ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Wandering wolverine sparks controversial bid to revive Colo. population

A wolverine that hiked 500 miles to become the first of its species in Colorado in 90 years may become the standard-bearer for the reintroduction of the rugged mountain predator into a state that might offer it a snowy refuge from rising temperatures.

The Fish and Wildlife Service this month proposed protecting wolverines in the lower 48 states as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, largely due to climate change's impacts on the high-altitude scavenger (Greenwire, Feb. 1).

The proposal offers a fresh chance to restore the snow-loving species in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, a move long sought by conservationists and state wildlife officials. The proposal -- the first planned wolverine reintroduction in the United States -- includes a special rule exempting the area from most regulatory restrictions that usually accompany an endangered species listing.

The rule is aimed at tamping down opposition to the reintroduction from landowners worried about property-use restrictions that usually accompany ESA-listed species. That opposition led to the spiking of a state reintroduction bid three years ago when the wolverine became an ESA candidate.

"Rather than trying to guess at potential outcomes, we decided to put it on hold," said Eric O'Dell, conservation program manager at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "The concerns were not the presence of wolverines on the ground themselves, but the restricted land uses and restricted opportunities for various stakeholders, recreational or mining or logging, since the species is so closely tied to federal lands."

The new proposal "would likely address many of those concerns" and could revive reintroduction talks, O'Dell said. Colorado officials say they might pursue the issue next year after the wolverine's ESA proposal is finalized, he said.

A member of the weasel family, the wolverine is doing well in Alaska, Canada and Russia, but biologists say the animal is on shaky ground in the lower 48 states, where it was nearly trapped to oblivion a century ago. About 250 to 300 roam the snow-tipped mountains of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. They rarely cross paths with people and feed on animals killed by avalanches. Wolverines have big appetites, devouring entire carcasses, bones and all.

But the rugged wolverine may be no match for climate change, scientists say. The animals depend on spring snowpack to form dens and cache food, and with models showing snowpacks declining, researcher say wolverines could lose more than half their suitable habitat in the next 70 years.

Reintroduction in Colorado could expand the species's range, bolster the population and offer a possible refuge for the animal for the future, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Colorado remains cold and snow-covered longer than other parts of the wolverine's habitat in the lower 48 states, and climate models predict it will retain much of its spring snowpack decades into the future, even as other places see less snow.

"Getting wolverines to places like Colorado is the most important thing we can do in the near term to ensure they are resilient to climate change," said Shawn Sartorius, a biologist in the agency's Montana field office.

A lone wolverine started his own reintroduction plan in 2009, when he walked 500 miles from Wyoming, across the Red Desert to the Colorado mountains. The radio-tracked animal, M56, was still roaming Colorado last October and is thought to still be in the state.

He has traveled 100 miles or so in Colorado -- from forests in the west to the Mosquito Range -- and become an invisible advertisement for reintroduction.

M56 has found food without bothering livestock, crossed Interstate 70 and passed through human territory detected only by radio trackers and a hiking photographer.

Now the big question: Will other wolverines join him?

Industry groups wary

Colorado officials started discussing the possibility of a wolverine reintroduction more than a decade ago. For a reintroduction to proceed, it must meet the approval of a wildlife board and the state Legislature.

State biologists wrote a draft recovery plan for the wolverine in 2010 and discussed it with ranchers, ski resort operators, timber groups, off-road recreation groups and conservationists. The draft plan called for importing wolverines from Canada and Alaska and establishing a population in mountain ranges in the state's western half.

Industry groups were worried about ESA regulations.

"It wasn't getting the level of comfort that stakeholders felt that they wanted, and that is an important aspect for us because ... we have to have the state Legislature approve any reintroduction," said O'Dell of the state's Parks and Wildlife. "If stakeholders are not in support, we're not going to have political support, and it is just dead in the water."

The Fish and Wildlife Service tried to address that in the proposed rule, acknowledging a public relations hurdle ESA regulations could bring.

The special "10j" rule would designate wolverines in Colorado, northern New Mexico and southern Wyoming as a "nonessential experimental population." While the rule would prohibit the intentional killing of wolverines, other ESA restrictions would not apply. So "incidental" harm to or killing of a wolverine from ski resort development, logging or other uses would be permissible.

"What it does is basically allow us to do reintroductions but also relieve a lot of the regulatory burdens, real or perceived, that are thought to go along with having a listed species," Fish and Wildlife's Sartorius said. "It's a way to build public support among the people that would be dealing with the species and may be affected by it. It's to help alleviate the fear that various stakeholders may have about having a listed species on their property or on public property that they use."

The service has used experimental population designations for the reintroduction of several species, including wolves in Yellowstone National Park, black-footed ferrets in Western states, and a recent proposal for reintroduction of a tiny fish, the Topeka shiner, in Missouri. Conservation groups say the reintroductions have largely been successful.

The rule is "designed to facilitate approvals for a reintroduction within the state of Colorado, as well as create public support for such a reintroduction effort by ensuring that compatible activities will not be subject to the regulation of the act, which some perceive as an undesirable side-effect of reintroductions of listed species," the wolverine proposal says.

Industry groups involved in the talks said they were encouraged by the special rule, but they declined to say they would support reintroduction.

"I think the approach taken by the Fish and Wildlife Service is sort of the necessary next step but not necessarily sufficient to make user groups completely comfortable," said Melanie Mills, president of Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade group. "We need to learn more about what this might mean."

The potential reintroduction area in Colorado has significant overlap with ski areas. Colorado has 25 ski resorts, some of which are major tourist draws.

"A listed species, whatever the species is, that has habitat in Colorado's mountains has the potential to include land use restrictions that could adversely impact our operations," Mills said. "That's why we care and why we watch these things carefully. But it doesn't mean that they have to be that way."

Many landowners say they were burned 10 years ago by Colorado's reintroduction of the Canada lynx. The lynx was listed on ESA after its reintroduction, which spurred new regulations.

Tom Troxel of the Intermountain Forest Association said he supported the lynx reintroduction, but his group has struggled since to thin trees under ESA regulations. It was, he said, an "absolute disaster" for the timber industry.

"It was absolutely a case of trying to do the right thing and getting penalized for it," Troxel said. "We are going to go into it this time with our eyes a lot wider open than we did with the lynx. It really is a shame; I think the Endangered Species Act is a disincentive to do that sort of reintroduction that on its face we ought to all applaud."

Compromise

Environmentalists say they can embrace the Colorado wolverine proposal as an opportunity to expand the range for the species, even though they would prefer that the animal got more ESA protection.

"I think the designation is going to make sense and make broad support for reintroduction much more likely," said Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist with the Denver-based group Rocky Mountain Wild. "Ideally, most conservation groups would like to see wolverines reintroduced with full protections, but hopefully this is a compromise that will make it possible for everyone to support reintroduction."

Even outside Colorado, the proposed rule exempts other activities like skiing, logging and road building -- a move that some environmentalists say is premature, given little research on how those activities could affect wolverines. And as it did with its polar bear proposal, Fish and Wildlife said it would not use a wolverine listing to regulate emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

But environmentalists say there is still much to applaud in the proposed listing. Even with all the exemptions, a "threatened" listing for the wolverine still raises the profile for the species, could direct more research money to the animal and opens opportunities for Colorado wildlife officials to work on a reintroduction -- none of which would be available without ESA protection.

"The main benefit is the possibility of a reintroduction, the prohibition on trapping, and increased research and attention," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued to force federal protection for the animal. "It is still an ESA listing, and it highlights what we are at risk of losing because of climate change."