Threatened status for wolverines could launch protection in Colorado
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday proposed federal protection for wolverines imperiled by climate change — by nurturing survivors in the southern Rocky Mountains including Colorado.
Wolverines need heavy late-season snow to form dens and cache food, and the latest science finds that warming will cause 63 percent of habitat suitable for wolverines — mostly on federal land — to vanish by 2085. Colorado high-country offers a refuge with snow.
If "threatened" status is established — after a 90-day public comment period and scientific review — wolverines no longer could be hunted. Wolverines would be the second species facing extinction due to melting snow and ice, after polar bears, that the government is preparing to protect.
A few wolverines in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico are to be deemed "an experimental population" that would be shielded from impact "to allow re-introductions to occur," said Shawn Sartorius, lead wolverine biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
State wildlife agencies would run the re-introductions. Federal authorities said backcountry skiing, snowmobiling, logging and "infrastructure development" do not pose significant threats to wolverines and that, under a "threatened" status, these activities could continue.
"This is the first cut through the red tape. There's a lot involved in these re-introductions," Sartorius said. "It's very sensitive because it is potentially 'endangered' if the rule is finalized and, with that, comes the potential for regulation which is frightening to a lot of people. The 'experimental population' status removes a lot of that real or perceived regulatory burden."
Federal biologists estimate there are about 250 wolverines in the lower 48 states. Predator-trapping and poisioning in the early 1900s nearly drove wolverines extinct.
Colorado wildlife commissioners a few years ago asked staffers to launch stakeholder discussions for a possible state effort to re-introduce wolverines.
A lone male wolverine, M56, who in 2009 wandered on his own from Wyoming into Colorado with a cigar-sized transmitter in his belly, has thrived in Colorado. M56 has roved as far as 100 miles from forests west of Fort Collins across Interstate 70 to the Mosquito Range mountains southeast of Leadville. The last signal was received in October from an area near Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said.
Introducing a mate for M56 would require an act of the state legislature, Hampton said. Stakeholders, including the ski industry, discussed re-introduction of a small population but, unable to reach a consensus, ended talks last year.
Friday's federal announcement "means we have got to take a look at this," Hampton said. "This re-energizes the conversation with stakeholders. We would look for that to happen sooner not later."
Federal species overseers regard that sort of collaboration as "exactly what we want to see - states taking the lead," Sartorius said. "We really don't want to interfere."
Colorado is "a last best hope," said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who helped compel the government to consider protecting wolverines.
"If wolverines could be re-established in Colorado, it would provide at least some insurance policy against the habitat loss that is expected to occur."