Lawmakers order Colorado Parks and Wildlife to restore wolverines

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A new predator could be arriving in the Colorado highlands, but supporters promise this reintroduction will be different.

Colorado lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the return of wolverines to Colorado’s alpine landscape, with a plan “that is completely opposite to the wolf reintroduction process,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation with the Senator Perry Will. , a New Castle Republican.

Roberts said Senate Bill 171 marks “a responsible way to reintroduce wildlife.” The bill heads to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk for final approval. If signed, the effort will mark the first attempt to restore wolverines to their native range.

Roberts and Will are among the most outspoken critics of the state’s wolf reintroduction effort and spent two years crafting the bill with input from Western Slope residents, the tourism industry and wildlife biologists.

Wolverine legislation allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate an experimental population in Colorado, giving Colorado Parks and Wildlife the ability to manage the reintroduction. Such federal approval of a state-managed population of federally protected animals is permitted under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act. That 10(j) designation will require the federal government to review the reintroduction plan under the National Environmental Policy Act, which may take a year or more.

Senate Bill 171 also establishes a funding tool so ranchers who lose livestock to wolverines can be compensated. There is no deadline for when Colorado Parks and Wildlife must return wolverines to the state.

The 10(j), lack of a deadline and compensation program were crafted to avoid the dangers of wolf reintroduction, “where they just went to the vote first and then completed all the safeguards,” Roberts said.

“I think the bipartisan support and sponsorship of this legislation reflects the long-term process it has gone through, rather than rushing it like wolves,” he said.

There are between 300 and 400 wolverines in the lower 48 states of North America. The largest member of the weasel family is native to Colorado, but the last wolverine in Colorado was killed in 1919. CPW conducted a dozen surveys from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s looking for wolverines in the western slope and found none. Wolverines are extremely solitary and these animals, which weigh between 15 and 40 pounds, roam territories that are 8 times larger than what bobcats need.

In 2020, the United States and the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to list the wolverine as threatened, but a federal court overturned that decision. In November of last year, the federal agency designated the carnivore as threatened, citing updated threats based on climate impacts on high-altitude snow cover, fractured habitat and trapping activity.

Colorado wildlife officials began planning to reintroduce the wolverine in the late 1990s, but restoration plans were delayed as the state focused on restoring the Canada lynx. The wolverine reintroduction was delayed again in 2010 as federal officials weighed the wolverine’s protected status.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has already begun reviving wolverine restoration work that began in 2010 when the state concluded its reintroduction of the Canada lynx. Colorado wildlife biologists presented an initial plan to CPW commissioners earlier this month at a meeting in Montrose. That theoretical plan calls for releasing up to 45 wolverines over three years (30 females and 15 males) in three areas: north of Interstate 70, a central area between I-70 and US 50, and a southern area in San Juan. .

A view of the San Juan Mountains near Telluride. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

That plan could generate a sustainable population of 100 wolverines in the next three to four decades, according to survival rate data from Sweden, where biologists have studied wolverines for 30 years.

“No agency has tried this, so I think we’re ahead of the curve,” wildlife research scientist Jake Ivan told the commissioner at the Montrose meeting. “We have done everything we can to prepare for this, but right now everything is unknown to some extent. “I think our success will probably require our ability to adapt and roll with the punches.”

The legislation sets aside $103,000 to help cover the costs of increased staffing and workload related to the reintroduction. Wolverine attacks on livestock are rare, but Utah wildlife officials captured and collared a 4-year-old male in March 2022 after he attacked and killed a rancher’s sheep.

The last confirmed wolverine in Colorado was in 2009, when a collared male traveled south from the Teton Range in Wyoming and was in Rocky Mountain National Park for several years. The wolverine eventually made his way to North Dakota, where he was shot in 2016 by a rancher who said he was threatening his cows.

Is another reintroduction proposed too soon?

Colorado House co-sponsors Tisha Mauro, D-Pueblo, and Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, made sure to tell their fellow lawmakers that “these are weasels, not wolves.”

McLachlan, during a discussion in the Colorado House of Representatives on May 2, said he spoke with ranchers who were wary of the legislation “because wolverines are too much like wolves.”

“Wolverines are much smaller. They are scavengers,” she said. “They don’t eat cattle. They don’t eat sheep. “They don’t eat people.”

House Deputy Minority Leader Ty Winter, a Republican from Trinidad, voted against the legislation, but said on the House floor on May 2 that lawmakers sponsoring the bill “would like it.” they are doing right” and doing “everything that should have been done with the reintroduction of wolves.”

Although wolves were reintroduced in December to northern Colorado, far from Winter’s district in southern Colorado, he said his constituents feel the wolves arrived “with no real plan…and they still have heartburn about it.” .

Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, also opposed the legislation, saying “the farming community has not recovered from the introduction of the latest predatory species.”

“I think it’s best if we’re going to do this to take time and not just try to rush the introduction of these animals that are not very compatible with much of Colorado,” Holtorf said on the House floor on May 2. I’m afraid the wolverine won’t like it here.”

Rep. Richard Holtorf speaks April 17, 2024, at the Colorado Capitol. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The lack of a deadline for Colorado Parks and Wildlife to return wolverines to Colorado and the requirement that U.S. Fish and Wildlife allow an experimental population addressed concerns from both ranchers and the tourism industry. Ski areas expressed some concern that wolverines’ endangered status would complicate operations without that exemption from the federal government’s Rule 10(j). Representatives from the mining, agriculture, logging and ski industries are expected to participate in the reintroduction effort and review of the 10(j) designation.

“Rule 10(j) is the way to really address those concerns and ensure that ski area operations can continue without major regulatory burdens,” said Megan Mueller, Rocky Mountain Wild conservation biologist. “I think Colorado Parks and Wildlife worked hard to include stakeholders in wolf reintroduction and are doing the best they can, but with the legislation, stakeholders have real assurances that their concerns will be addressed.”