The wolverine, dubbed M56 for the radio-collar it is wearing, traveled more than 500 miles from the Yellowstone area in northern Wyoming.

National Park Service researcher Jeff Copeland holds a young wolverine being studied as part of a research project in Yellowstone National Park. A solitary male wolverine has been living in Colorado since 2010.




■ 38 to 47 inches long, 13 to 31 pounds.

■ Largest member of weasel family; compact and strongly built, broad head, short legs; black to dark brown with white on chest and may extend as bands onto sides; shaggy appearance due to long guard hairs.


■ Found in high-elevation conifer forests and alpine tundra; rarely seen.

■ Eat burrowing rodents, birds, eggs, beavers, squirrels, marmots, mice and vegetation; chiefly a scavenger in winter, but has also been known to take large prey such as deer or elk.


■ Active year-round, intermittently throughout the day

■ Breed April to October; 1 litter of 2 to 4 young each year.

■ Den under log jams and uprooted trees in avalanche chutes.

■ Solitary except when breeding.

Source: Yellowstone National Park

M56 may be getting a mate.

Named for the radio collar he is wearing as part of federal research program, M56 is the solitary male wolverine wandering Colorado’s high country around Rocky Mountain National Park since about 2010.

He is the first confirmed wolverine in the state in more than 90 years, although some unsubstantiated sightings claim wolverines were seen in Rocky in 2008.

Before M56, Colorado officially had not seen wild wolverines since around 1919, when the last of these fierce predators was killed off by hunters and trappers.

Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is designating the entire southern Rocky Mountains (including southern Wyoming, Colorado and northern new Mexico) as an “experimental population area” for wolverines.

Listing wolverines as experimental and nonessential limits the protections afforded them, and it ensures traditional public land-use practices, including mining, timbering, skiing and grazing, can continue should small numbers of wolverines be released in the Colorado high country.

That, along with the same-day announcement giving wolverines in the lower 48 states protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, represents the possibility of wolverines being intentionally returned to Colorado.

Efforts to return wolverines to Colorado have been rebuffed by commercial and recreational backcountry users and livestock growers, all concerned that any wolverine program would hinder or prevent current uses from continuing.

In 2010, Colorado Parks and Wildlife began a series of meetings with various stakeholders about the possible reintroduction of wolverines.

Those meeting were halted last year as the group awaited Thursday’s Fish and Wildlife Service decision, Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said via telephone Friday.

“A decision as to whether or not to pursue reintroduction has not yet been made,” Hampton emphasized. “Approvals from both the Parks and Wildlife Commission and the state legislature would be required before any action could be taken.”

He said those earlier meetings determined stakeholders would like greater certainty that their interests and activities would be protected should a reintroduction occur.

M56’s appearance isn’t a complete mystery, thanks to the radio collar he has been wearing since 2009 when he was trapped as part of the Greater Yellowstone Wolverine Program in northwest Wyoming .

Researchers subsequently tracked the animal as he traveled some 500 miles into northern Colorado.

At that time, Rocky Mountain National Park spokesperson Kyle Patterson said reports of wolverines in the park aren’t uncommon and rarely are true.

“While we continue to receive reports of wolverines, many turn out to be badgers or marmots,” Patterson said. “Sometimes when something like that has been in the news our number of reports increases.”

The photo of M56 was “the first documented wolverine in the park since it was established in 1915,” Patterson said.

Because wolverines prefer high-elevation alpine country, they rarely are observed. Pregnant females build snow dens for giving birth and nursing and raise their young in these snow caves until weaned in the spring.

Conservationists say global climate change is affecting snowpacks and the cold temperatures wolverines need.

“One of the most important things that we can do to ensure the survival of wolverines in the West in the face of climate change is to get them back on the ground in Colorado,” said Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild, a Denver-based conservation organization.

“Under the experimental listing, current land uses would remain unchanged if wolverines are introduced,” she said.

A report from the Yellowstone wolverine project said ecosystems are “likely to play an increasingly important role in the population dynamics and persistence of wolverine populations as the coverage of spring snow declines at the northern latitudes of North America.”

Jason Wilmot, executive director and wolverine researcher with Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative in Jackson, Wyo., said, “The predicted loss of spring snow due to climate change makes (wolverines) them vulnerable to population decline.”

“Colorado could serve as an important refuge for the species because the high elevation and rugged terrain may remain cold and snow-covered longer than other areas in their range,” Wilmot said.

Mueller said, “Ideally, we’d like to see wolverines reintroduced with the full protections of the Endangered Species Act. However, we are hopeful that the experimental designation is a compromise that will make it possible for everyone to support reintroduction of wolverines to Colorado.”


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