Wolverines Could Return To Colorado Following Passage Of Legislation

Legislation that has cleared the Colorado Legislature could return wolverines to Rocky Mountain National Park/Kurt Repanshek file

Wolverines could return to Colorado under legislation that cleared that state’s legislature.

On Friday, legislation that directs the Colorado Parks and Wildlife agency to develop a plan to recover wolverines in the state passed the Colorado House of Representatives on a bipartisan 51-13 vote after previously making it through the Senate on a bipartisan 29-5 vote in April.  Sponsored by Senator Perry Will (R), Senator Dylan Roberts (D), Representative McLachlan (D) and Representative Mauro (D), the legislation will facilitate the development of a 10(j) rule under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to reintroduce North American Wolverines to Colorado. 

“This is a huge win for wolverines and for Colorado’s wildlife,” said Megan Mueller, conservation biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild. “It’s amazing to see such broad, bipartisan support and recognition of the importance of bringing wolverines back to Colorado.”

Helping nudge the legislation forward, according to Mueller, is a state law that requires the Colorado Legislature to approve reintroduction of any species that’s protected under the Endangered Species Act. Just last fall the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed wolverines as endangered, in large part due to climate change.

Both Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve could provide habitat for the animals, which depend on areas with deep snow through late spring. Pregnant females dig their dens into this snowpack to birth and raise their young. Snowpack is already in decline in the Western mountains, a trend that is predicted to worsen with a warming climate. Wolverine populations are also at risk from traps, human disturbance, habitat fragmentation and extremely low population numbers resulting in low genetic diversity.

Back in 2009 a dispersing male wolverine that had been fitted with a radio collar in Grand Teton National Park made its way south across Wyoming and into northern Colorado, where a photographer in the right spot at the right time captured an image of the animal in Rocky Mountain National Park. From there the wolverine reversed course and made it all the way north into North Dakota, where it was killed by a hunter.

Colorado’s wolverine population went extinct due to unregulated trapping and poisoning in the early 1900s, and across the lower 48, their population has diminished, leaving less than 400 animals. Because of this decline, last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed wolverines as a threatened species under the ESA, and under Colorado law, legislative approval is required for any federally listed species to be reintroduced in the state.

In addition to its sponsors, Colorado Parks and Wildlife was a lead supporter of the bill, in addition to a number of Colorado ski areas represented by Colorado Ski Country USA, including Vail Resorts, County Commissioners Acting Together, and 38 wildlife conservation organizations, including several sporting groups.

“Wolverines are part of Colorado’s natural heritage, and the widespread support wolverine reintroduction has garnered demonstrates how much Coloradoans unite behind wildlife,” said Stefan Ekernas, director of Colorado Field Conservation at Denver Zoo. 

According to Rocky Mountain Wild, “94 percent of wolverine habitat in Colorado is on federal public land, and 68 percent of the habitat on those lands is in protected areas (designated wilderness areas, roadless areas, and wilderness study areas).” Overall, Colorado has about 7 million acres of wolverine habitat, said Mueller, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife has estimated that the state could support 100-180 wolverines.

“We realize this is just the beginning of what will be a multi-year process,” said Michael Dax, western program director for Wildlands Network. “But we couldn’t be more excited for wolverines to once again call Colorado’s snowy slopes home.”

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