Wolverine returning to Colorado? Federal bureaucracy stands in the way
Much like the Canada lynx, the North American wolverine is elusive and taciturn by its very nature, and is partial to similar, isolated high-elevation habitats — not unlike those in the Colorado High Country.
In fact, the omnivorous predator is native to the state, though one hasn’t been known to visit its boundaries since June 2009 when a radio-tagged adult male wandered into Rocky Mountain National Park. The largest member of the weasel family — wolverines can reach up to 3 ½ feet in length and more than 50 pounds — hasn’t existed in substantial populations in Colorado since approximately the early 20th century after having been predominately killed off.
Wildlife officials say that doesn’t mean they don’t receive word of occasional sightings from hikers and others in the wilderness around tree line who believe they’ve come across one. And with an ability to cover 20-to-30 miles a day by ground and a home range as expansive as 500 miles for some males, and about half that much for females, it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
“We get reports from time to time, but nothing confirmed to be a wolverine,” said Eric Odell, species conservation program manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “It’s unlikely to have been a wolverine and probably one of the other species it can be mistaken for, like marmots, badgers and sometimes even porcupines.”
Without definitive photographic evidence or proof in road kill, the state’s wildlife management agency usually isn’t willing to validate a wolverine’s presence. They otherwise exist in Canada and Alaska, with maybe 200-to-300 total animals in the contiguous United States, primarily in Montana and periodically making appearances as far south as Wyoming and Idaho.
That doesn’t mean we won’t see them ever again, perhaps even in Summit County.
The wolverine is officially listed as a threatened species in Colorado, and has for years remained a candidate for federal protection. Questions persist as to the appetite among current officeholders in Washington, D.C., for how some of these species will eventually be designated, and statewide efforts to reintroduce the fierce hunter and scavenger that lends its name to a popular comic book character have stalled.
Following the successful reintroductions to the state of Canada lynx, black-footed ferret and river otters, though, conversations have been held dating back to 2010 to bring back the wolverine, too.
“Here we are seven years later, and we’re no further down the road,” said Odell. “It could be years before the court-mandated timelines that U.S. Fish and Wildlife (Service) have to make their determinations by. So we’re kind of just waiting to see what the federal staff decides and … that will probably dictate how we pursue a reintroduction.”
Unlike gray wolves — another predator being considered for reintroduction in Colorado — the implications for livestock owners is very different concerning wolverines, as is the public perception of the animal. As a result, the idea of launching a wolf program is highly contentious, with even Gov. John Hickenlooper weighing in with a joint-letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2015 in strong opposition to the idea.
Again like the lynx, however, spotting a wolverine would be rare. The animal has the ability to take down an adult deer, but shies away from human conflicts and would almost certainly not be of much worry to farmers and other livestock ranchers because it typically avoids urban environments.
Colorado would have the capacity to sustain up to 100 wolverines. A potential reintroduction effort would entail much fewer animals in the hopes they would naturally reproduce and hit that target quantity.
The average lifespan for a wild wolverine is between six and 10 years, with a maximum age of approximately 15 years. With only a few natural predators, including bears, mountain lions and wolves, and protection from the state already in place making it illegal for a hunter or rancher to kill one — plus a penchant for deep, snow-covered areas — there’s a strong chance of a prosperous population.
While encountering one of these wily and rugged creatures in the Colorado backcountry today is highly improbable, it’s not so far-fetched that will always be the case. The ball is in the court of federal wildlife administrators, and statewide officials will follow their lead.
“There are concerns with the Endangered Species Act and limitations on land use if we were to reintroduce a species and it then become federally protected,” said Odell. “But we’re still evaluating ways for it to be something to pursue in the future.”
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